I’ve been prompted to write on this subject first by the overwhelmingly negative reactions of many a designer, marketing strategist, sci-fi fan and TV viewer, and second by an entertaining rant by my old friend and colleague José Román. Regarding his rant, I will say this: I cannot argue Mr. Román’s points on Sci Fi/Syfy’s programming. I’ll leave those arguments to better-suited critics than myself. My only interest in this is the re-branding. If you’re interested in reading his take on it first, go read it here.
I am by no means a sci-fi man.
Sure, I like Star Wars a lot, and Battlestar Galactica is quite possibly among my top three favorite series of all time. But I am certainly no sci-fi connoiseur to speak with any measure of authority about these texts in the greater context of their genre, or how they compare with others of their ilk. I simply enjoy them for what they’re worth outside of those boundaries, in the arena of popular culture, for whatever literary value they may possess that transcends their genre. So please bear in mind that it is with this utter lack of sci-fi baggage that I approach the re-branding of a sci-fi channel.
Sci Fi was never really just about sci-fi. It is about fantasy and horror as well. It also seems to be about terrible acting, sandbox directing and low production value, as an inescapable majority of its programming seemed pretty campy (at best) and sometimes downright awful (at worst). In fact, I’d say that most of its programming has helped perpetuate many a clichéd view towards the general (meaning: medium-independent) literary genres of sci-fi, fantasy1 and horror, with sci-fi taking the worst of it as it carried the cross of doubling as the channel’s name.
Sci Fi, as a TV channel name, attempts to justify the channel’s programming. As if having such a no-nonsense, straightforward, clearly descriptive and unimaginative name somehow meant that it expected to be taken seriously. A seriousness that throws into sharp contrast the for the love of all that is good and worthy you can’t be serious-quality of a lot of its programming. In my opinion, the channel’s efforts would be better served by a less boring, less categorizing and more imaginative name; one that doesn’t put the strain of such serious expectations on its programming. Add to that the fact that the channel seems to want to stretch the imagination in any direction, rather than in the direction of science fiction alone, and you have to wonder: What took them so long to change it?
In fact, I do wonder. And I think it is interesting that the desire to capitalize on a brand system is that brings this cable channel to question their name and force them to re-think the way they project themselves. The company has been very open about the reasons for the name change, and I find these reasons perfectly —and redundantly— reasonable. After all, they are a for-profit company seeking to engage their viewers on a deeper level, and one of the more effective ways to do this is with branding. Yet it is hard to own a brand if you don’t exactly OWN the brand. And I’m not talking about being able to own something in the it is mine and you can’t use it because I’ll sue your ass kind of ownership. That kind of ownership is clearly also a factor in this, but what I’m talking about is the kind of brand ownership that comes from brand equity; the go ahead… knock yourself out trying to use it, but you’ll look like an idiot because you can’t use it as well as I use it and everybody knows that kind of ownership. And that kind of ownership is arguably more important than the legal kind. It’s the equivalent of ‘owning the room’ when you walk into a party: it is yours, and others can’t take it because everybody in the room understands that nobody can strut that stuff the way you strut it, regardless of whether or not you can sue someone for attempting said strut.
As it were, it would be silly of Sci Fi Channel to attempt to own the sci-fi namesake, because —regardless of the fact that it is descriptive of a literary genre, thus not ownable as a trademark— it would be like trying to sell the world on the idea that sci-fi was never really sci-fi enough until the Sci Fi Channel came along. Good luck selling that to the sci-fi zealots.
So, Sci Fi is out of the picture, how do you name this sci-fi/fantasy/horror TV channel? Well, its viewers already know it by that sound, sci-fi. The damage, so to speak, is already done. So why not capitalize on what little familiarity we already have? Why not a variation on sci-fi? Why not Syfy? We’ve already heard a million times over why not, but here’s why yes:
Syfy, as both the name and the resulting brand/identity, adopts a more imaginative attitude. The conspicuous use of the Ys makes it difficult to take it too seriously and invites speculation, which is excellent because speculation embraces what should be the channel’s core cultural north: What if…? And while one could argue that the point is mute on the side of oral pronunciation (ie. it sounds exactly the same, so it can still be confused with sci-fi the genre), the argument bears little importance: A staggering majority of a viewer’s interaction with the brand is visual. They read and talk about it on blogs, forums, and other means of online (see: written) interaction and they view it on the channel. It’s not like Syfy’s main outlet for advertising is radio spots.2
I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’m downplaying the fact that the pronunciation is identical, in seeming contradiction with my list of reasons for liking the new name, where I present this fact as a bonus. You see, that’s what fascinates me about this re-branding effort: Preserving pronunciation is not so important for oral discussion, but it is invaluable for your brain. Every time you read Syfy, you hear Sci Fi in your head. It is still that familiar name you’ve come to know and love for many years, but now with a different and (dare I say it?) refreshingly new visual queue. The value of this pronunciation is the familiarity it affords within our own heads, in our personal interaction with the brand, because a great majority of the times we hear the Syfy/Sci Fi name it’s in our heads, as a response to the visual queue that is the logotype or the plain written word. That alone makes Syfy (wacky spelling and all) a much better candidate than killing the idea altogether by choosing a new name that sounds different, looks different and completely starts everything from scratch.
Perhaps that is why it pisses so many people off: The fact that every time they see the visual queue of the written word and the logotype, their brains still make the same imaginary sound: sci-fi. Perhaps an argument could be made that this changing-yet-keeping of the name is a cop out. And while I certainly understand where that comes from, I must say this: Where’s the fun in re-inventing yourself if you’re not gonna acknowledge your past? Syfy winks at its predecessor without binding itself to it. Hell, it even pokes fun at it, and that is very hard to pull off right. This re-branding does it very, very well.
Because branding is a major factor in the level of engagement you achieve with an audience. Particularly when that audience is not comprised of only TV-viewing spectators, but website-visiting, blog-writing, fan-fiction-creating users looking to intervene with your content. Now, more than ever, it is crucial for Sci Fi to establish a solid brand, especially as they move towards a more involved experience for their online users (webisodes, online-games, show discussions).
Furthermore, as the company attempts to attract more viewers and users, I understand how a wholly ownable brand adds value of growth across other platforms —such as Syfy Kids, Syfy Games, Syfy Films— previously unattainable through a simple name suffix alone.
But the real questions you’re asking are probably these: Why the need for growth? Why change it if it ain’t broke?! And to that I must say: Because the world around them is changing. Content isn’t one linear, easily controllable thing anymore, it is a myriad of inter-referencing, constantly evolving masses of permutating stories in the hands of writers, viewers and users. If they don’t change, if they don’t harness the tools available to them (brand design being but one of many), they will bite the dust.
I, for one, applaud Syfy’s bold, forward move.
2 One good point, on the other hand, would be that while traditional radio may not be such a hot medium to advertise or discuss Syfy and its content, podcasts are. Yet I must bring to the table the fact that, like other internet-borne discussion platforms, podcasts are accompanied by enough written and graphic material to offset any confusion as to whether the podcast in question discusses sci-fi or Syfy. In any case, the confusion should be minimal, and the visual weight of the brand is certainly worth it. ↑