On design & culture.

On Why Syfy is a Good Idea

published by Alfonso
on Wednesday, July 15th, 2009
under Criticism, Graphic Design, Popular Culture, Rumination

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.

First things first

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?

Brand as cultural equity

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.

What if…?

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:

  1. it rejects its predecessor’s uptight, serious ways; and
  2. it becomes a clearly distinctive (thus, in both ways described above, totally ownable) brand name while (bonus!) preserving pronunciation.

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

Playing with your head

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.

But, why is it so important to own
the brand and capitalize on it?

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.

Footnotes:

1 Although some may argue that Fantasy is always silly, regardless of the medium. 

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. 

22 Comments:

Nice one mate. Point. Counterpoint.

Thanks, Popu. And for the further perusal of those interested in the application of this re-branding effort, there’s a collection of the Syfy idents on Motionographer.

Nobody cares about “ownability” but marketing flacks. The very concept itself is light-years distant from normal people; that’s what’s so retarded about “SyFy”.

Every time you read Syfy, you hear Sci Fi in your head.

Except that many people don’t hear sci-fi when they read Syfy. The most common pronunciation I’ve heard is “sih-fee”—which is more reminiscent of syphilis than any sort of science fiction/fantasy/horror/etc. Probably not what the channel is aiming for.

I will admit that aesthetically, the double y’s are nice.

There is a problem, though, when you try to rebrand your enterprise with a name that is also the slang word for a venereal disease.

Wow, I saw this over at i09.com, but I *had* to make a post here.

You are WRONG.

It’s not cool. It’s not imaginative. It’s a typo. It also is a huge waste of money and a convenient way to excusing pissing all over true science fiction fans.

I’m with Bandbabe on this one. You can spin it all you want, but the problem with the SciFi Channel was never the “SciFi” part of the logo/brand/whatever. It was the fact that the people running the channel aren’t very good at it (they cancelled Farscape and BSG).

So I’m beginning to be convinced that the brand they are trying to establish is good. But I’m not convinced that it is BETTER than the previous one. And that’s why so many fans seem to be having a problem with it. Those same fans also tend to think the channel should have less fantasy and horror, but removing those would still be rebranding, just in a different direction.

Less importantly, it seems most people think Syfy is pronounces like an STD instead of like a fiction genre, and I’m not sure what can be done to change that. And it needs to be changed, because if it isn’t you lose the bonus of familiar pronounciation as well as any meaningful connection to the type of content the brand contains.

My concern is different, and one I’ve only read about in a very few places, but it relates to the “sounds like” issue. In this day and age of “texting” shorthand, where everyday words are purposely misspelled or shortened for convenience, there is a serious concern that the results will be a generation that can’t spell or communicate effectively with the written word. As an avid lover of science fiction, it concerns me that when someone hears the term sci-fi, they will automatically think of syfy. And that would be a shame.

If you wanted to change your name, the best thing available would have been SF!

First, most people DON’T hear SciFi in their heads when they read SyFy. I’ve heard SeeFee, and I, personally hear siffy and more. And every time there’s a weird pronunciation, the person giggles.

Did you intend to be a laughingstock?

If you want to change your image, don’t use a typo.

Just stop showing Grendel and Beowulf three times a month for the coming year, and show something interesting. The programming is in a rut, and some of it is BAD. The original saga, Beowulf was some of the most enduring literature in the history of the world, and these two movies have changed it into a joke.

If you want to save money, show some of the classics that SF fen have been begging for, like Blake’s 7, or Sapphire and Steel. It’s slightly out of genre, but The Avengers would be loved! But as far as being out of genre is concerned, how, exactly, is wrestling something that belongs on SyFy, even if you ARE spelling it wrong?

One 'ROESian

July 17 2009, 3:22 pm

Just fyi - Tptb didn’t create the name SyFy…

http://www.airlockalpha.com/node/6502

Thanks, all for your comments. I’ll repost here a relevant exerpt of my response in io9’s comments:

[…]

I appreciate the discussions this has sparked, and have only a couple of things to point out:

1. To those of you who question my description of the former name (Sci Fi) as uptight and serious: I invite you to read the whole article. Or, at the very least, read the paragraph before it, as it explains why I’m calling it uptight and serious. This is one of those instances where context really explains the choice of words.

2. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that some of you would presume this to be a marketing stunt on behalf of Sci F—excuse me— Syfy. On the other hand, it does seem a tad arrogant of you to expect a company like Syfy to “pay” some unknown, bullshit-slinging designer to write an article defending their choice of name only to please you. No disrespect, but: Are you that full of yourselves? Seriously. In fact, that would contradict the notion that Syfy is “abandoning” their loyal audience while attempting to connect with a younger, “hipper” crowd. If they are indeed abandoning you, why would they care to pay an unknown graphic designer running a blog with a monthly readership of a couple of hundred, at best, just to try to make a case that could convince you? It’s one, or the other… but you can’t have it both ways. Not logically anyway…

3. I agree that no amount of marketing, branding, re-branding, name-changing or justification for any of these things can make up for lack of good, solid content.

[…]


 Cheers!

Thanks man, this is good. I’ve really been thinking and asking myself “why the change?” and I’m glad to see these points and ideas.

SciFi/SyFy didn’t cancel BSG, per se. BSG was always meant to be 4 seasons from the start. The creators wanted a definite end point to build up to. They just screwed up the ending horribly.

FarScape, however, was canceled. But IIRC, it had lackluster ratings, which is what happens at that point.

With all due respect, I just can’t agree. Your ideas are good, but “SyFy” is as clever, differentiating and playful as “Krazy Kup Koffee Korner”. Which is to say, embarrassingly cheesy at best, and knock-off generic brand at worst.

SciFi Channel may have needed a name change and brand overhaul, but this wasn’t the way to go.

No logo+name should invite mocking unless your brand is about being mocked.

I would not be bothered by the name change if there was not a turn toward wrestling and “reality” shows on the channel. Having wrestling fans yell at me forty some minutes into then Eureka or now Warehouse 13 is so totally jarring, it makes me want to boycott the advertisers immediately following the promo, but by that time I am too livid to note who they are. This name change seems to me to support this trend. If this trend continues to far, Syfy risks losing my loyalty. The only positive I can see from the name change is that I will now never confuse Sci abbreviation on TV Guide Channel with Science Channel again.

It stuns me when i read (a lot of peoples) arguments on the pronunciation of the name. How can somebody read “SyFy” and pronounce SeeFee??

Really? Who are you people hanging out with? Clearly people who do not know how to read. When i first saw the “new” name, it struck me as odd. But i immediately liked it. It says to me that the network is playful, AND that it still “sci fi”. So basically: same thing + FUN = better (?)

What i hadn’t taken under consideration is the “ownability” of the new name. Makes perfect sense to me. Great post.

Oh , and Chet. “Nobody cares about ownability”.
 Really??

Thanks man, this is good. I’ve really been thinking and asking myself “why the change?” and I’m glad to see these points and ideas.

Trackbacks:

[…] typographer Alfonso Gómez Arzola has posted a blog in defense of the new logo/name. Check it out here. He makes a decent case, but I still disagree with the overall decision. (Via […]

[…] TLTSNBN: a “defense” of the SYFY […]

[…] finally: In defence of Syfy. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)ExperimentationOn Being A FanVector 249 — […]

[…] On Why Syfy is a Good Idea in one sentence: The new name serves as a built-in warning for genre fans to keep their expectations in check. […]

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