Finding Explorer

Public TV digs into a branding identity that feels real

By Steve Behrens

Margaret Mark, a woman with a Mad Ave past, has a marketing idea for public TV, but it’s not like the labors of Coke and Pepsi attempting to give meaning to their brands of fizzy water, says Tim Bischoff, director of communications at Kentucky’s KET network.

"Explore Kentucky, explore the world" was the phrase KET put to work. (Photo: KET.)

“Explore Kentucky, explore the world” was the phrase KET put to work. (Photo: KET.)

Her idea for branding public TV is to speak to the Explorer in the souls of most of its viewers. Over the past year or so, her focus groups for PBS have mined additional evidence that the core PBS audience identifies strongly with the Explorer, one of the basic personality archetypes described in the writings of early Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung.

Please turn down the X-Files music.

“The power of the Explorer archetype is that it’s true — It’s baked into the content” of public TV, says Bischoff. “We don’t overlay an imagined value on top of it. It has this value.” For example, he says, in Ken Burns’ The War, “each of the personal stories . . . goes back to this deep concept, discovery of self, of a nation, the future of a nation, who we are.”

It’s not a strange new idea. In 1966, writer E.B. White encapsulated public television’s promise in a famous letter to the Carnegie Commission. The letter said in part:

“I think TV should be providing the visual counterpart of the literary essay, should arouse our dreams, satisfy our hunger for beauty, take us on journeys, enable us to participate in events, present great drama and music, explore the sea and the sky and the woods and the hills.”

For much of the intervening four decades, PBS stations have been inviting viewers to explore — often using that same word.

It’s also the storyline for the typical storyline of scientific investigation in an episode of Nova, or many other PBS shows set out to learn something.

In Miami, the WPBT marketing staff began using Explorer imagery more than three years ago, settling on the tagline “Explore your opportunities,” according to Jeff Huff, v.p., creative and interactive services.

Kentucky’s KET adopted a similar admonition in 2006: “Explore Kentucky, explore the world,” says Bischoff. KET’s staff whittled their imagery down to the core and then found that Kentucky focus groups thought the idea of exploration captured “what made our content different from other media providers’,” Bischoff says.

When Huff and Bischoff heard what Mark had discovered, they say they were excited to have more confirmation for what they believed. Mark reached those conclusions independently, Bischoff says. “That’s the interesting thing. So things started to validate each other.”

Margaret Mark speaking at PBS Showcase in May. (Photo: Current.).

Margaret Mark speaking at PBS Showcase in May. (Photo: Current.).

Margaret Mark is a former executive v.p. and research chief of Young & Rubicam with experience at Ogilvy & Mather and Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample. But she’s been on a Jung kick for years, having co-authored The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands through the Power of Archetypes with archetypes scholar Carol Pearson (McGraw-Hill, 2001).

Margaret Mark Strategic Insight, the co-author’s branding firm based in Larchmont, N.Y., has client list of giant brands that reaches all the way, in archetypal terms, from the Lover to the Innocent, from the Ruler to the Regular Gal.

Jung described these and other archetypes that he found in the dreams of Europeans and distant native peoples alike, explains Judy Braune, PBS v.p., brand management and promotion.

For PBS, Mark zeroed in on the Explorer through a series of focus groups for various projects under way at the network—asking parents what makes PBS Kids unique, asking donors about their giving decisions, asking viewers whether the PBS branding catchline “Be more” still works for them, according to Braune.

In a 2007 test, Mark asked people to rate dozens of statements about what was genuinely true about their experience with PBS, all written on index cards. Braune says the same cards kept coming up: They were about being able to experience a place that they may never go.

The kinds of people who like new experiences, enjoy scanning expanded horizons, want to see things from varied perspectives are the people most likely to be PBS viewers, says Mark.

For John Boland, PBS’s chief content officer, hearing Mark’s presentation was “very much an a-ha! moment,” and a useful one, he says. “In organizations, it really helps to have some kind of shorthand.”

With Explorers in mind, Boland points out, PBS designed its new online video player for people who want to find unexpected things. Instead of presenting them with a search engine for going directly to their initial subject, the player makes it easy for web users to flip through a carousel of viewing options.

To explain the idea, PBS produced a promo spot called “We Believe.” It’s direct, not subtle but lyrical. You’ve probably heard the high-octane script: We believe in the excitement of exploration, the narrator proclaims, setting up a gentle rhythm as the Wright Brothers’ biplane barely takes off. That life offers each of us adventures that are ours for the taking. We believe that experience is life’s best teacher. That unexpected discoveries can enrich and renew us. We believe that children are born explorers, who need trusted guides on their journeys of discovery . . .”

The manifesto proceeds to endorse innovation and perseverance before concluding. This is who we are. This is what we believe, the narrator says as a hiker reaches a promontory. This is PBS.

Back on the hilltop again: A hiker enjoys the view at the end of one of PBS's "We Believe" spots.

Back on the hilltop again: A hiker enjoys the view at the end of one of PBS’s “We Believe” spots.

Boland sees no conflict with PBS’s ongoing “Be more” tagline, which honors adults who inform themselves about the world and kids who get ready for school, and he hears the Explorer’s voice in “My Source” image promos that thank public broadcasting for taking them to places they otherwise would never have gone.

Though Mark wasn’t bringing PBS a strange new insight, she says, consistent additional evidence helps validate what public TV already knew. Then, she says, “you can put a stake in the ground.”

“From my perspective, the more strongly they imbue that logo with meaning, the more likely the audience is to view them as a destination.”

But Mark thinks PBS’s strength is that it’s a destination without a topical specialty. “The whole world is racing toward specialization and niche,” she says. “When we talk with PBS viewers, both heavy viewers and moderate viewers, they say part of what they love is that they stumble upon things they didn’t know they were interested in.”

This works especially well on the Web, which is “the ultimate Explorer experience,” Mark says. “I think there’s an opportunity to use the Web to excite people about the breadth of what’s on PBS.”

For instance, Mark says, someone watching a Jane Austen story on Masterpiece might be moved, or invited, to look into the effects of Britain’s industrialization, which upended the rigid society that Austen described.

The prominence of the Explorer mindset in boomers and their “very powerful craving for experience” gives public TV “an enormous opportunity,” she says. The coffee market didn’t reach warp speed, she says, “until Starbucks offered them an experience that was more than coffee in a cup.”

“The company that has nailed it better than anyone is Disney. They are clearly the Magician archetype.” Disney often banks on stories, such as the tween hit Hanna Montana, that have an element of magic and transformation, Mark says. And Disney’s adopted offspring, ESPN, understands the Jester, giving viewers an experience of watching with a bunch of wise-talking guys.

Leaving the Sage behind

Huff, at WPBT in Miami, says Marks’ writing led him to apply the Explorer idea in more ways than had occurred to him, and other station leaders picked up the idea. Programming chief Neal Hecker asked his producers to try more first-person narration in their documentaries.

Public TV’s personality has evolved since its beginnings as an offshoot of universities and school systems, Huff figures. “The Sage archetype was probably most closely associated with us before. That was how we started. We were above it all, and we were proud of being above it all,” Huff says.

In contrast, the Explorer climbs down from his lectern. “The Explorer would not feed things to you,” Huff says. “The Explorer’s going to tease you, lead you and let you discover.”

“I don’t think you could think of Fred Rogers and not think he was the Sage,” Huff speculates. “That was what the country needed at the time.”

Not today. “I can’t help but think about the situation our world is in right now,” Huff says. “It’s a time when people are angry, frustrated and intimidated. These are times when the Explorer loves to live. Getting that personality out in these times is very important.”

“To bring out the happiness and delight in unexpected discoveries,” Huff says. “those are things that are deep in the heart.”

Good riddance to the Sage, says Bischoff. When KET tested imagery with focus groups in 2006, one of the selling points for public TV was that it makes you smart, admitting you to an exclusive club.

“People were really turned off by that,” even though they knew they were reacting to a stereotype of elitism, Bischoff recalls.

Indeed, KET supporters literally buy into the Explorer on behalf of the broader public. The Kentucky network frequently uses the Explorer theme in pledge pitches, he says, and always hits an important, altruistic grace note: Giving to KET not only makes exploration possible for you but also for your friends and neighbors.

The subhead of this article is changed slightly from the print edition.

RELATED MATERIAL

PBS says its new brand campaign helps stations “be more,” 2003.

Donors are more likely to renew as station members if they hold a “catechism of beliefs” about the value of public TV, including some altruistic beliefs about its value to the community, according to a TRAC Media Services study.

What feels really good: helping others “be more,” 2007

With 2010 RFP, PBS pursues Explorer Archetype audience for productions

RELATED LINKS

Mark and Pearson’s The Hero and the Outlaw on Amazon.

Archetypes in general, discussed by Wikipedia. Its list of archetypes doesn’t include the explorer.

PBS lays out an interpretation of the explorer archetype in script of its “We Believe” spot on YouTube. Barack Obama has a quick guest shot toward the end.

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