It’s the sort of reveal that might draw more bewildered reactions than finding out who “A” is on “Pretty Little Liars”: ABC Family is changing its name.
Starting in January, the Disney-owned cable network will drop its current name and take on the moniker Freeform.
Network president Tom Ascheim said brand perception among its target audience -- ages 18 to 34 -- fueled the revision.
"Our core viewers know what to expect from our content," he said. "But among nonviewers, there’s a very different perception of our brand. We over-indexed on two adjectives: one was family-friendly and the other was wholesome. It led us to believe that the huge perception gap is based on our name."
He continued: "Although we do great in the demo, companies need to grow. As a way to help in that mission, we decided to try to close this perception gap to try to create some harmony between our audience, our content and our brand, which we haven't really been able to enjoy up until this moment in time."
Largely because it couldn't.
The network, now known for youth-skewing series like “Pretty Little Liars" and "Switched at Birth," was originally founded in 1977 for religious programming by evangelist Pat Robertson’s television ministry, and evolved into the Family Channel. Fox Kids bought the outlet in 1998 and renamed it the Fox Family Channel.
When Disney bought the network in 2001, executives at the time were told "family" must remain in its name; the mandate was contained in contracts Disney and previous owners signed with cable operators dating back to the channel's creation.
"I don't doubt that was once the case, but I know it’s no longer true." said Ascheim of the stipulation, noting that Robertson's "The 700 Club" will remain on the channel. " I can't tell you what happened between now and then. We did not have to do a new deal with distributors. Distributors want to be assured that you are investing in the channel that they are paying you for. We are more than keeping up our bargain."
At the network's upfront presentation to advertisers earlier this year, it announced it would double the network's original programming offerings over the next four years.
The name switch, according to network executives, will be the only large change happening. The alteration comes at a time when the network has been steadily repositioning its strategy away from targeting a generation to instead focus on appealing to a life stage. So, rather than going after millennial viewers, who will eventually cycle out of the demographic, they are going after what the network refers to as "Becomers."
"ABC Family made a big shift about a dozen years ago to really target millennials -- and it's done very well for us," Ascheim said. "But millennials are getting older, and we needed to do something about that. We decided we needed to focus on a life stage. This is an age group experiencing a lot of firsts -- job, love, heartbreak -- and are figuring out who they are becoming."
The network, which has gone through some executive restructuing since Ascheim came onboard in late 2013, began seriously considering a name change in the past year and worked with a number of outside firms and considered over 3,000 names. When it narrowed down finalists, the names were tested with 1,200 consumers in the core demographic.
"And Freeform — far and away — tested the most postively in terms of the positive attributions and connotations that you want associated with a modern media brand pointed at the young target that we are focused on," said Nigel Cox-Hagan, senior vice president of marketing, creative and branding at the network.
The network is investing tens of millions of dollars in its campaign to spread word of its new name starting today with an announcement video, above, and social call-outs on its various platforms asking viewers to demonstrate through pictures, animation, video, etc., how they express freeform.
Other marketing tactics include movie theater ads, a Comic-Con strategy, and taking advantage of the network's own noise-building via its heavily watched "25 Days of Christmas" period on the network later this year, as well as aligning the official roll-out to coincide with the January premieres of flagship programs "Pretty Little Liars" and "The Fosters," in addition to new series "Shadowhunters" and "Recovery Road."
"It’s a little bit like naming a baby. It’s a crazy process," Ascheim said. "I have to say we had a lot of false starts along the way with names. One-half of our extended corporate family would be really happy and then the other half thought it was terrible. This was the name that finally everybody nodded and smiled to, including us. And we're excited to see how viewers respond."
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