Festival of Marketing 2015: Building the Doctor Who brand: how BBC Worldwide is engaging with fans around the world

Speaking at the Festival of Marketing today, Julia Kenyon, acting chief brands officer at BBC Worldwide, discussed how live events, social media and embracing fans’ creativity has been integral to increasing Doctor Who’s following around the world.

Doctor Who was first broadcast in 1963 and returned to screens in 2005 after being axed in 1989. It is now a British institution with a global fanbase – in 2014, the show was named BBC Worldwide’s biggest export along with Sherlock.

Kenyon described the key to its success as both its quirkiness and British sense of humour and its very human protagonist. “If you look at [TV and film in] the states, they have very macho superheroes. What we had was an alien with no special powers, he’s just really clever and has a sonic screwdriver…I think that’s important because people can relate to him in some way,” she explained.

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Images via Doctor Who on Facebook. Lead image (top) Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman, in a scene from Doctor Who. Image via Doctor Who on Twitter

She also said the show appeals to viewers’  desire for escapism – “Who doesn’t want to be whisked away from the bores of everyday life? That’s why people watch the show,” she added – and has built a reputation for tackling some challenging topics such as mental illness. “And we’ve always embraced the outsider. What other show has a married couple made up of a victorian parlour maid and an ancient lizard?” she said.

While the show’s bizarre plots and characters have set it apart, however, Kenyon said the increasing number of great programmes being aired on TV is making it more difficult than ever to attract new audiences.

“We have our hard core fans but there are lots of other people we want to appeal to out there who have lots of other things to watch,” she said. “We have to compete for their attention, and we do that with billboards and traditional marketing on our TV channels – BBC and BBC America spend a lot of time doing that – but our job at BBC Worldwide is to build beyond that,” she adds.

To mark Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary, BBC Worldwide held the world’s biggest ever simulcast of a TV drama. The anniversary show was broadcast simultaneously in 94 countries and screened in 1,500 cinemas worldwide, from Russia to Latin America. “One of the reasons we do cinema is because people like watching Doctor Who together,” said Kenyon. More than 650,000 tickets were sold for screenings and the event generated 12,000 tweets per minute.

To promote the beginning of Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor last year, the organisation held a Doctor Who world tour, travelling to 6 countries -UK, South Korea, Australia, US, Mexico and Brazil – in 12 days. 200 journalists attended the event, said Kenyon, leading to the highest ratings for a season opener of Doctor Who since 2010. “We had a production team who went with us everywhere, sending postcards, videos and tweets. We didn’t use any agencies, so this was done on practically no budget,” she said.

This year, Doctor Who teamed up with Lego to host a panel event at Comic Con San Francisco. BBC Worldwide chose the event to unveil a trailer for season 9 of the show and a teaser for a new version of Lego’s Dimensions game featuring characters from Doctor Who (the game allows users to play characters from different films, TV shows and comic books, allowing them to interact with each other – Doctor Who, for example, can meet Batman). This resulted in 125 million comments on social media and an uplift in commercial deals, said Kenyon. “Once you start this momentum [with events], you have to keep going,” she added.

The show’s fanbase is broad: it remains popular with children and families, as well as ‘hard core’ adult fans who collect merchandise and growing numbers of young women worldwide, said Kenyon. It is most popular in the UK and US but also has a large following in South America, and BBC Worldwide recently launched the brand in India.

As a show that has inspired a vast amount of fan art, celebrating fans’  creativity is also a key focus in promoting the Doctor Who brand, said Kenyon. Last year, the show unveiled a new title sequence based on a concept designed by Billy Hanshaw, a motion graphic artist, and earlier this year, launched a Doctor Who Fan Show on YouTube.

The series is hosted by fan Christel Dee and features interviews with other fans of the show and their creations, such as one man who makes Doctor Who sets in Minecraft. Social media teams also promote fan’s creativity – from artwork and short films to homemade Doctor Who costumes – on Twitter and Facebook.

With such a devoted following, Kenyon said it is important to maintain a sense of authenticity in all the brand’s marketing. It’s an overused term, but for long-running entertainment franchises like Doctor Who, this is particularly important.

“Our fans would call us out if we do anything that smacks of inauthenticity – so we have to be careful about what we say, how we say it and who we partner with,” said Kenyon. “We have to be sincere,” she adds.

The Festival of Marketing is a two-day event organised by Centaur Media. For details, see festivalofmarketing.com

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