Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You, The Great British Bake Off, Eurovision. Some of the best known and best loved entertainment properties are heavily formatted, and have lasted for decades.
The thing about a great format is that familiarity with them rewards repeat viewing or listening. It’s comforting and even compelling to know what is going to happen next, how it’s going to go.
That bit where they nominate their luxury item, phone a friend, bring their showstoppers up to the counter or call in the jury votes from Belarus.
Interestingly, this runs counter to the myth that the unexpected or surprising ending is always the most powerful. Sometimes the journey is more fun than the destination.
As Brothers & Sisters’ Andy Fowler puts it, there are also great ideas that "wear in not wear out".
A good analogy for this can be found in detective fiction.
In a "whodunit" the audience follows along as the detective tries to solve the puzzle. The perpetrator is usually a surprise. It’s classic Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes territory.
But in a so-called "howcatchem", this is reversed. The audience, and possibly the detective, know in advance who the culprit is. The fun is not in guessing who the baddie is but how they will be brought to justice. Think Columbo, or even Line of Duty.
It’s the same with great formats. We know what is going to happen, we just don’t know how.
You see it (hear it?) all the time in music – the classic two-five-one chord progression, or even the so-called "millennial whoop".
The science bit
The first few times we see something, it feels new and our brain lights up like a firework as we absorb and register information. But as we keep seeing the same thing, it requires less and less brain energy.
These images show how our brains react when exposed to the same stimulus over and over again – with the amount of activity diminishing with each exposure as it becomes more familiar.
How we manage stuff we’re familiar with is what they call in the jargon, "low attention processing".
And this is what drives the power of formats. They’re just so easy-to-digest.
Formats drive mental availability
If we’re to believe professor Byron Sharp, director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, the thing that brands need is "mental availability", the probability that a buyer will notice, recognise and/or think of a brand in buying situations.
This is because buying, rather than being a rational considered exercise, is based mostly on emotion, habit and established memory structures.
As Tom Roach, managing partner, effectiveness, BBH, says:
Brands aren’t about love, they’re about ease. There’s nothing like shopping in a foreign supermarket to remind you why brands matter. It takes ages, you don’t recognise anything, have to pick things up and read labels to work out what to buy.
Formats, done right, help consumers build these memory structures by making well-branded, distinctive assets familiar and easy to consume.
And now for the formats…
This is great news for marketers.
As long as they are themselves distinctive, established formats mean more bang for your brand buck. Just get your one embedded in the public consciousness and ride the ensuing gravy train of recognition all the way to the bank.
Think about classic campaigns like "I Bet He Drinks Carling Black Label", or the will-they-won’t-they Nescafe Gold Blend couple.
In modern times, you could argue that the John Lewis Christmas ads are a returning format. Always focused on one product. A big emotional journey. The patented sound track with a breathless girl singing over an acoustic version of a famous rock/pop song. It’s safe to say this strategy has worked out pretty well for them.
Suzuki cleverly owned a regular spot within Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway#SuzukiSaturdays that featured Ant and Dec, and later parlayed that into the Suzuki Challenge regular segment fronted by Scarlett Moffatt.
ITV show Minute To Win It was largely funded and conceived with Cadbury’s involvement and supported their Spots Vs Stripes campaign.
Over in the US, a few brands have made forays into branded podcast, notably General Electric.
Here at Iris Towers we created The Domestics a six-part comedy series for Samsung Domestic Appliances – an ongoing drama that brought to life the foibles of modern domestic life with comedians Katherine Ryan and Joel Dommett.
And yet. And yet.
I can’t help but think these are pretty timid takes on branded formats.
When the Simon Fuller created Pop Idol he already envisaged a massive, ongoing franchise around the show, not a little spot in someone else’s show.
When David Briggs, Mike Whitehill and Steven Knight created Who Wants To Be A Millionaire they wanted it to run and run. They didn’t think after six episodes "well it’s a new year so we’d better change it up, let’s do it as a drama now",
The size that counts
In a world in which brands are no longer mediated by publishers and TV channels and can reach consumers so easily, why is there not more ambition around these kinds of initiative?
Why aren’t M&S creating an on-going drama series focusing on female friendship? Think The Split meets Big Little Lies. Featuring A-list UK acting talent in an aspirational modern-day setting.
With their emphasis on personal and professional development, why aren’t Johnnie Walker making the next big mocku-mentary? For instance, two well-known young comedians travel the world finding brilliant raconteurs in bars. It’s The Trip meets Comedians In Cars…, showing how its whiskey is the perfect choice for bringing people together.
Wall’s ice cream – whose tagline is "goodbye serious" could start a topical panel show based on the good news stories of the week. Perhaps titled What’s The Scoop?
Specsavers could be the ones to bring The Darwin Awards to life – a bit like how Guinness owns World Records or Ripley’s own bizarre events and items. It could be a weekly light entertainment show featuring tales of people who have eliminated themselves in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, with potential spin-offs into publishing and even experiential exhibits.
And why aren’t Google owning the quiz show? How about some kind of multi-platform live quiz where the final arbiter is the ‘Assistant’ a mysterious AI-powered character with all the answers. A bit like the Banker in Deal or No Deal, or Dictionary Corner in Countdown.
None of these ideas, wildly speculative as they may be, are beyond the realms of possibility if there was enough will from CMOs. So, if they get their act together, perhaps you will join us in spring 2020 as we tune in to QAI, Blankety Bot or Are You Smarter Than The Google Assistant?.
My brain is already lighting up at the possibility…
Matthew Kershaw is the managing directer, content at Iris