It was right at dusk one summer evening in June of 1975 when Chrissie Watkins left a beach party on Amity Island to go skinny dipping. She wasn’t seen again until her remains were discovered on the beach. The medical examiner determined she’d been killed by a shark. Fearful of disrupting the highly profitable tourist season, the mayor determines it’s best to keep the incident secret. Sadly, a young boy was also killed by a shark. Brody, the Chief of Police, Hooper, a marine biologist and a shark hunter named Quint head out to find and kill the shark. Chumming the water to attract the killer shark works and when Brody sees the size of the great white shark he comments to Quint – “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”. Of course this is a recap of the movie Jaws, the largest grossing movie of its time. The danger and drama of hunting a killer shark – coupled with the iconic dun dun, dun dun notes of the movie’s theme music created an enormous interest in sharks – especially the great white.
Just over a decade later, three key executives of the Discovery Channel were at a bar having post-work drinks with several colleagues. The subject turned to what would be ‘fun’ to air on Discovery- and as is often the case in such settings – the ideas were flowing nearly as freely as the drinks. One ‘brainstorm’ was to create features on shark. It was duly noted on a bar napkin. The network, barely two years old, had already noted a spike in ratings whenever they aired anything shark related – and soon the programming was in development. The shows were created with a docudrama style of narration, a focus on education, spectacular footage and discussions with people who had real life shark experiences. Importantly, the original premise remained a focus – what would be fun to air. The collection of shows debuted in July of 1988.
The ratings were much greater than expected – so much so, that the concept was repeated the following summer. That week garnered even higher ratings. The programming has since become an annual summertime event, growing in popularity each year. Peter Benchley, the author of the book Jaws, became the first celebrity host in 1994.
What began as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek idea in a bar, has become the longest running television programming event in cable television history. Fans now think of the annual programming as a holiday of sorts – an event not to be missed. The viewership tops 30 million viewers annually and the audience show no signs of doing anything but continuing to grow. This unmatched success does not a fearless brand make. Rather, Shark Week has been built into a fearless brand by the Discovery Channel.
Fearless Brands remain true to their ‘why’ – their core value proposition.
Twenty-seven years after its start, the Discovery Channel has not lost touch with the primary premise behind the concept of Shark Week – fun programming. Sharks are, and always will be, the heroes of the week – the main attraction. Each year, however, the producers have added new ideas, new camera angles, a variety of celebrities and more to keep the concept fresh and fun.
Importantly, they have remained committed to using experienced natural-history film makers while avoiding gimmicks and ‘cowboys’. As former producer Brooke Runnette once said – “We don’t want people dressing as a seal when they go out to capture shark footage”. Technology has also helped a great deal. The Phantom high speed video camera records at 1,000 frames per second. This is the same technology used in the London Olympics which showed athlete’s every muscle – every twitch – and now has recorded what may be the most dramatic shark footage ever.
Most recently, a REMUS underwater drone – carrying six cameras – was attacked by a great white shark. The drone survived, with some significant damage from the shark’s teeth, and delivered more great footage. Notably, researchers discovered that shark attack deep in the ocean and not just near the surface.
The Discovery Channel has also been very effective in their brand messaging. Through the years they have presented Shark Week in relevant, fun and unique ways. This year’s campaign – King of Summer – has generated incredible response and awareness. For about twenty-seven seconds Rob Lowe is featured skiing on two great white sharks, chumming the waters attracting even more shark. At the end of the spot, he utters ‘So sharky’ – two words which have created quite a stir in social media.
All of this helps to explain Shark Week’s popularity – but it’s the attitude of fun, the focus on sharks – the main characters – and a commitment to authenticity which have built it into a fearless brand.
Fearless brands deliver phenomenal results. Fearless brands are built. Here are three important lessons to be learned from the Discovery Channel and Shark Week as you continue to build your fearless brand.
Be true to your why – The Discovery Channel was focused on creating programming which would be fun – and therefore appealing to a broad audience. The idea for Shark Week was the result of seeking fun. For over a quarter of a century, the producers and executives responsible for the week’s programs have remained true to that goal. You need to have clarity about what the core principle is behind your brand – consistently embrace it without compromise.
Innovation – A great deal of the innovation behind Shark Week has been driven by technology. Additionally, the programs themselves have continued to be fresh. The week itself has been uniquely positioned each year providing a sense of ‘newness’. When combined with the first point – remaining true to your brand’s core ‘why’ – innovation keeps your brand exciting and vibrant.
Remain relevant – Fun is important. Innovation adds excitement. What makes Shark Week so popular year after year – what keeps it relevant – is simple. A focus on sharks. Sharks are much bigger than we humans, they are incredibly powerful and they provide a sense of danger – when presented in a safe environment. Don’t be so innovative that you lose the relevance your brand has for those you serve. Make certain that your brand always passes the ‘So what?’ test.
Jaws created quite a phenomenon around sharks. I have no doubt that a decade later that movie sparked an idea in a bar. Today we have a highly anticipated annual television event – a fearless brand known as Shark Week. Be committed to building your fearless brand and it too can be ‘So Sharky’.