Why Esquire Network Wants to Be Disruptive and Authentic With Events

Deena Stern, the senior vice president of marketing and digital for the one-year-old TV network, explained how the brand is using live experiences to create awareness and advocates among its target demographic.

By Jim Shi October 17, 2014, 7:30 AM EDT

Photo: Stephan Hawk/Esquire Network

Having celebrated its one-year anniversary on September 23, NBC Universal’s Esquire Network continues to grow in strategic strides thanks to an expansion plan centered on the idea of bringing value to existing events. Or, as Deena Stern, senior vice president of marketing and digital for Esquire Network, puts it: How to be disruptive in an authentic way.

In August, the network entered the ever-popular festival space by hosting its first activation at Outside Lands. The invaluable appeal of a social, value-added experience such as Outside Lands—a festival that embodies a balance of music, cocktails, and cuisine—is one that Stern actively looks for in order for her network, still in its infancy, to authentically connect with an ever-increasingly savvy and influential demographic.

What is the overarching goal for all your activations? And how do you seek to accomplish it in an environment of repetitive events and regurgitated themes?
Everything we’re doing right now is about brand awareness and about bringing attention to the network and to our programming. Any event we do is tied into a program and tied into a show we’re promoting. We have such a diverse slate of programming that covers the gamut of lifestyle, passions, and interests that we can make them different in every way. All our events have the aesthetic of the Esquire brand, but the activation is going to change at every event.

What are the challenges of creating activations for the network that is so closely connected to the magazine, which has its own strong brand identity?
It’s a licensing deal with the magazine and we’re covering some themes and topics that the magazine covers, but you won’t see in any of our programming, for example, how to tie a bow tie. We delve more into the well of the magazine and the storytelling of what the magazine is doing. We are so new and what we hear a lot is “Oh, there’s a network?” So there is strong awareness and brand affinity for the magazine and we still need to build that for the network, but we are reaching that modern man that the magazine is so successful at doing. With the partnership, we are able to take advantage of that Esquire magazine reader and have him transcend to the screen. To make that synergy better is a big reason why we have engaged in a lot of these activations.

You recently had your first activation at a music festival. What was it about Outside Lands that attracted the Esquire brand?
At places I’ve previously worked, we’ve done music events, from Bonnaroo to South by Southwest, and while they’re great, they’ve either become too saturated with marketing or their strict focus doesn’t stray from the core music. What we liked about Outside Lands is it goes beyond just music; it’s celebrating culinary arts, it’s celebrating cocktails, and it’s an experience and festival where you’re enjoying the music that’s playing while having some great food from some great chefs.We felt the passions and interests of the attendees really fit with what we’re trying to accomplish that’s not just music. It felt like a more sophisticated and richer audience.

One thing for us at these events is not only tying in our talent, but also capturing content. It’s hard to stand out at some of these festivals, but the Outside Lands attendee is going for more than just a musical experience. We want to be additive; we don’t want to do something that doesn’t feel authentic to what is happening at the festival.

You’ve also hosted many of events at Soho House. Tell me about the connection there.
When we were launching and looking at our audience—the upscale, modern, metropolitan, educated man—and how to reach them to become brand advocates, we thought working with the Soho House would probably be a great partnership. A lot of its membership fits directly into our demo. A lot of them work in the media, be it the ad sales community, the creative community … they really are these great advocates and brand ambassadors for us.

[Soho House is] well experienced and skilled at providing organic experiences and events for its audience, so anything we did with [its team] we wouldn’t feel would be artificial or inauthentic. [With Soho House, we’re targeting] a smaller group of people, but that means a higher level of engagement. It’s not a formal partnership with the New York and L.A. locations per se; there’s no contract. The Chicago outpost would be great because the ad trade community is so influential there. Miami is a big market for us, but New York, L.A., and Chicago are bigger.

Who is the Esquire Network demographic? How was it being underserved in the past before the creation of the Esquire Network?
We’re obviously serving a male audience, aged 18 to 49. He’s a modern man, he enjoys the finer things in life, is a trendsetter, and wants to be first to market with new products. He’s metropolitan, living in the New York City and L.A.s of the world. He’s more educated and more affluent. When he’s not watching sports, which can be so broad and mass, where is he going to get his TV fix? A lot of the places he was going were from female lifestyle networks—be it Travel Channel, HGTV, Bravo, or Food Network. But it’s not really a place a man would feel as welcome—especially when it comes to the packaging, the branding of these networks and the advertising that’s being served to the viewer. In the drama area, they’re watching HBO and Showtime, but from a non-scripted perspective, there was nothing aspirational or relatable for this man. The Esquire Network provides the balance of aspirational, inspirational and explorative programming.

What makes an Esquire Network event an Esquire Network event? What are the fine details that distinguish it from, say, a GQ or Details event? After all, the men's world can be quite finite.
GQ and Details are the magazines. Our events, while we love Esquire magazine should it be involved in an event, most of the time we’re featuring our content and everything that you can find on our screens and multiplatform screens. So the difference is we capitalize on the talent and the experts associated with our brand as a way to get our audience to identify with the talent like [restaurateur] Ilan Hall or Kris Morningstar from Knife Fight. We are also probably being more authentic to whatever event is happening. In the infancy of the brand, we’re not going to create our own installation in the middle of a pop-up area in Times Square. Everything we’re doing is piggybacked onto an existing event that’s happening. Design-wise and aesthetically it might not be different, but we’re all about video and content so every activation we do you’ll see tons of plasma screens, sampling of our video as well as talent involved.

The word “intimate” is used to describe many of the Esquire Network activations. Is that done on purpose? And why take that approach as opposed to going big?
We’re a new brand network, but with all of our events and activations, we have the equity of the Esquire 80-year history via the magazine. But as we’re launching this brand and getting this modern man to be aware of us, I think the word “intimate” is more of this sense of identification and having a more organic experience with our brand—this one-on-one experience with our brand, be it getting a shave, a mixology lesson, or seeing our chefs cook in front of them. You’re leaning into it and not as much leaning back and watching. You’re taking part. This connectivity embodies the Esquire life. Celebrating the well-played life and the pursuit of the well-played life. Beyond what the magazine holds, which is more a literary how-to, we really are showing the connectivity to all these different kinds of lifestyles, passions, and interests—be it grooming, cooking, travel, adventure or active lifestyle. We like to think of our audience as explorers.

Is the active use of video and technology one way to avoid being too cliché?
I think so, because it’s providing that added value and differentiates us from the magazine. It also differentiates us from our competition in the content and television space because we’re able to show our product. For the male audience in particular, it’s important for a TV brand to show the product, to show the audience what it is that you want them to do. We’re really making what we’re seeing on the screen come to life.

You talk about these “social, value-added” experiences. Can you elaborate? How do you engage with your target demographic in a meaningful way? How do you measure R.O.I.?
When we look at who our guy is—the younger guy being more social in the digital space, the older guy more social physically and in-person—the social experiences we want to reach is getting these guys to have this physical word of mouth with their friends and talk about what’s happening on the Esquire Network. All of our activations provide the tools for our guy to tell their friends what they’ve learned at a Esquire Network event and to encourage them to attend the next one. The value added is the awareness and opening the aperture of the people we are reaching.

While our activations and marketing are important on the ground, it’s also the value we get in the social-spheres from digital to word of mouth. It’s all about awareness for the brand and getting people to experience the content in a more visceral way. The R.O.I. for us is just about awareness and getting more chatter and viewers to the network—a cumulative awareness of the network.

Given the relative newness of the Esquire Network brand, is essentially everything you're doing boil down to experiential marketing (given there's no precedence)?
Experiential is one aspect of it. We are a television network, so we do make media buys on other networks and in the digital space as well. We’d love to have an experiential activation associated with every buy, but it depends on what we’re selling and if it fits. We do want our audience to have that intimate and one-on-one experience with our new programming, so definitely if it fits into the theme and genre of our show, then we’ll look to do more activations.

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