Brand Snapped: What The GBBO Debacle Tells Us About Brands

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Britain is up in arms about the transfer of a much-loved TV show to another channel – and many are just as troubled that this is the news story that has gripped the nation.

War. Terror. Tyrants. There’s a lot to worry about in the world. With spiralling hate crime, economic uncertainty, a health service in crisis, yet more planned education reform, an imminent divorce from the world’s largest union and the threat (again) of another closer to home, there’s plenty to worry about in Britain besides baking.

But, to the consternation of many, we’ve swapped our concerns about #Brexit for #Breadxit instead.

To me, it’s not all that surprising – particularly when you consider the final of The Great British Bake Off (GBBO) was the most watched TV programme of 2015 in the UK. Indeed, since its creation in 2010, the programme has grown in popularity (and ratings) to become a ‘National Treasure’.

The fact that it attracts a multi-generational audience has also been surprising to many, though I don’t consider this all that surprising either when you reflect on the times we live in: think about how many young people live at home with their parents. It’s an easier ride sitting down to GBBO together with your folks than the prurient Naked Attraction.

Besides, even if you’ve made it out of the family home, chances are you’ve not got a lot of money to go around. Baking a few goodies at home (or imagining you might) can lift the spirits better than Prozac – and it’s relatively affordable. A simple pleasure.

Beyond the inevitable Brexit media fatigue, in troubling times we often look to simple pleasures for comfort. And what could be more pleasant than a bunch of terribly nice people baking terribly nice looking comfort food for the judgment of the terribly nice Mary Berry and the nicer-than-he-pretends-to-be Paul Hollywood, while the terribly nice presenters Mel and Sue lark about making puns about buns and everyone involved feel loved and special.

What is a surprise to me, and always is, is how little producers and TV commissioners understand about brands. I know this from firsthand experience. Format, audience and slot is the formula that’s front of mind, which leaves them falling prey to ignoring the brand they are creating (or the very fact that that’s what, indeed, they are creating).

You can see why there’s an obsession with format. Format is what you can sell around the world. Format is what other broadcasters understand. But it’s programme brands, not formats, consumers tuck into, as we all know something that seems to pass so many broadcasters by: the format is, generally, always the same.

There are talent shows. Haven’t there always been? Programmes like Pop Idol and, latterly, The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, trumpet themselves, when they reach our screens, as something new, original and innovative but, actually, it’s just Opportunity Knocks or New Faces revisited.

There are match-making shows. Whether this is The Undateables, First Dates, Naked Attraction or (has it been remade yet, I’m certain it will be) Blind Date, they’re all basically the same show, format wise, just with different casts, different punters.

Then there are the money chasers. The game shows. Okay, to be fair here, the format of the game being played may have more variance (they seem to have become incredibly complex and difficult to follow for anyone but a committed viewer these days) but, hello, it’s still a game show.

Step forward the Makeover Shows – people or property being the object here. The scale of transformation dependent on the investment of time and money. And there’s a popular sub-genre contained within this too, which is to have an expert in tow who can tell the object, repeatedly, where they’re going wrong doing their make-up/running their business/being who they are.

And then we have the people chasers – the reality shows – chasing people around while they chase money, sex or fame (or, most likely, all three).

Take out dramas and documentaries, the news and sport, and this is pretty much what’s on offer.

We know this. We know the real format difference between Masterchef and The Great British Menu and The Great British Bake Off and all those other cooking talent shows is as thin as a perfectly-formed layer of puff pastry in a mille-feuille. It’s the personalities involved that makes the difference – providing, as it where, the filling, the flavour.

Personality, in fact, is a far more useful word than brand. Our understanding of what a brand actually is is still limited by a sense this has more to do with logos and colour palettes than personality and culture, purpose and philosophy. Brand is a stamp, to recognise. Cultures, personalities, are there to explore, understand and experience.

The Brand Personality of GBBO couldn’t be more quintessentially BBC if it tried.

Proper, but progressive (consider its openly gay co-presenter and minority-representative participants).

Conventional, yet quirky (while it has some of the usual high drama of a talent show, and always plenty of tears, this is handled in a coddling, comforting, emotionally-intelligent and dignified way, rather than being sensationalised).

Paul and Mary might be icons, but Mel and Sue are everybody’s buddies, conveying a sense of total accessibility while never shying away from their Oxbridge roots or (potentially intimidating) intelligence.   

Strange then, essential ingredients that they are to the programme’s brand personality, that they weren’t locked down in the deal. 

Formats get tired, season after season. Personalities can be comfortingly predictable or painfully so, over time. But I think a real truth in broadcasting is that while a personality can carry a format (even if it does feel a little worn), a format can’t carry the wrong personality (Top Gear, Chris Evans, anyone?).

The real crime of all this though, for me, is the lack of imagination it reflects.

Was it really so hard for Love Productions and Channel 4 to think up a new, millennially-focused cooking talent show? Get a bunch of young bakers opening a bakery in Dalston; instead of doing the little history segments in GBBO, send participants to far-flung places to source ingredients; make them all bake in the nude. I don’t know.

Anything would be better than this cut-and-paste fiasco that has made the programme Channel 4 are yet to make already a cracked brand with a hostile audience in-waiting who might tune in to the first episode just to tear it apart.

It’s the same lack of imagination that results in yet another Queen Victoria biopic, yet another Jane Austen, Bronte, Dickens or Agatha Christie adaptation, yet another crime drama, yet another remake. There are other stories to tell, people. Billions of them.

But, of course, new, original, disruptive stories can’t be profit-projected in the same way safe old standards can. No guarantee of a return on the investment. And yet, if our TV bosses looked up and looked around more often, they’d see what we watch, and how we watch it, has changed.

We want it all on-demand, to watch on our schedules and – because, happily, there’s also a lot of great content to watch, mostly from the US – rather than tuning in every week, we’ll wait for friends or social media to tell us it’s unmissable and then binge watch it.

Though we can produce really great content in the UK, we’re lagging a long way behind, I think, the US. We’re not getting the ‘Netflixisation’ of television, we’re not getting the slow burn audience generation or giving stories enough space for real depth, for intricate narrative arcs. We want to do it all in six episodes with the end already known to the audience.

There’s no rescuing a deflated soufflé, but sometimes we learn best from our biggest disasters.

I hope the over-heated debates surrounding this debacle will inspire the TV powers-that-be to realise it’s time to look beyond the obvious, look beyond the format, and look to create programmes with true originality, with real purpose, with a philosophy, and with that ever elusive thing: genuine personality.

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