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Sci Fi Becomes Syfy: Why?

This week, after months of advertising, the Sci Fi network becomes Syfy, and it’s not hard to see why. Sci-fi is a genre, not a name; Syfy is a copyrightable word, and a brand-new one, with undetermined associations or attachments. NBC Universal, the network’s owner, says it wanted to freshen up the brand. They also wanted to “broaden” its appeal, which is to say that they’d like to soft-pedal any association with little green men — not to mention the little gray men who watch them on TV.

So why does this sound like the dopiest idea ever to touch down on planet Earth?

For one thing, there is that awkward spelling. One’s first instinct is to pronounce it to rhyme with “beefy.” (All that’s missing is a capital F in the middle, in the manner of FedEx or MySpace — the voguish style that copy editors call “CamelCase” because it has a hump in its back.)

Now, let’s say you see an ad for the network on a bus shelter, and puzzle it out. Your thought process goes like this: “Seefy? What’s Seefy? Oh wait… sigh … fi… I get it. Like science fiction.” All you do is translate the new name into the old one. This is not rebranding. It changes no association in the consumer’s mind. It just adds a layer of translation to trying to figure out what the hell that word is.

The brands, slogans, and package designs that really stick with consumers are pretty rare. If a marketing team is lucky enough to create an identity that does resonate, especially one that becomes familiar enough to achieve catchphrase or pop-culture status, that brand identity is absolute gold. You don’t discard a slogan that’s achieved high earth orbit. You wring every possible bit of juice out of it. The day M&M’s quit using “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand,” they threw away a slogan absolutely everyone in America had come to recognize. Not smart.

A few companies have figured this out, even if it took them awhile. Starting in the sixties, Coca-Cola backed away from its hourglass green bottle, never mind that the object was one of the most recognizable trademarks on earth. Finally, in 1993, some smart guy in Atlanta wised up, and ordered Coke’s twenty-ounce bottle reshaped to evoke the old ones. And what happened? Coca-Cola instantly saw a spike in sales, and stole back a significant bit of market share from Pepsi. They didn’t have to rename it KokhyKohla to do it, either.

The problem, for Sci Fi/Syfy, is that their name is ultra-familiar — but for what its executives perceive as the wrong thing. An association with science fiction, because of its geeky connotations, may limit the network’s ability to branch out. But frankly, that is not a problem that can be addressed by misspelling the name. If you want to get out of the science-fiction genre ghetto, guys, you’re really going to have to stop making series like Battlestar Galactica and showing Star Trek reruns.