NBCUniversal's International Crime Channel 13th Street Gets Brand Refresh With Help From Hans Zimmer

13th Street 'Bates Motel' creative - H 2017
Courtesy of 13th Street

Digital and social, not the linear network, were the starting points for the evolution of the channel, which is popular in Europe and Australia, to a "multiplatform crime brand.”

NBCUniversal International Networks’ crime and thriller channel 13th Street is getting a brand refresh, including innovative social, digital and on-air packaging and a bespoke soundtrack from none other than Hans Zimmer.

First launched in France 20 years ago, 13th Street is a key international channel for the company in major European markets, such as Germany, Spain and Poland, as well as in Australia. It is localized in each of the markets where it airs.

The brand evolution, on which the company has been working for the past year, will visually emphasize the channel’s focus on intrigue and its promise of thrilling audiences. On the audio front, that will be highlighted with the use of music composed by Bleeding Fingers, the international TV and film audio production outfit co-founded by Oscar winner Zimmer. His soundtrack underscores a series of brand idents, brief videos used in Europe to give a channel its personality, created for digital and on-air use.

Not everyone in Hollywood may have heard of 13th Street, but the network carries such well known U.S. shows as Law & Order, Bates Motel and Aquarius. And latest multi-territory acquisitions Chance, the psychological thriller starring Hugh Laurie, and upcoming murder-mystery drama Loch Ness will launch on the new-look channel in the near future.

Given the strength of the network in many of its markets, one key focus of the brand update was not to throw out everything and risk alienating existing fans. In France, for example, the network, known as 13eme Rue, is the number 2 pay TV channel among adults ages 15-plus. In Germany, the channel also ranks as the number 2 pay TV network. In Poland, where it is called 13 Ulica, it is the number 1 international film and entertainment channel, while its Spanish version Calle 13 ranks in the top 10 in that country.

“We have a very strong, successful brand,” NBCUniversal International chief marketing officer Lee Raftery told The Hollywood Reporter. “we wanted to build on that. We are calling this a brand evolution. When we do a rebrand, we look at new logos, changing almost everything  here we have kept the logo and some other elements, so it is an evolution. But we wanted to evolve this key channel from a linear channel into a multiplatform crime brand.”

Explaining the other factors calling for an update, he said: “Channel brands evolve over time, and you need to keep them fresh. We all take creative inspiration from each other, and other brands started picking up elements from 13th Street, so we wanted to move it on. We wanted to address our current audience, but also broaden it out and give it younger appeal.” Crime in general skews older, but “there is plenty of great content that can skew younger,” he explained.

The brand refresh is kicking off in France this weekend, where the network is about to debut Shooter with Ryan Phillippe, followed by most other countries where the channel has a presence later in March and Australia in June. Each local launch of the refresh will also feature local premieres.

NBCUniversal’s brand refresh work didn’t start with the linear channel's look and feel as is typically the case. “The last time the company looked at the brand was about 2010, and back then social wasn’t anywhere nearly as powerful as it is today,” said Raftery. “So for this, we wanted to flip the usual process around, take a fan-first approach and start with what an amazing brand would look like on social and digital, and then how might that look onscreen. We had never done that.”

In terms of the music, “we wanted to capture the thrilling nature and sound cinematic,” said Raftery. “We kept coming back to pieces of music that we knew that Hans Zimmer had produced. So we approached him.”

Zimmer said he was excited to do work that was different from his wide-ranging contributions to the entertainment industry over the years. “Contributing my own audio fingerprint to a network brand has been an amazing experience for me,” he said. “Having created numerous scores for TV shows and films, I was particularly intrigued to have the opportunity to help set the 13th Street mood and produce an evocative soundtrack, reinforcing the channel brand’s thrilling identity.”

NBCUniversal International Networks also worked with creative agency Red Bee on the visuals for the brand refresh. As far as color goes, the crime genre often uses reds, for blood, and blues, signifying police, but 13th Street went with a lime green. “We had a number of colors in the existing brands,” explained Raftery. “In order to differentiate ourselves from competitors, we decided to use one of them, this green, as an accent color and then go heavily black-and-white, which we felt had a darker appeal. That will hopefully really stand out when you put it into social.”

To further reinforce the brand's edginess, the network adapted its nudista font to what it now calls "scar," a font featuring letters that have sharp cuts, or small white spaces. Uniquely, the new font means the logo can be "locked on" to show titles, reinforcing brand affiliation for viewers. “From all our research, we don’t think anyone else has done this,” Marco Giusti, senior vp, creative, NBCUniversal International, told THR.

Other elements that are integral to the evolved brand include a visual "block out" device  inspired by the act of redaction  and zoom-in and zoom-out techniques, mirroring how investigators use magnification when exploring crime scenes.

“When you use this sparingly, it seems to grab your attention, because it is unexpected and we don’t give you the whole answer and let viewers do some work,” explains Raftery. “People in this genre don’t want to be served up everything. They want to do some of the work themselves, they like playing detective if you like.”

The network also will also use new idents. Typically, idents are linear 10-15 second stories, but Giusti and his team for 13th Street shot short video snippets that can be put together in 50-plus ways. “We shot them thinking digital, social first,” he said. “They are modular that you can them put together in more ways.” The idents will show written questions, such as “Who do you trust?”  again to activate viewers. Overall, “we wanted a clear visual look that people would see and go ah, that’s 13th Street,” says Raftery.

One way to stimulate viewers' connection to the crime genre and the channel is via social media, including layering in thematic games and activities. Using a 360 video, for example, the network will feature a virtual cell on a viewers’ Facebook feed. “You’re trapped in a basement cell. How do you get out?” the challenge would say. When users move their phones around the virtual room, they can find visual clues to help them escape, “hopefully provoking people to participate and solve the situation, as we appeal to their investigative abilities,” says Raftery.

In other social activations fans can vote on what escape vehicle they’d prefer or which character they would trust, he said. And a chatbot feature is also in the planning stages."

Giusti and Raftery said starting the brand review process with the social and digital side drove the decision to use bold colors and the zoom in and zoom out devices, leading to results much different from past brand updates they have done. “A lot of rebrands or refreshes tend to be quite prescriptive, so you end up policing the brand way more than you probably should,” said Giusti. “So this process was really liberating but also challenging.”

Added Raftery: “We really embrace that we need to be more fluid and as long as you’re true to principles of the brand, how it is applied can be a lot looser.”

Will the company use that approach of starting with digital and social again? “The result of this one has been so different that we’d consider and try it,” said Raftery. Added Giusti: “I would certainly advocate going down this route.”