TiVo works to separate itself from rest of DVR pack

As TiVo becomes a household name, its PR team and agency partners aim to keep the brand from becoming a generic term for DVRs by showing the public what makes it stand out.

As TiVo becomes a household name, its PR team and agency partners aim to keep the brand from becoming a generic term for DVRs by showing the public what makes it stand out.

TiVo does not want to become the next Xerox or Coke. Sure, the digital video recording technology company is well on its way to becoming a household name, but hopefully not at the expense of its brand. That brand is already being used as a verb and is in danger of being a generalized term, like Kleenex. But it's already starting to happen. A recent AP story recounted how a family who bought a digital video recorder [DVR] from its cable company thought it had bought TiVo, thinking that DVR was its cable company's name for TiVo. But the 7-year-old Alviso, CA, company isn't about to let success go to its head. As not all DVRs are created equal - and not all DVRs have TiVo's technology - the wheels are in motion to help protect the brand and help tell the story of the company that defined the market. What separates TiVo's technology from other DVRs that also record shows and pause live television is TiVo's ability to record programs based on keywords or names. Another feature that separates TiVo from the pack is how it seeks out and records programs based on previously recorded programs, and continuously learns from the user's viewing behavior. "PR is hugely strategic here," says Susan Cashen, VP of marketing. "For us, it has to be about differentiation. The innovators who survive are the ones who start something and move on, who are constantly innovating." Letting the technology speak for itself TiVo first introduced consumers to DVR via advertising. But budget cuts killed advertising, so PR became the company's driving force when it came to product publicity and brand building. In the beginning, PR was very traditional, says Cashen. PR introduced the technology to pundits and reporters, focused on convincing them that TiVo was not only exciting and new, but was also a disruptive technology that would completely change the way people watched television. As PR quickly moved from early adopters and tech publications to the mainstream media, TiVo focused on getting DVRs into the hands of reviewers and others who would evangelize the technology. And that strategy has worked wonders, as it does for most disruptive technologies that change how someone does something, whether it's TiVo or Apple's iPod. Ask practically anyone who has a TiVo what they think, and you're bound to hear that person sing its praises with very little prodding. It is that kind of devotion that TiVo leverages as it tries to spread the gospel. As DVRs become more common, having influencers talk about their TiVo experience is much more valuable than straightforward reviews, says Cashen. TiVo's very small PR team - besides Cashen, there's senior manager of PR Kathryn Kelly and PR specialist Jessica VanPernis - means the company relies greatly on its agency partners, SutherlandGold Communications for consumer PR and OutCast Communications for corporate PR. SutherlandGold, which has worked with TiVo since 2002, has helped harness that devoted community of TiVo aficionados to evangelize the service to the media and others, says partner Lesley Gold. And key to the PR success is getting people to understand that TiVo is about television, not just technology, adds partner Scott Sutherland. That's what enables TiVo to talk to Good Housekeeping and other publications that might shy away from doing stories about technology. From celebrities to Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly, TiVo has focused on getting the product into influencers' hands who can then evangelize TiVo to their respective audiences. "We talk to everyone, from Us Weekly and GQ to Vanity Fair and Shelter, about how this technology changes your life," explains Kelly. And the constant push for visibility, coupled with the incredible word-of-mouth buzz generated by everyone from tech reporters to your next-door neighbor, has made TiVo look like a much bigger company than it is, admits Cashen. While much of the PR focus has been on getting consumers comfortable with the technology while simultaneously building the brand, TiVo is putting more emphasis these days on differentiating itself from the competition. And focusing on what differentiates TiVo is key to the company's fortunes. "The secret to TiVo's success is very obvious - get people to use it, and then get them to talk about it," says Sutherland. "That's why we focus so much on the experience that only TiVo can provide, not the technology." Part of that differentiation is positioning TiVo beyond the box. The company has made great strides toward making itself a household name. It does that by positioning itself as a chronicler of American culture, such as reporting that Janet Jackson's now infamous "costume malfunction" at this year's Super Bowl was the most replayed moment on TiVo in the company's history. But such stories that try to position it in a larger context occasionally cause a bit of angst among reporters, who wonder aloud if tracking how viewers use their TiVos is an invasion of privacy. While TiVo is quick to put out such fires, presenting itself as a cultural observer is part of the company's larger strategy to stay front and center as an innovator, whether that's presenting its executive team as thought leaders or reaching out to parenting magazines about how TiVo will transform family time in front of the TV. The dangers of success Adi Kishore, a senior analyst with the Yankee Group, says TiVo has done a "fantastic" job with its communications, which he credited with being creative and innovative in its efforts to help TiVo blaze the DVR market trail. "But there's a danger in becoming too successful," Kishore warns. "If the brand becomes too generic in the consumer's mind, then they can't differentiate it. Their brand is their greatest asset, and they have to vigorously defend that. And so far, no one else is marketing as aggressively as they are." Being aggressive has paid off because "when your grandmother starts talking about TiVo, you know you've gone mainstream," says Kelly. But now that TiVo has done that, it is facing a new set of hurdles. Beyond competition from cable and consumer electronics companies that use unbranded DVR software that offers some - but not all - of the features that TiVo offers, one of TiVo's greatest challenges is in enhancing its technology, such as allowing users to download movies and music from the internet while trying to woo cable and satellite companies. OutCast, which started working with TiVo earlier this year, is focused on leveraging the company's great consumer story into a great corporate story, explains agency VP Dave Reddy. As TiVo moves forward and continues to innovate, the challenge is to get people to see it as more than just a box on top of the television. "As TiVo makes advances in the digital living room, our goal is to prove it has the stuff to be innovators and leaders, that it has the business and the vision to do it," says Reddy. But a recent USA Today story warned that some industry observers believe "TiVo became too cocky about its slick user interface and hip brand." "TiVo has done a good job keeping its brand top of mind," says Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis at the NPD Group. "But the danger of it being a generic term is the symptom of a brand being very successful. These are problems faced by many companies when they become successful. The service is what they want to protect. That is the way to differentiate them from other hardware out there. So far TiVo has been trumpeting its feature advantages. But it will also need to focus on its ease of use and integration, such as Apple has done." "We embrace risk," asserts Cashen. "We realize there is going to be negative press. We work really hard to push the envelope to get people to pay attention to different aspects of our story. I credit PR for making that happen. "People talk about how much they love TiVo," she adds. "You never hear people talk about how much they love their Time Warner DVR or Comcast DVR." PR contacts VP of marketing Susan Cashen Senior PR manager Kathryn Kelly PR specialist Jessica VanPernis PR agencies OutCast Communications, SutherlandGold Communications

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