Tonight’s premiere of Mars on Nat Geo marks far more than the broadcast debut of an exciting new show. It is, in turn, the cornerstone of an even more sweeping parallel launch event: Nat Geo’s global rebrand spanning its partners group, linear channel, digital outlets, National Geographic magazine and, of course, the linear channel itself.
Bolstered by a new tagline, “Further,” the rebrand signifies a new push for Nat Geo into memorable original programming and its subsequent amplification across an increasingly complex media landscape. “As we embarked on this project, our goals for the rebrand were to ensure that… it felt both audacious and premium,” said Courteney Monroe, CEO of National Geographic Global Networks, in a statement.
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With its marquee producing team of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, and its captivating subject matter, Mars is justifiably the flag-bearer of this realigned outlook. And as such, it’s also been the recipient of the biggest marketing campaign in network history.
“From an investment standpoint it’s certainly the largest marketing spend we’ve ever done behind a show,” said Dennis Camlek, EVP of strategy and consumer marketing for National Geographic Networks. “But way beyond the dollars it’s just a full 360 platform across the entire organization.”
With unusually deep coffers to draw from and a heightened emphasis on multiplatform outreach, Mars’ marketing materials are a world unto themselves, an entire ecosystem of cross-promotional content extending from an epic, immersive installation in New York that showed visitors what life would be like on the red planet, to a National Geographic magazine cover story, to a Nat Geo Live! traveling speaker series.
But then, Nat Geo’s educational programming and unique blend of cross-pollinating multimedia have always allowed for fascinating real-world executions outside the realm of traditional promo. Here, the Mars asset that most exemplifies the network’s transition toward Monroe’s principles of “premium” and “audacious” may not be an experiential happening, but an offering that was never meant to exist anywhere but in the digital space: the 32-minute prequel film Before Mars.
Mars is a hybrid of current documentary and futuristic scripted narrative of a mission to the red planet in the year 2033. Before Mars occurs about 18 years previously, focusing on two of the show’s main characters as adolescents: Hana Seung, an astronaut aboard the mission, and her sister Joon, who supports her from back on Earth. Tenderly depicting a critical passage from their childhood involving a new town and a ham radio, the short feels simultaneously like an anomaly and like what is exactly right for our changing media times. It is neither an episode of television nor a promo, but an impeccably crafted film that enriches the experience of watching Mars the series and yet can be enjoyed entirely by itself with no other context. It’s intended entirely for digital viewing, on Nat Geo’s platforms as well as on YouTube, Amazon, Hulu and Google Play, where attention spans are frequently short, and yet it takes its time, addressing how astronaut Hana first became compelled by outer space through measured, nuanced storytelling and beautiful cinematography.
“From the get-go, the intention was always, ‘let’s tell a story as long as it needs to be told,’” said Andy Baker, SVP and global creative director for National Geographic Channels, and an executive producer on the film. “That’s one of the nice things about a multiplatform distribution like this—you can adhere to what the story needs to be, and if it works out to be 32 minutes or 15 or 22, or whatever it needs to be, there’s a lot of flexibility. The way consumers are watching shows, they want a story told, whether they’re watching on their phone or a tablet or on their TV at home. They’re all platforms. We looked at this with a platform-agnostic POV.”
From start to finish, Before Mars took eight months to complete, a duration longer than the production cycle on some feature films.
“It was really challenging to work on one thing from February to October,” Baker said, “but very much worth it.”
The extra time allowed Baker and his collaborators, the production company Variable, to craft a story rich in detail and thematic resonance that ties back into Mars the show. When the girls first move into their new house, for instance, their rooms are framed side by side. Hana’s room is bathed in reddish light, signifying the destination that lies in her future, while Joon’s room is the bluish hue of Earth.
“One of the big themes for the series is that it’s all about how we make Mars home, and the idea of making a new place home,” Baker said. “[The astronauts in the show] are not going to Mars to take soil samples, they’re going to stay and make it their home. We loved there was this parallel idea that when [Hana and Joon] were kids they also had to make new places home a lot, because their mom traveled around a lot. It was already in their DNA, so to speak, that they would have to get up and move to new places and become accustomed to new situations.”
In another sign of the sheer scale of Nat Geo’s promotional push for Mars, “There’s a marketing strategy behind [Before Mars] as well,” Baker said. “We’re pushing to and from our platforms, and within the show we’re promoting back to the film as well. It’s a different experience to be creating the content and then creating the promos for that content. It’s very meta.”
Marketing efforts for Before Mars have included running promos for the short itself during an hour-long Nat Geo Mars pre-premiere that aired on October 26, and on the network’s VOD platform as well. And, once Mars is airing on the linear channel, Before Mars will benefit from what Baker called “contextually relevant creative.” This includes on-screen messaging about the prequel that will pop up during moments in the show that pertain to it, such as when the grown-up Hana and Joon are discussing their childhood.
“It becomes a loop where, if you watch [Before Mars] first, hopefully it will push you to Mars. If you watch Mars first, hopefully it will push you to [Before Mars],” Bakers said. “It’s all part of an ecosystem of content. We’re trying to help each one help each other.”