Inside ABC Family’s Dramatic Name-Change Decision

President Tom Ascheim and marketing chief Nigel Cox-Hagan walk TheWrap through the thinking behind the network’s historic move

Last Updated: October 6, 2015 @ 10:09 AM

At its upfront presentation in April, ABC Family announced a strategy that would keep the network focused for the foreseeable future on viewers 14-34 — a group it dubbed “becomers.” The new strategy wasn’t all that different from the old strategy.

ABC Family had for more than a decade been focusing not on families, as its name suggested, but on young viewers, particularly young women. The “becomers” initiative was essentially a statement that the network would keep doing just that even as long-time viewers began to age out of the demo.

But along the way to that statement, ABC Family discovered one thing that did need to change — that name. On Tuesday, the network announced that in January it would begin calling itself Freeform.

“When we did the research around becomers that got us to the upfront, we noticed a kind of a disparity between people who were loyal viewers and people who were not yet loyal viewers,” ABC Family president Tom Ascheim told TheWrap.

While regular viewers understood what the network with youth-skewing series such as “Pretty Little Liars,” the most social show on TV, stood for, infrequent viewers did not. “Among non-viewers, we only over-index on two attributes. One is family-friendly and the other’s wholesome. This led us to believe that if we want to grow, we needed to do something about this perception gap.”

It also led to the name change. Ascheim and Nigel Cox-Hagan, the network’s senior vice president of marketing, creative and branding, spoke with TheWrap about how the new name came about and what the network plans to do under its new banner.

Where did the name come from?
Tom Ascheim: We looked for a name that would do three things for us. One was to evoke this idea of becomers, this idea that these people are in formation. Two, we wanted to mandate this moment in media and capture this sense that content oozes from platform to platform and screen to screen. And then lastly we just wanted a name that made you feel something and hopefully feel something positive.

We tested this name among over 1,200 people. We had 3,000 names to go through. This one tested by far the best. It evoked all sorts of different attributes. But it also made us feel something. This idea of living Freeform, I’m not sure what it means, but it makes us smile. We’d like to try it.

How does something like this work logistically? The people you’re testing don’t know that you’re talking about ABC Family, right?
Nigel Cox-Hagan: We put it forward as a white label. We put it forward as a TV brand, a digital brand, and a clothing company. So the people testing didn’t have any idea exactly who was doing the testing. They were judging whether this name would work for a young, exciting brand.

Ascheim: Part of what you test for when you’re doing a new name is to see whether it projects flexibly against multiple, different ideas. That’s why we tested it as lots of different things, not just a TV network. It should feel like an idea that the audience could attach itself to in lots of different places.

Did you consider holding onto the ABC part of the name or incorporating the Disney brand somehow?
Ascheim: We certainly did talk about that. We are occupying a space at the Disney company that is between kids and family on the Disney side and the strength with real grownups on ABC and ESPN on the other side. We are a bridge, we believe, between those two zones. But to be a strong brand that speaks so specifically and vividly to our audience the same way the other great brands do, we thought it needed to stand on its own.

What will you be doing between now and January to roll out the new name? Will you be incorporating talent from the shows?
Cox-Hagan: We’re going to be using all of our major platforms and franchises and talent as a giant megaphone to let our current and new audiences know that Freeform is coming. So when “Pretty Little Liars,” our most popular show, returns in January, there will be a lot of Freeform messaging associated with it. Also, when “Shadowhunters,” our new saga, launches in January, the whole campaign will also be tied in with Freeform.

If you can just get [“Pretty Little Liars” star] Shay Mitchell to tweet about it once, that should take care of everything, right?
Cox-Hagan: Already on it. Already on it.

There have been a few rebrands in recent years — Style to Esquire, TV Guide to Pop, Bio to FYI. Why have we seen so many?
Ascheim: Cable got started 30-odd years ago and it was all about expanding for a while. Then there was a moment when I think people realized that there’s really valuable real estate inside the universe, but that maybe some of the ideas we had could be better oriented in different ways. I think it’s a natural evolution of the business cycle, and people are kind of redeploying their real estate so it makes more sense in their portfolios or more sense in the competitive landscape.

You said that the old name over-indexed as “family-friendly” and “wholesome.” Are those not the ideas that the brand wants to project going forward?
Ascheim: I think it’s fair to say that they’re just not the only ideas. We have two groups of audience, the people who watch us regularly and the people who don’t. The people who watch us regularly, we also did well with “wholesome” and “family-friendly.” But for people who don’t know us at all, they only know us for those two attributes.

So it’s less that we don’t like those attributes and more that we need to invite more people in to get to know us. For whatever reason, it feels like the name “Family” in the TV network put up a roadblock for some people. We want to eliminate that roadblock so that more people get to know us.