Doctor Who – How to Market a 60-year-old Franchise
Your author, with a whole galaxy of Doctor Who actors, including Sylvester McCoy, Katy Manning, Wendy Padbury and John Leeson. (Photography by Paul Phipps-Williams)
Few TV shows are quite like Doctor Who. A programme that was only ever intended to fill a slot between sports showcase Grandstand and pop programme Juke Box Jury for thirteen weeks back in 1963 has ended up becoming of the United Kingdom’s most enduring cultural icons, and one of its greatest exports. And now, as the 60th anniversary specials get closer and closer, the BBC and the Doctor Who marketing team seem to be pulling out all the stops in order to celebrate this beloved British institution. But what makes Doctor Who’s marketing strategy so successful? After all, how many shows can get their new theme tune debuted on BBC Radio 2, the most popular radio station in the United Kingdom? I thought it was well worth a look!
Where did we come from?
To sum up the whole history of Doctor Who is pretty much impossible, so I won’t try. You can use the internet to do that (say, for example, if you want to find out exactly what Tom Baker called the director of the 1979 serial “Nightmare of Eden”!). But, in terms of marketing, Doctor Who has always been big news. From casting announcements to the news that the Daleks were coming back, Doctor Who has had a habit of making tabloid headlines. In the days of the ‘classic’ series, this was, generally, packaged as a BBC press release, distributed to newspapers like the News of the World or the Daily Mirror – sometimes with a press photocall. (Especially for the announcement of a new Doctor or companion.) They may even have got a slot on the BBC evening news for these announcements. The show might be graced with a prestigious Radio Times cover to promote a new series or a special event, such as the 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors”.
It could be featured on other shows like Blue Peter, Pebble Mill at One or Nationwide, with guests coming on to talk about upcoming serials. And, from 1979, news would start to appear in the official Doctor Who Magazine, a publication which is still going strong today. In the 80s, the fans themselves would even start to promote the show: fanzines, for example, were the first to break the news that Doctor Who was going on an 18-month hiatus in 1985. When the show ended in 1989, this network, together with the tabloids, would often spread stories of the show’s impending return, with often ludicrous names attached to the role of the Doctor, like David Burton, Ken Dodd and even Paul Daniels!
What happened when the show returned?
When it was announced that Doctor Who would return to TV screens in 2005, it was accompanied by a mass marketing machine like no other. Between the show’s cancellation in 1989 and its return, the internet had exploded, and new executive producer and showrunner Russell T Davies saw great potential in using it to promote the new series. WhoSpy, for example, was a way to tease the upcoming series through set pictures which hinted at the new episodes, without giving their content away. Doctor Who Magazine was a key place for casting announcements, while the Doctor Who website became a hub of content for news and features. Even at the end of every episode, pieces of Doctor Who merchandise, like books, audios and figures were promoted by a BBC continuity announcer.
There were even billboards promoting the new series! As the revived show continued, the focus shifted from the physical to the digital, with social media particularly becoming a key part of the strategy for promoting the show. While big announcements were generally reserved for special BBC One programmes (Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi and Jodie Whittaker, for example, were all announced live), news of new castings, episodes and merchandise would often start breaking on Facebook and Twitter. Doctor Who was one of the first TV shows to have a dedicated Twitter and Instagram account, as well its own dedicated YouTube channel, where new trailers have often trended at #1 on the platform. Sadly, however, as time wore on, Doctor Who’s marketing became more sporadic: partly due to the gaps between seasons getting longer and more irregular, and partly because no one was hired to act as Doctor Who’s brand manager when Edward Russell, who had been in charge of marketing, branding and promotion since 2007, stood down at the end of the Peter Capaldi era. As such, the marketing became pretty fragmented, especially for Series 13 (subtitled “Flux”), which saw an elaborate treasure hunt uncover one pretty uninspiring promotional picture, and even deleting the show’s social media accounts to create ‘interest’ (?). Towards the end of the Jodie Whittaker era, it felt like marketing and promotion was just an afterthought, when the team had time and some scant nuggets to release – a far cry from the huge multi-platform campaigns that had accompanied the show’s relaunch, the debut of Matt Smith and the 50th anniversary special.
Where we are now?
Fortunately, with the return of Russell T Davies to the showrunner’s chair for the 60th anniversary, the show’s marketing has taken an upwards swing. While the announcement of Ncuti Gatwa’s casting as the next Doctor may have been more low-key than previous Doctors (a post on Instagram, as opposed to a live show or sporting event), it was a clear attempt to focus more on the show’s social media channels and presence, something that has only increased as we get closer and closer. Trailers are afforded huge pomp and ceremony, casting announcements, new on-set pictures (WhoSpy has even made a return on Instagram and TikTok!) and a new emoji sequence ❤️❤️➕🔷, which has become the impending herald of an announcement. Even the current cast and production team being on social media has made a difference, interacting with fans, resharing their content and generally giving a day-to-day glimpse into the show’s production and the upcoming series. Even traditional formats like Doctor Who Magazine are being revitalised, with exclusive interviews, columns from Russell T Davies and production diaries, which put not only the magazine, but the show itself at the heart of the conversation once more. We’ve even had a tie-in with the Barbie movie, as, earlier this year, a pink TARDIS appeared near Tower Bridge in London, both to mark the release of the film, and, for us Doctor Who nerds, a nice tribute to the 1988 serial “The Happiness Patrol”
Doctor Who’s marketing history has as many twists and turns as the fictional story of the Doctor, or even the production of the show itself. However, with the 60th anniversary just around the corner, the show’s marketing and promotion have never been healthier, and their efforts are keeping Doctor Who right at the forefront of the national conversation. Happy birthday, Doctor Who!
Yours truly, with an old friend...
Joseph Morrison, Cohort 39, Content Creator Apprentice at Douglas Scott Legal Recruitment. Also, huge Doctor Who fan and tea drinker. That may not have been obvious from the above.