5 Real-Life Companies Cashing In on 'Downton Abbey'
What do velvet pant suits, bootleg jewelry, and Edwardian chick-lit have in common? The good name of Downton.
Realism, it ain’t. In the world of Downton Abbey, war is a weekend sport and young ladies can kill Turkish diplomats with sex. The characters, when not in the midst of a pause, race through history and the corridors of Highclere Castle with breath-taking speed and dramatic flair. Some people swear by the show, calling it "compulsively watchable"; others ridicule its stylized dramatics and jump-the-shark antics, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a person who can’t hum the theme song.
Downton Abbey premiered on Great Britain’s ITV (ITV.LN) on September 26, 2010. It quickly gained a steady following (the first episode alone drew over 9 million viewers) and a 32% audience share. On January 9, 2011, PBS aired the show in the United States, and the Downton craze spread like wildfire. The second season, which aired on PBS this past January and February, consistently doubled PBS’ prime-time rating, according to the New York Times. To date, over 100 countries have subsidized the television series, and Guinness World Records reports that the show is “the most critically acclaimed English-language television show” of all time.
Opportunity? Rather. The following five corporations have taken the name (with or without permission) and made it their own.
1. Ralph Lauren
Fashion retailer Ralph Lauren (RL) released a new clothing line in February inspired by Downton Abbey that the New York Times labeled “one of his best collections.” And while the New York Times revels in the designer’s daring, I can’t help but admire the financial prowess. The company has tapped into Downton Abbey’s main draw, the illusion of luxury, and made it accessible to a world in economic turmoil. As a company, Ralph Lauren couldn’t be in better shape -- it reported a 20% increase in sales this year and a $169 million profit in its third quarter.
Ralph Lauren is not the first designer to market a television-inspired clothing line. In July 2010, Banana Republic released its Mad Men collection to high acclaim. Parent company Gap, Inc. (GPS) reported disappointing growth numbers in 2011. But the fact that it's releasing a second Mad Men line this spring signifies that television-based fashion is a marketing ploy the company found well worth the investment, and we’ll probably see various vestiges of it in the future.
Let’s just hope the next smash costume drama isn’t medieval.
2. MacMillan Publishers
A quick search for the phrase "Downton Abbey" on the MacMillan Publishers website will reveal the company’s new marketing scheme: Slap "Downton Abbey” on it! The publisher has so far renamed memoirs by Margaret Powell (the first edition published in 1968 inspired BBC soap opera Upstairs, Downstairs) to incorporate the smash show; the new title is Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey." You’ll also find novels by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes himself, and a picture book by his wife. Considering that both Below Stairs and Mrs. Fellowes' The World of Downton Abbey are New York Times best-sellers, it's no surprise the publishing house started advertising its modest collection of period novels as a “tonic” to Downton Abbey withdrawal.
Random House has also jumped on the Downton bandwagon by releasing Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, and over 50,000 copies have been sold in paperback, according to Random House sources. The book has been on the New York Times best-seller list for four consecutive weeks since its debut in early February.
While airing the high-budget British series is a pretty shrewd way to take on high-concept television provided by the likes of Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Comcast (CMCSA), PBS' poor attempt to cash in on Downton Abbey in other ways resulted in little gain and no small humiliation.
In January, ShopPBS.com debuted a line of accessories it called “The Downton Abbey Collection.” It included jewelry with names such as “The Lady Mary knotted pearl necklace and earring set." Unfortunately for PBS, it forgot to ask permission first. Co-producer Carnival Films was quick to remind the network about those pesky trademark laws, and PBS even more swiftly removed the line from its website. According to the Daily Mail, profits were not returned to the producers nor the creator, although PBS has issued a public apology to all involved.
Eyeing PBS' success with Downton, ABC (DIS) hopes Julian Fellowes can make similar magic for its network with a somewhat shorter format. The Downton Abbey author and creator will be revamping his caste-conscious formula into a mini-series about the Titanic. The four-part television show will examine the last days of the ship as experienced by the various classes on board.
It will be a well-suited marriage. Fellowes won an Emmy in 2011 (not to mention a slew of other awards) for his work with Downton Abbey, and ABC begins 2012 on a high note: The network won the highest ratings in broadcast television, according to Nielson TV Ratings. On week 23 of the season, which ended Sunday, February 26, ABC averaged 10.697 million adult viewers.
The premiere of the Downton-ish Titanic will air on April 14 and conclude on the 100-year anniversary of the ship’s fatal date with an iceberg, April 15. The cast includes actors from hits like Harry Potter and Bridget Jones’ Diary, but it’s Fellowes who is getting the press. A writer is outshining actors, which means that hell has officially frozen over. Such is the marketability of Downton Abbey.
The largest commercial television in the United Kingdom, ITV (ITV.LN) is experiencing an extraordinary recovery from a post-recession slump due mainly to its boost in advertising. On February 29, ITV shares increased by a whopping 8% when the company reported that earnings were up 13%. This is a big turnaround for ITV: in 2009 it lost millions of pounds in advertising revenue; this year it reported a 10% increase in sales.
What is ITV selling? Downton time. Because Downton Abbey is not produced by ITV studios (Carnival Films in the UK and WGBH Boston are co-producers) advertising is ITV’s main source of Downton revenue. It’s a hot commodity. In 2012, an average of 8.4 million viewers tuned in to view Downton Abbey on ITV, twice the viewers for the leading competition, BBC One's series Spooks, which airs in the same time slot.
But ITV might need to be more creative in 2013 because viewers in the UK have taken note of what they deem excessive advertisement. The 90-minute show breaks five times to broadcast the maximum permissible amount of advertisement time; 12 minutes per hour. Perhaps it could team up with Fellowes and write in Lord Grantham enjoying a nice, refreshing Coca-Cola?
(See also: Three Key Challenges Facing Apple CEO Tim Cook, Bad Business: 10 Outrageous Company Image Busters, and Feds Take Down Copyright Violator One Day After Sopa Protests.)