For decades, MTV electrified the frontal lobes of bored teenagers, with only VH1 to compete with. But now it’s 2015. MTV is not just competing with other television channels; it’s competing with Tumblr, Reddit, Twitter, and more flash-in-the-pan social networks too numerous to count.
So how does MTV stay fresh to an audience raised in the GIF-age? It becomes a living GIF itself. Earlier this month, MTV International–which spans more than 160 countries, 32 languages, and 785 million households–rebranded itself. What once was “I Want My MTV” has become “I Am My MTV.”
It’s a fitting tagline. MTV’s new bumpers are filled with grinding Sims, vector cats in sunglasses, rainbow unicorns, and more. The whole rebrand looks like it tapped directly into the millennial id, which is, at the end of the day, MTV’s core consumer.
The rebrand is the brainchild of a small team of creatives at MTV International including Sean Saylor, MTV International’s creative vice president. Based out of Miami, Saylor calls the aesthetic “online, on-air” and the goal is to give MTV’s many satellites and partners a sort of dynamic visual language with which to brand themselves–one that is every bit as vibrant and alive as the web. If most companies’ branding manuals are treated like bibles, MTV’s is like an emoji app: a constantly updated digital sticker book filled with fun visual elements that can be mixed and matched any way a local market might want, yet remain consistent across the entire MTV brand.
“One thing we wanted to make sure about this rebrand was that it didn’t stick to one specific, static aesthetic,” Saylor tells me. “We wanted it to constantly be evolving and iterating, like the Internet.”
The rebrand is about evolving with MTV’s demographic. The last MTV International rebrand was in 2008, and it largely dedicated itself to uniting each MTV affiliate around a common look and feel. Butthat effort essentially froze each individual station’s branding in time: you couldn’t change one channel without changing all of them. “We felt it was just too structured in the way it worked, which caused it to rapidly lose its authenticity,” Saylor says. “For this one, we wanted to make sure that all of the elements could be constantly kept fresh.”
The MTV International rebrand comes in three parts. The first is a series of bumpers–short transitional segments up to 15 seconds in length between programs and commercials used to brand the station–by prominent Internet artists like Katie Torn and Johnny Woods. (MTV is going out of its way to court Internet talent. You can read more about that here.
And when all else fails, MTV International has given its network operators the ability to create meme-worthy bumpers just by dragging and dropping. Using an app, MTV’s producers can mix elements like backgrounds, emojis, animated characters called invaders, and music to create fresh–but still consistently branded–bumpers. For example, a producer in Brazil could pull in a Vine from Rio de Janeiro, then slap it on a smartphone held by a holographic cat, while a producer in Japan might grab an Instagram from Tokyo and project it on the screen of an arcade console with a naked green man grinding in front of it. And because the elements can be expanded over time, MTV hopes it will be able to keep up with the Internet.
“No matter where in the world you are, we want MTV to feel like a televised GIF,” Saylor says. “The way audiences consume media these days, it’s disposable. They see something on Facebook or Tumblr, then move on to the next thing. To keep up, MTV has to feel as direct and unpredictable and totally new as a fresh GIF in your feed, every single time.”
Of course, it’s one thing to channel the aesthetic and spirit of the web, and quite another to compete with it. Can MTV International really compete with a digital frontier that not only comes up with new GIFs daily, but runs them through the subconscious of hallucinating AIs?