Q and A with Discovery APAC's Content Curation Director: Excellent content can emerge from passionate community-building

As the Discovery Network’s Head of Products - Southeast Asia, Rohit Tharani oversees the development and implementation of its product strategy across all platforms. He is responsible for identifying opportunities to create digital entertainment products, production, and content opportunities that enhances the brand and strengthens viewership amongst its key target audiences by leveraging local and regional market knowledge and insights. In this interview with Marketing Interactive, he talks about the important role that passion and community-building play in content creation, especially now in the COVID-19 era.

Q:  When it comes to content development and strategy, what are the challenges in building and expanding a known brand like Discovery? There are advantages and disadvantages to this situation. On the good side, millions of users already watch you and know what you stand for. On the negative side, will that familiarity cause them to put your content in a box and encourage them to view your newer competitors?

A:  We have multiple genuinely loved brands under Discovery’s network including TLC, HGTV, Asian Food Network, Animal Planet, and more. Knowing that we also have rapidly growing markets using mobile, we leverage on that advantage which can potentially enrich people’s passions.

Q:  Has the recent COVID-19 crisis changed your strategy?  In what way, and how?

The strategy remains the same—to power people’s real-world passions through content, digital entertainment products, and more. However, people have had to adapt how they engage with their passions through the crisis, and we have adapted along with them. Using the passion for Asian food as an example, we’ve seen habits gravitating towards home baking, immune boosting recipes, quick and easy DIY solo and group food projects, and maximizing value from your grocery shopping. Spotting these trends, we pivoted our content plans to quickly turn around the relevant content to help people easier engage in their passion for Asian food. We’ve also had to adjust our production processes to keep fresh content coming in, while ensuring the safety of the entire team that remotely makes up our supply chain is absolutely uncompromised.

Q:  Discovery has always been associated with the joy and wonder of discovery and enlightenment, specifically in the sciences. How have you changed over the years and why? Could you elaborate on the Philippine market?

A:  Discovery has lots of brands, including our very popular science properties, but our overall goal regardless of brand is simply to power people’s passions. That happens across a lot of real-world categories ranging from adventure to food, from home to animals, and to dozens more.

The Philippines is globally known for its passion and heart, and our audience base has never been stronger. In a time where people have more options than ever before, we are very much in sync with the Philippines through the passions we share.

Q:  Who are your main target publics now? And what kind of content does the millennial/Gen-Z market expect from you that's different than from their Gen-X parents? Again could you elaborate on the Philippine market?

What’s expected of us is credible content based on real-world passion regardless of age group. What changes is the skew of what platforms our varying audiences use to connect with us and the desired length of the content. I can share that we have a broad range of audiences regardless of platform, including plenty of older folks on mobile and younger audiences frequently watching TV.

Q:  What innovations or new content programming that you introduced recently---and how did they become game-changers? How did they influence the market? How do you measure their success?

A:  Our most recent major shift is our evolution of AFC into AFN because of our drive to connect passionate Asian foodies. After only a few months, AFN’s audience response has been tremendous. Its website, for example, has already surpassed AFC’s highest 2019 traffic and continues to surpass our expectations for eight consecutive months. We’re growing traffic by double digits in Singapore and Malaysia, and triple digits in Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam versus AFC since the switch. Most of that traffic growth is direct, meaning people find out about AFN and go directly to our platforms.

On PayTV, AFN’s audiences have also been enjoying the evolution of the brand, with viewership up a massive 40% during Chinese New Year in Singapore. It has generally been a strong start to the year in all the markets we measure, with AFN competing only with sister channel TLC for the top lifestyle spot in the Philippines and Malaysia as well, where Discovery also had a dominating start to the year after a fantastic 2019.

Q:  Tell us more about your new campaign for the Asian Food Network. What kind of shows/content creation can we expect? And why are you developing this particular part of Discovery? And how will this be affected by the New Normal?

A:  AFN still has AFC’s beloved shows and passionate foodies. The added bonus is that it now allows everyone to connect with others that share a passion for Asian food across TV, mobile, desktop, and social media. Audiences can go from enjoying passive viewing of their favorite programs, to actively experiencing what they watch by getting active food inspiration from our digital platform and community of foodies. To complement our digital campaigns, we frequently run QR codes on our channels so audiences can simply scan and take the experience into the real world. We are expanding our lineup of partnerships to take the Asian food experience into more aspects of people’s lives, including online shopping and cookbooks. I look forward to announcing more of these new ways to engage with our brands very soon.

Q:  Tell us more about the foodies and the food newbies who you want to attract to Discovery. What brought you to explore this particular subject? And what are the stories you want to tell, especially about the Filipino food industry?

A:  What we love about creating a community brand destination like AFN is everyone now has meaningful ways to connect with other people who share their passion for Asian food, including our diverse array of featured AFN foodies. They aren’t all chefs, and like Asian food, they have diverse backgrounds. Take for example, Matthias Rhoads, who came from a 9-5 office job before going into acting and modeling. He isn’t a chef, but he is dedicated to finding good food wherever he can find it. Another example is Frank Striegl, a half American-half Filipino foodie from Japan. He quit his corporate job and turned his passion into a reality, becoming a ramen specialist who is now hosting ramen tours in Tokyo.

Our foodies were selected because they are relatable, passionate, and as obsessed with Asian food as any of our biggest fans.

Q:  How do you balance the mandate to preserve the global brand with localisation? How do you succeed in localizing your brand? What are the things you have to consider? the pitfalls you have to avoid? the objectives you want to reach?

A:  We are a global brand first and foremost, but the objective is always to fuel local passions. We specifically pick categories like food, adventure, home, and life that you can relate to, no matter what language you speak. We add translation, subtitles, or dubbing, depending on the market. We create a local series as well to bridge the gap between local and global. Asian Food Network’s content is almost 100% made in Asia, and we are very proud of that.

We recently rolled out Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia versions of our website and are actively growing our Pinoy recipe and content selection as we speak. In fact, I was just looking at one of our special ube pandesal recipes. We’re also trying some pretty fun Pinoy fusion recipes, including a beef inasal Korean BBQ wrap. If audiences respond the way we expect they will to our take on the classics and modern Pinoy cuisine, we wouldn’t rule out a Tagalog language site in the future.

Q:  What kind of content impacts the Asian market and why? How about the Philippine market?

A:  We observe lots of interesting content consumption trends. Looking into the wildlife space yesterday, we observed that out of the entire animal kingdom, fish and snakes are hands down the most popular in the region. Anything with cakes also tends to do well. Why snakes and cakes? I can’t say why, but I can tell you that these patterns are similar across most of APAC.

I’ve often observed similar tastes between Philippines and Taiwan, where they both share the love for local and global sports, local tele-series, Hollywood movies, as well as fun variety shows. Really fun and thrilling content you can enjoy with your barkada.

In the Philippines, Asian Food Network has been doing fantastic. AFN is the #1 English lifestyle channel in the Philippines, reaching over 17 million viewers in 2019. AFN’s original productions Family Kitchen with Sherson and Must Try Asia are among the top 10 lifestyle shows in the Philippines in 2019. If popularity is any indication, that’s a clear indication that Filipinos are interested in fueling their passion for food and the real world.

Q: In your career as a marketer and content director, what are the 3 most important lessons you've learned --- and which will help you to attain success, regardless of the circumstances?

A: There is no guaranteed success, but here are a few things I’ve learned.

If someone is passionate about something and they are already religiously doing it for free, they are likely to succeed. Those kinds of people are hard to stop.

Secondly, if your project doesn’t hurt or terrify you at some point, it’s probably not ambitious enough to warrant celebrating its success.

Lastly, don’t eat airplane food. There is always something yummier on the ground if you’re in Asia. Good luck.