The Digital Journalist
TV News in a Postmodern World
To Brand or Not To Brand
June 2007

by Terry Heaton

My daughter graduated from college last month with a degree in marketing and is rightly asking the question, "What do I do now?" Marketing is a catch-all term these days that includes lots of careers, but mostly, it's about selling. The internet is impacting selling in ways we're just beginning to understand, so it is to my daughter and all her fellow students everywhere that this essay is dedicated.

Any business executive who's ever written a business plan knows all about core competencies and their relationship to customers. Media core competencies are generally built around some form of editorial content, whether it's the form or style of the content, the people writing it, a particular perspective, or the manner in which it's distributed. Some would say that media IS content; moreso than the vehicles used to move the content.

The Media 1.0 world of mass marketing is all about core competencies, and the farther down the mass marketing stream we've gone, the more we've viewed media products as property.

The term "brand" or "branding" has its origins in a property paradigm. The most obvious example is the wild west world of the cattlemen who marked their stock for identification, although the idea of branding property -- even humans -- goes back centuries. One of the fundamental concepts of branding, therefore, is the statement that "this is mine," which is certainly an aspect of contemporary branding, too. And as long as media content is property, there's a need to mark it accordingly.

In the marketing world of today, brands are more subconscious and include characteristics such as the emotions and qualities that "connect" a product, company, individual, or service with customers. So branding is associated with the building of relationships.

This is the kind of stuff my daughter and her classmates just learned.

In this context, there are important assumptions that underlie the relationship-building, the most significant being the sense of control that accompanies a long list of strategies and tactics that companies use to build relationships. We build those relationships the way we want to build them, or more precisely, we have the power to build relationships the way we want them. Another assumption is that research alone can correctly speak for customers in the relationship-building process. And then there's the notion that brand management is the straightest path to prosperity, that you can talk your way into business success. A brand is a one-way statement of the value -- to the customer -- of the product, company, individual or service. That value, however, is what we say it is. A company's brand or brands still state "this is mine."

This is incredibly important stuff in the world of Media 1.0, for that is the home of one-directional media. Without attention to brands here, those businesses who function herein would collapse and disappear, for this is the world of an infinite number of inbound signals for customers. Without a way to cut through all that clutter -- and be both consciously and subconsciously considered -- media companies especially would die on the vine. Branding is absolutely mission-critical in the world of mass media and mass marketing, especially in this day and age.

The problem is that the mass media and mass marketing world -- with its tenets and laws -- is being disrupted from every possible end.

  • It's possible now to separate content from the form in which it's presented, and that has the potential to strip that "property" from its brand. Media is also being fragmented by the choices available to customers, and in many of these cases, "free" is a tactic that's being employed to pull eyeballs from point A to point B.

  • Media content is being disintermediated -- the era of the middle man is disappearing, as technology enables customers to get their content (and never forget that they think it's "theirs") straight from the source or a convenient aggregator of that source material.

  • Media is being disrupted by the personal media revolution -- J.D. Lasica's term for describing the explosion of what tradition media companies call "user-generated content." People making their own media -- or tweaking the content of others -- means more choices for eyeballs that used to "belong" to the mass marketing world.

  • Mass marketing is most disrupted by how people are using technology to remove unwanted advertising from their content. This is not only gutting the core business model of media companies, but it's also destroying their ability to self-promote.
Moreover, people are now able to obtain -- with specificity -- those items of content that they want to view/read/listen to and chuck the rest. In the words of the Wicked Witch of the West, "What a world! What a world!"

So what does this do to all that business school stuff that my daughter just learned? It doesn't render it irrelevant, but it does demand a rethinking of those assumptions that underlie media's core competencies and the marketing thereof.

Let's look at branding first.

Mark Effron is a smart guy and a former news executive with MSNBC, among a long list of other news management positions. He writes in the April edition of the RTNDA Communicator that for media companies to be successful, everything needs to be under one brand.

"You should have one brand on the air, on the Internet, on digital channels, on cell phones, on PDAs," he wrote. "That's what you are selling: your integrated identity. To have the station called one thing and the Website another is cause for confusion for consumers who already are bombarded with too many brand names and concepts to keep straight."

This is classic Media 1.0 thinking and completely correct, if the media world -- web included -- was only about mass marketing. The problem is it isn't, and this has led countless media execs down a path of wasted time and resources with strategies that do nothing but extend their brands. At AR&D, we counsel clients that brand extension is an important part of being a local media company today, but that limiting ourselves to only brand-extension strategies is ultimately self-destructive.

Witness the case of MTV. In April of 2006, Wayne Friedman wrote for MediaPost's TV Watch that MTV had come up with a new metric for advertising across all its platforms -- transference.

"In a multi-platform world, the brand is a signpost to guide consumers," Colleen Fahey Rush, executive vice president of MTVN Research told Mediaweek. "That consumers are more likely to transfer the positive feelings they have for these signposts to the client validates what we've been doing with our non-linear platforms."

Wayne went on to note that this idea is exactly what marketers want ("They'd rather consumers not do too much digging. Just remember all those good feelings--even though a product might actually be worse now than years ago.").

Ms Rush's argument appears completely logical, and it is from a mass marketing perspective. But here's the thing: consumers also transfer bad feelings they have for these signposts. It's called baggage, and even baggage that's good offline can actually be bad online. MTV, to use Rush's own company, is a cable network. That's its first identity. It used to play music videos (hence, the name "Music Television"), but now it's mostly shows and adventures that involve young people, many of which are titillating and not the stuff of which certain parents would approve. It's owned by Viacom, a media company with lots of baggage, too.

The point is that pushing brands online also carries downsides, the biggest one being that if you can be anything you want online, why limit yourself to your brand? Going in as MTV, therefore, brings everything that MTV is with it, and while this has advantages for old school marketers, it deliberately limits the universe in which the company can play. It also limits creativity and opportunity.

Fast-forward to April of this year and an announcement from MTV of yet another new strategy. This time it involves the creation of "thousands" of websites from which the network will do business with advertisers and engage with more than just their viewers (they hope).

"People tend to find content on the Internet through thousands of front doors as opposed to one," said Mika Salmi, the new digital president of MTV Networks..."In some ways we're in a better position than most media companies are -- we're where people want to be."

MTV Networks' new strategy is part of an effort by Viacom to reach a wider audience that is spending as much time on the Internet and on video games as watching television, and no longer cares when or where programming is shown.

It aims to build Web sites related to every personality and aspect of its shows, hoping to catch viewers wherever they happen to be on the Internet and on mobile phones, Salmi said in an interview.

So much for brand "transference" and the mass marketing need to assemble people under one roof.

MTV has discovered a great truth about Media 2.0, and one that strikes at the center of any media company's business model -- that edge competencies can deliver more and targeted audiences than the company's core competency. The idea of edge competencies was first developed by new media economic guru Umair Haque and it's now a part of the lexicon of contemporary new media thinking. The idea is that the discovery of one's edge competencies -- and the creation of niche businesses built around the edge -- is a much more natural fit for the web than that which can only be built around the core.

This is not the kind of stuff my daughter and her classmates learned in school, and yet it's the path to prosperity in the world of Media 2.0.

So let's look at a few of the edge competencies of every local media company.

  1. The sales staff. This is a huge edge competency, and one that gives local companies a competitive advantage over the internet pureplays like Google and Yahoo. We have feet on the street, and those feet are attached to people who have real relationships with purveyors of commerce within our communities. If we can bring ourselves to view this as a separate company that helps enable commerce within the community, we'll be better able to explore business models to that end.

  2. News department beats. Every market has special information niches that are built on the unique attributes of the community. Local media companies exploit these niches as beats or special assignments that bind themselves to the essence of the community. Even where these aren't unique, we still divide content into subsections like weather, sports, crime stories, government stories, etc. These are the edge competencies of local media, and they are a perfect starting point for the creation of Media 2.0 businesses.

  3. Production and engineering. If we can bring ourselves to expand the skill sets of each of these departments, we'll find business opportunities therein. Advertisers without a local web presence can be accommodated by an edge competency that allows us to create web sites for such businesses. Technical questions and programming assistance also could be hallmarks of our edge, assuming we can see the wisdom of bringing such expertise in-house.

  4. Other local programming. Many local media companies produce material that is not under the purview of the news department, and these, too, are edge competencies. We need to be free to exploit these in ways similar to the new MTV strategy. Don't think of the host(s), for example, only as a part of the whole; consider the host(s) as a separate franchise.
This is moving everything away from the core, which is essential edge marketing. From there, you can apply whatever rules you wish, but always remember the viral nature of the web. One of the essential teachings of Umair Haque is that money is better spent on product than marketing in the upside-down world of the web. People will find and help you promote what you offer but only if it meets their standards for usability and quality.

Of course, the beauty of local Media 1.0 companies who play in this space is that they have at their disposal a dynamic tool to jumpstart new businesses the old-fashioned way. This is another competitive advantage we have over the internet pureplays.

All of this new thinking is what marketing students everywhere will face as they move from student to employee in the real world. The beauty of young minds, however, is that they are unencumbered by predisposition and experience. Their intuition hasn't been colored by years of plugging away in the rules of Media 1.0. They will be free to create, and that's just another reason we all should be viewing this as the most exciting time in communications history.

© Terry Heaton