Off Message March 2007

Brand Aid

It took decades for the media to catch on, but now they're branding with a vengeance.

Everyone is getting into branding! According to "The State of the News Media 2007," this year's installment of the massive report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the media have a new strategy to stay solvent. Faced with declining audience numbers and ad revenues, they are chopping up the mass market into smaller niches and creating brands for each taste.

"Increasingly, outlets are looking for 'brand' or 'franchise' areas of coverage to build audience around," the report says.

Niche branding is not a new idea. Other industries were onto this long ago. This is why the supermarket doesn't stock just one kind of breakfast cereal. Whether you're a Cap'n Crunch person or an Organic Frosted Bite-Size Mini-Wheats person, there's a brand for you.

The media were decades late in catching on, but now they're branding with a vengeance. Media brands are refreshingly different from other types of brands. Unlike, say, dental floss, where the mind-boggling choices range from "mint satin" to "clean-burst cinnamon," media brands have easy-to-understand names, such as "Anderson Cooper" and "Keith Olbermann." And rather than appeal to the taste buds, these brands are engineered to please the opinion buds of specific kinds of people.

For instance, do you ever find yourself lying awake at night thinking obsessively about the phrase "border-security crisis"? Then CNN has a brand for you! It's called "Lou Dobbs," and it's a wonderfully consistent product—night after night, always the same. With a great brand, you know exactly what you're getting, no surprises.

In spotting this trend, the authoritative PEJ report is clearly onto something. Lately, every week seems to bring the launch of some new media brand. Time magazine has just unveiled a whole new look, which The New York Times this week described as "a cleaner, simpler design, heavy on labels at the top of each page and the names of its columnists in World War II-size type—the better to brand with."

Other than its own venerable, red-bordered brand, what brands is Time brandishing? I see they are shipping "Walter Isaacson," "Michael Kinsley," "Bill Kristol," and "Niall Ferguson." Now, these brands are all very familiar, which can be an asset or a liability depending on how the market responds to another rollout of such classic models. "Niall Ferguson," in particular, may be running up against "brand fatigue," which is what happens when a brand is so ubiquitous that consumers start thinking of it as a burden or an affliction.

Brand confusion is another danger. This occurs when a well-established brand tries to fundamentally change its identity. Remember when Coke created New Coke and threw the whole planet into turmoil and chaos? That can happen to any brand, if the brand managers are not very careful.

The latest poster child for brand confusion is Katie Couric. What a wonderful brand Katie used to be, as beguiling as the mermaid of the Starbucks logo—but instead of a fishtail, two lovely legs. The legs were integral to the brand, and so was the smile, the laugh, the hair, the way she bonded with the simple folk who gather each morning on Rockefeller Plaza to pay homage to their favorite morning-show brand. In the land of the brand called Katie, every day was a lark.

Then CBS purchased the brand and gave it a makeover. The rebranding of Katie Couric was all wrong from the start. You don't take a fun, popular brand and make it all serious and sedate. Katie is a Mini Cooper, not a Lexus. This is Branding 101.

Now CBS has brought in veteran producer Rick Kaplan, winner of countless Emmy awards, to revive Katie's brand.

If he can't do it, nobody can. It's not too late, either. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the most admired journalist in America is—Katie Couric, followed by Bill O'Reilly and Charlie Gibson.

How, you may ask, can the most admired journalist be losing in the ratings? Easy: When people hear "Katie Couric" they think of the old brand—good. When they tune in the show, they see the new one—bad. Live by the brand, die by the brand.

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William Powers is a columnist for National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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