What the cable networks can teach us about news branding


How will local TV branding change in the coming years?  If you want to get a good look at where we’re headed, the national cable business can teach us a few things.  National cable channels like Discovery, TBS, Lifetime and CNN have been through major marketing changes that broadcasting has yet to face.  In the late 90s cable TV went through a series of hard-fought battles that left scores of channels dead by the road.  Cable marketers struggled to deal with two major marketing roadblocks that would reshape the business: withering competition and the challenges of brand expansion.

Today, there are so many cable channels littering each of the major genres that a two rating is considered a superstar success on even the biggest channels.   You want women’s programming?  There are no less than 37 channels that cater to women’s interests.  Cable channels must scratch and claw for every tenth of a point.  Any cable channel that didn’t quickly establish a constantly evolving customer-based branding strategy simply died.  It quickly became evident that good programming could get viewers to sample, but carefully crafted branding was the only way to keep them coming back. 

Think it’s tough competing against four or five other stations in the local news category?   Just imagine how tough it is for the TV Azteca or The Word Network to compete on digital cable channels 292 and 349?  Almost no one is going to surf by and happen to sample the programming. 

Local TV has yet to experience this kind of intense competition, but web streaming, VOD, and the ever-expanding roster of digital channels mean this same challenge will be on broadcasting’s doorstep soon.  Despite all its woes, local TV is still a license to print money with incredible margins.  You can still do a delightfully mediocre job of marketing your local station and still make a boatload of cash.

I do a lot of work with both cable and broadcast TV, and I find that each starts the branding process from radically different places.  Cable marketers have learned the hard way that the battle is won through incredibly strategic marketing and a brand identity that seamlessly integrates that marketing into every pore of the operation.  In most broadcast TV stations, the marketing and product camps are still miles apart.  Broadcast TV starts with its own personal vision of a product, then builds in the marketing later.  Cable programmers bake the marketing right into the product from the get go.

Both cable and broadcast have so much in common.  Both want to attract viewing.  Both have control of their programming specifics.  Both are focused on a narrow niche audience.  The History Channel buys and creates shows that appeal to history buffs.  Local news handcrafts community stories targeted at fickle news viewers.

The difference between the cable TV mindset and the local TV mindset shows up most prominently in the very first question I ask – what is your brand position?  Ask a broadcast manager this question and they will describe their product priorities.  For example, “Our news is all about breaking news, in-depth weather coverage and local investigations.”

If you ask this question to cable managers, they typically don’t talk about their program specifics.  They talk about their audience’s mindset and needs.  For example, a Discovery Channel manager might reply, “We help bored and frustrated people escape their common routine.  We empower them to feel like Indiana Jones explorers and feed their hunger for adventure and exploration.”

A History Channel manager might respond, “We help our audience feel smart and knowledgeable. We reinforce our audience’s high opinion of their own intellect and superiority.”  Sure, these cable managers will describe the landmark features of their programming somewhere in their branding one-sheet, but most of them always start with a core emotional drivers, not a product feature.  History Channel managers don’t just talk about making smart shows, they talk about making smart viewers. 

You will find the same vantage point with most major advertisers.  If you were to look at the branding one sheet for Nike you won’t see lines like “we manufacture quality footwear and apparel.” If you look at Harley Davidson’s marketing description you won’t find “we create stylish motorcycles that provide a pleasant touring experience.”  Harley’s affluent owners are willing to plop down 20 grand for a souped up hog because it is a chance for aging, pot-bellied executives to kid themselves into thinking they are outlaws.  The actual bike is only a part of the experience.  All the marketing centers on the desperado thrill these paunchy mid-life pencil pushers feel when frightened bystanders lock their doors as a leathered-up Harley rumbles by.

Yet in TV news, “look at me” advertising tends to pervade.  A typical television news branding one-sheet will center on product feature statements like, “Our brand focuses on in-depth coverage of major local news events,” and “our branding priority is accurate coverage of major weather.”  Is there any station in your market that doesn’t have pretty much the same basic coverage goal? 

Try to imagine a Harley ad that bragged about the stopping power of the brakes and the plushness of the leather seat.  Try to envision a Nike ad campaign that glorified the durability of the shoe’s sole and the strength of the laces.  Try to contemplate a Johnson’s Baby Powder ad that trumpeted the merits of the talc consistency.

Test your branding.  First, pull out your own branding plan.  Next, get out a separate sheet of paper and a pen.  Draw a line down the middle of the piece of paper to create two columns.  At the top of one column put the word “me” and at the top of the other column put the word “customer.”  Now go through each line of the plan and keep score.  Put a hash mark in the “me” column for every sentence that talks about your product.  Put a hash mark in the “customer” column for every sentence that talks about the customer’s needs.  

— Graeme Newell, President/ 602 Communications. Graeme Newell is a broadcast and new media marketer who specializes in relationship branding using core emotional drivers.  He guarantees that his teasing seminar will immediately increase your news ratings or his workshop is free.  Find out more here.