Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Why Oprah Ain't No Brand

The problem with success is that nobody knows exactly why it happens. All kinds of pundits will spout all kinds of aphorisms telling you about how success is built on failure. Or persistence. Or talent. The truth is that nobody really knows why success happens. Just as often, mere luck plays into it.

For example, you could be the smartest, most affable, nicest creative guy on the block, but if you don't know the right people, none of your ideas could ever materialize into huge personal fortune. On the other hand, you could be the winner of the Lucky Sperm Club, born into a well-moneyed family whose days' concerns fall somewhere between where to have lunch and which golf course to play. I knew a guy like that. His fabulously successful "career" consisted of nothing more than generating sales for companies by making a few well-placed phone calls. Six brief calls to six old frat brothers and his sales quotas for the year were fulfilled.

Unfortunately, the rest of this guy's life wasn't as successful. Beset by family, social, psychological and medical problems, his life remained moneyed but miserable, prompting him to question why the rest of his life wasn't as successful as his business life. After all, he just assumed he had the Midas touch. He figured if he were successful in one area of his life, he ought to be just as successful in every other.

Well, I'm here to tell you it doesn't work that way. Not for him, you, me -- or Oprah Winfrey.

Years back, the entire entertainment industry subjected the viewing public to a crudely orchestrated display of crocodile tears as Oprah announced -- a full year ahead of schedule -- that she would be ending her famous talk show. Amidst the blubbering hugs and moans were consistent announcements of the imminent launch of the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), where viewers would be able to nurse their Oprah addictions by watching All Things Oprah all day long. Mind you, Oprah herself wouldn't be in the room. The network would simply be the product of stuff on which Oprah bestowed her blessing -- and presumably, her own Midas touch.

But it was not to be. In fact, to this day, media and marketing pundits across the land are lifting their gaze from their navels and scratching their heads as to why OWN is such a consistent loser. The channel stumbled out of the gate and has never done any better since. How could this happen -- to Oprah?

The answer is simple: Oprah was not a brand then and is not a brand now. Oprah is simply Oprah. People watch Oprah, but a true brand would be capable of expanding products under the Oprah aegis, and the OWN clearly is not capable of doing that. The Oprah Book Club succeeded because it was hand-held by Oprah. Not so with OWN. Which means as long as Oprah is in the room, stuff works. But when Oprah leaves the building, everything falls flat.

This is a pure brand strategy problem, stemming from the common misconception of what a brand really is. When OWN began, everyone was yakking about how "Oprah's brand can't fail." The problem is that Oprah has never had a brand. The reason why OWN isn't working is because it, too, has no brand strategy. It can't survive on its own. Nobody knows what he should expect or why OWN "should be perceived as the only solution to his problem." Consequently, everything there is hit and miss -- mostly miss.

Can OWN be saved? Yes. Will it be saved? Probably not, because nobody at OWN really understands how brand strategy works, so they have no means of setting or delivering expectations to its audience. Oprah's people might know entertainment and media, but not branding. And until they do, viewership isn't going to get better any time soon.

I mean, let's face it: Even Oprah can't buy viewers by giving every one of them a car.