It appears as though the media industry is on top of the world: a vibrant industry ripe with promise and financial upside. Actually, I'm not so sure. The media themselves have long operated under a model that is based upon two foundational variables:
1. Distribution: the definition of the term, medium, in the first place. The idea that a medium represents a unique distribution pathway that enables content to flow from its source to an audience.
2. Audience: the medium's ability to aggregate an unduplicated audience that is highly desirable to marketers. Historically, distribution pathways were relatively fixed and a bit more proprietary. Newspaper circulation networks were required to disseminate news to a particular community/market. Network television affiliates were required to broadcast television signals across a coverage area (Designated Market Area).
The technology was not particularly friendly to redundant systems. Thanks to digital/mobile technologies, new distribution platforms can and will spring up with limited cost or infrastructure required. Much like the human body that can generate a new blood flow when an arterial route becomes clogged, new media will find new distribution pathways to avoid any clogs in a metaphorical sense. Distribution pathways are no longer proprietary.
The same holds true for audiences. Historically, audiences were much more proprietary than they are today. Media consumption tended to be more concentrated around particular vehicles/properties. Today, in a world of hyper media consumption, it is quite rare that any particular medium can and will attract a truly unduplicated audience that cannot be found elsewhere. Ask any media buyer, and they'll agree that no single media property is a must-buy anymore. A buyer can literally buy around any property and still accumulate audience reach.
The old model is broken: any medium that defines its strategy by virtue of either its mechanism for content distribution and/or its ability to aggregate an audience will likely fail. There is nothing proprietary or particularly compelling in distribution pathways or audiences. The media, themselves, are becoming a commodity.
The commoditization of media will open up an opportunity for those who understand classic Brand management and can apply these timeless principles to the media business. Media brands must live by the same rules as any other brand.
Some media brands truly understand the essence of what they promise to their audiences, and they can do so without having to name the who or the how in their promise. A few favorites come to mind:
True media brands are, unfortunately, the exception and not the rule. From the examples below, it's clear that the media industry has a fair amount of brand management work to do.
Do you exist in service of the sports fan? ESPN is definitely on the right track: it created white space in the highly cluttered sports media universe by promising a service to a high-value customer segment. It has been able to expand its promise seamlessly across a broad array of media platforms. I would like to see ESPN go one step further: can it remove the sports fan audience from its mission statement and still make the brand promise work? Even ESPN cannot own the sports fan. But, it can own what makes ESPN unique and attractive to said fan.
Are you a cable news network? Let's face it: the CNN brand was originally built around a unique and provocative distribution platform for news. Clearly, this positioning is no longer unique or compelling. Today, CNN claims to be the "most trusted name in news." The notion of trust is an outcome: it's earned. So, what ultimately sits at the core of the CNN brand to earn the trust of the audience? The promise is unclear and the health of the CNN franchise reflects this ambiguity.
Are you for women of style and substance? I like to call myself a woman of style and substance, and I happen to read More magazine. But what does More's new positioning statement promise me? It tells me I'm in the right place: but why?
Getting the brand right is only half the battle. How do you flawlessly execute your brand behavior to consistently reinforce your promise? Can you make the hard call and edit out activity that may be appealing from an audience or revenue perspective, but is clearly off-brand?
Why does this matter?
In a world where new technologies can spring up overnight and no one can claim ownership of its audience, your only hope is a powerful media brand that can move where the marketplace will go and do so while remaining true to its promise.