Her awareness levels are so high it's natural to assume that everyone with a television knows her and thinks similarly about her. Not so. As hard as it is to believe, people have sharply conflicting views on just what the Oprah brand stands for. She's done the heavy lifting on brand-building, but has not told her brand story in a clear, compelling or consistent way. Yes, Oprah has authentically mastered the most important part of brand-building -- the actions that define her. And she has done that without explicitly stating what she stands for.
As she launches the Oprah Winfrey Network OWN, the brand's success will depend on how well she transfers the carefully controlled actions of her personal brand to this new extension of
herself. For instance, OWN states it is all about "jump-starting health, wealth and happiness." That feels generic, hardly capable of generating the life-changing "ah-ha" moments Ms. O revels in
sharing with her audiences. The OWN site does a poor job of expressing what makes Oprah, Oprah. It seems to show a lack of understanding for why people so love/respect her.
I believe the Oprah brand stands for much more than that. From the Angel Network and Leadership Academy for girls in Africa to influencing the books we read and even the political figures we elect, Oprah is a trusted endorser of content -- a "responsible" brand that holds itself accountable for the energy it brings into a room, literally. In fact, the writing's on the wall -- or rather Oprah's dressing room door -- with a sign that reads, "Please be responsible for the energy you bring into this room." And Oprah believes she has a responsibility to do the same with every show she brings into her viewers' homes.
The big brand risk for Oprah is, just as it seemed she was as prominent as she could ever be, she has dramatically broadened her audience and raised her profile. Her broadened public is wondering, is this a Martha-like play to expand her empire and increase her revenue (with aspirations for becoming the ESPN for women), or is it Bono-like and a way to lift humanity?
For someone whom many claim is principally motivated by a desire to help people -- particularly in a culture where we like to build them up, then tear them down -- that places her under a microscope. Going forward, she must do a better job of declaring what the Oprah brand stands for as it evolves and grows -- particularly as it pertains to OWN.
In a recent interview in O Magazine, Oprah explained why she decided to start OWN and how the Q&A process she pursued unearthed an altruistic clarity:
"I literally sat down with myself and went through my journals and the process of, why are you doing it? Is this my ego that wants a network? Would you do it if your name wasn't on it, if you got no credit whatsoever for doing it, and nobody ever knew that you were involved with it? I lived with that for a while. And the answer was, yeah, I would still want to create that kind of programming-I would like for people to have that space to go to. A breathing space-where you knew that something would always be there to fill you."
A bit idealistic? Maybe. But it's consistent with the enriching, substantive content espoused on every Oprah-branded medium she's ever created.
The risk then is that 24/7 programming demands could prevent her from being the gatekeeper of the Oprah brand. If her own OWN team is unclear what content defines the Oprah brand, then the network will not consistently deliver on her brand promise, thus resulting in real damage to her brand.
Up to this point, Oprah has done a remarkable job of staying true to (and in control of) herself and her aesthetic. Despite her appearance in only three programs on OWN, she continues to hold a tight grip on the mic. It's this control that stands to give OWN its best chance for success.
Oprah has an interesting opportunity. If she can more precisely nail down what OWN and the Oprah brand is all about and who it's for, she'll have produced an all-encompassing brand that creates a place for her own ideals to co-exist with the values, hopes, struggles and triumphs of her adoring fans.