Oprah: Guiding Her Brand Forward

As if the stakes for launching a cable network weren't high enough, they've just been raised higher for Oprah Winfrey. Plagued by a series of missteps and mediocre ratings, OWN has struggled to find a CEO who could launch a new network while defining the next generation of the Oprah brand.

With the announcement that Winfrey will "dedicate my full creative energy and focus as the full-time CEO of OWN," in addition to her current role as chairwoman, it appears OWN realized there was only one person with the vision and intuitive understanding of the brand to guide it forward.

As the next chapter in Oprah's brand story, OWN has had a bit of a rocky start. Haphazard programming and uninspired hosts leaves OWN largely undifferentiated from the ubiquitous non-scripted, confessional, celebrity-driven reality TV.

But what's puzzling about OWN's programming is that while fans can recognize what is "O"-worthy content and what is not, it appears that Oprah's employees can't seem to see what the audience sees.



The result: they've created a network that doesn't feel all that much like Oprah.

Oprah has built one of the most powerful and beloved brands on the planet by surrounding herself with a strong team of talented brand stewards and innovators. However, to create an iconic network brand like ESPN, MTV or HBO, the entire OWN organization must be empowered in their understanding of the Oprah brand. They must be able to recognize programming and TV personalities that align with her promise and, of equal importance, guard against those that detract from her brand, values and voice.

Oprah shattered the glass wall that had historically divided audience and host by building a relationship with her fans rooted in friendship and learning. Oprah often says, "At my core, I'm a teacher, masquerading as a talk show host."

Now is the time for her to bring those intrinsic qualities to her own organization -- beyond her core team -- and teach them what her brand stands for and where it is going. If she is unable to do this and her brand is not widely understood within the organization, it will lead to disorienting and disappointing experiences for the audience.

For years, Oprah and her team have recognized how precious her brand is and rarely made a misstep in the management of her image. However, all evidence indicates that they have only scratched the surface of answering the fundamental questions -- the what, how and why of the Oprah brand in the context of the OWN network.

If they can authentically answer those questions, they'll have a script that not only keeps OWN true to the Oprah legacy, but also sets the stage for the "next-generation" of the Oprah brand with a future of continued unmatched relevance to her audiences.

One of our favorite Oprah quotes is, "The thing about me that I really admire about myself is I know where my lane is, and I know how to stay in my lane."

That discipline and understanding of herself has helped her to stay true to her aesthetic and in touch with her brand for 25 years. However, as she transitions from a blockbuster show to a network and to a paid content cable model, the Oprah brand must evolve beyond the past and the present. The understanding of the brand cannot live solely with a few key players.

Fans and viewers won't wait forever for Oprah and the OWN team to get it right. Instead, Oprah must forge a new future, shake things up and bring the world a worthy sequel to her phenomenally successful first-quarter century.

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