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Sunday, February 13, 2005

Observations on Media Brands (Part One) 

Defending Vogue's Evil Genius - The brilliance of Anna Wintour

A few posts back, I promised some observations on media brands. I don't believe you can successfully spin off ancillaries, and I don't think you have a sustainably profitable b2b play, unless you have a brand. But be warned: this post rambles. I'm still thinking it through. And maybe your feedback will help.

Observation One: The true media brand is always personal and human. That is, the brand is created by or represented by a relationship between a human who works for the media property and the industry or market that media property serves. I'll define the relationship in a minute. But this 'personal' relationship then transfers to a relationship between the media property and the audience. And that makes a brand.

So let's break it down into pieces.

1) A true media brand is always represented by a human. Check out the link above for a consumer media example. Yes, there are a lot of people who hate Anna Wintour. But her taste and decisions have created a personal relationship between her product and her audience. There are a number of famous examples of this: Hugh Hefner, Helen Gurley Brown, Martha Stewart, Henry Luce. Some are "founders," like Hefner, Stewart and Luce. But others take an existing media property and recreate and revive it, like Wintour or Brown.

It's easy to pull up consumer media examples like this. And while many of them tend to be editorial people, there are exceptions. Look at Ted Turner, with CNN. He was the human element of that brand. There's no way Fox could have caught and passed CNN if Ted were still involved.

2) B2b media features a number of cases of personal brands. I'll mention a few I've had the pleasure of encountering.

min, The Media Industry Newsletter, has been around for 55 years. But its current must-read status is the result of Steve Cohn, its extraordinary editor. Peter Bart is the reason Variety continues to be a Hollywood must-read--and why he survived the controversies he was embroiled in a few years ago. Folio: was a brand when I was learning this trade, because Joe Hanson built a magazine around his interests and experiences in b2b. I think Tony Silber is going to successfully revive that brand.

3) How do you define the personal brand in b2b? The brand icon (who represents the brand and is the brand) is a player in the market. A mover and shaker. He or she knows the other key players personally. He or she creates a product which changes the market, shapes it--as an insider, and not just a reporter. Brand icons are often seen as quirky and eccentric, but that 'difference' makes all the difference. They speak on panels, talk to the consumer press. Their opinions are sought by market leaders. They're experts. They say what they think, no matter how un-PC.

4) This is not, however, a 'cult of personality.' Media brands can and do transcend their people. No one is, ultimately, irreplaceable. But a lot of media companies blow their brands by not replacing a brand icon with another brand icon. Two examples:


Years ago, I published against Harry Newton (pictured), who founded a variety of interesting b2b properties. His publication, Computer Telephony, became the big dog in that nascent field, because Harry was a player, a personality. He was the ringmaster and emcee of his trade show. His personality was all over the pages of the publication. It was fun to read what Harry had to say, what computer tips he had (unrelated to telephony--just cool things he found he could do with his computer). Harry made people--especially advertisers--very mad, but they felt they had to do business with him, even as he dissed their products, because he was The Man. Then Harry sold off his company for $130 million, and without him, his products withered. They had been corporatized. And the personal connection with the brand was lost. It was very hard to compete with Harry.

Another example:

Comdex couldn’t survive its corporatization. Sheldon Adelson created something amazing--the largest and most annoying trade show in the world. But once Sheldon was out of the picture, the personal relationships started to fade. And then major exhibitors started finding that they could do without multimillion dollar booths and parties, and then finally, the 200,000 people who braved Vegas’ cabs and lines finally stopped attending. (I know that many out there will disagree with my analysis here, but how many of you think that Adelson couldn't have anticipated--and shaped--the changes that the computer market went through to the benefit of the show?)

But again, the brand icon can be replaced, if the media company thinks in those terms. If you're stuck in the world of head counts and revenues per employee, you may not fully understand why your media properties have the power they do, and how to sustain that power. (Here's a question: if you happen to own or run a true media brand, which has a mover & shaker at its core, do you have a succession plan in place? Most public companies in the US don't have real plans for CEO succession, either. And many of the Fortune 500 are run by brand-icon-types.)

5) There are some other ways to see if you have a true brand. There’s a difference between a media property used by the movers and shakers, and a media property the movers and shakers need. I remember being incredibly impressed that Bill Gates was walking the show floor at an event called Intermedia (some ten years back). But Gates was using that show, just as he used Comdex in the post-Adelson era. He didn't need it. He does need Herbert Allen's annual confab. And that's a big difference.

I mentioned CableFax and Ted Turner a few posts ago. Turner used CableFax, but also needed it, as do many cable executives. That's because CableFax specializes in insider information--stuff you can chatter about at a cocktail party. It's filled with irreverance and attitude. If you're a player in cable, or a player-wannabe, you have to read CableFax. And it continues to reflect the eccentricities of its founder, Paul Maxwell (pictured), long after he sold it to Phillips Business Information (now Access Intelligence), because he's still involved with it. Still shaping it. Kudos to my friend and former colleague, Nancy Maynard, for pulling this off.

6) In the ‘conversational’ world of blogging and realtime analysis and opinion, the same holds true. In fact, blogging is perhaps the best example of what I mean by personal branding. The bloggers you trust are brands, because they’re people with opinions you trust. You build a personal relationship with the blogger through his or her posts. I read Rex Hammock because he’s a player, he knows what he’s talking about, his opinions and taste matter. And because he's funny, and thoughtful, and eccentric in his choices of post-worthy matter.

How many b2b executives understand what brands they have and what brands they don't?

More of my observations on b2b media brands to come.

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