Friday, May 8, 2009

How New Brand Launch Rewrote the Record Books

To say the launch of FOX 40 News at 9 PM in Jackson, MS, was a success might be an understatement. Perhaps, exploding onto the scene is more appropriate. National media rep firm Katz says it might be the most successful newscast launch ever based on the strong demo delivery just two months after its birth.

One could easy attribute the impressive debut to obvious things: Only local news brand in 9 p.m. time period, strong FOX network lead-ins, including ratings vacuum American Idol, dominant outside media share of voice in March, and a robust appetite for local news by mid-Mississippians. None of that hurts. But being on the inside and co-leading the initial strategic process and on-going brand implementation and training, I can poke holes into those theories:

  • On the surface, the research indicated pretty strong allegiances by existing late news (10 p.m.) viewers to their favorite brands, so why should anyone bother to watch news at 9 p.m. instead of entertainment fare?

  • The ratings generated by FOX 40 News at 9 p.m. during the March 2009 sweep were virtually as strong on non-American Idol nights.

  • An effective media buy can help create awareness but it doesn't guarantee anything will happen, including sampling. Today, even for strong, established brands, loyalty is conditional. In a diary market like Jackson, where news brand partisanship was already established, getting people to actually remember and write down that they watched our new brand rather than their favorites is so far beyond just sampling.

Happenstance nor serendipity was a conspirator in the successful launch. This was a premeditated, orchestrated, inside-out, strategic assault, to win the minds of Mid-Mississippians. And here is the process that we engaged, which can also work for you whether you're launching a new brand, breathing new life into a brand growing stale, or refocusing a brand that has become blurry:

1. Find the gaps, fill the gaps.

2. Launch a brand, not a product.

3. Create a brand mission and build it from inside the organization first.

4. Launch with a whisper.

Find The Gaps, Fill The Gaps

Every brand has weaknesses and every market opportunities. If you know where and how to look, you'll find them even in the strongest of brands. The keys are knowing which to exploit and how. The "gaps" have to be relevant, sustainable and something no other competitor owns in the minds of customers and prospects. It's important to remember that even though a product or service may claim something as its own, it doesn't mean your audience feels the same way. The research engaged by our strategic partner in Jackson, Frank N. Magid Associates, Inc., helped find the holes, plunge deep into them, expose competitive weaknesses, and find the opportunities to leverage.

Launch a Brand, Not a Product

This is a critical distinction: launching a 9 PM newscast is a tactic. Launching a brand is a strategy. People usually make brand choices rather than product choices. Without developing a brand strategy as the anchor, your products that represent your brand will drift off course. So, when FOX 40 News at 9 PM launched in late January, it was merely a plank, albeit an important one, in the overall brand strategy.

Another critical piece of the strategy was changing the mindset inside the organization from thinking like broadcasters to thinking like "news and information providers on the first available platform." Thus, was launched a half a year before the broadcast news debut. While the benefits of launching on the Web weren't obvious to a team of broadcast-hungry journalists, there were many including (and most importantly) how to be deliver the brand in a Web-specific way. A talented but mostly green team also benefited by forming critical relationships, building local sources and learning the market well before the broadcast news switch was ever flipped.

Create A Brand Mission and Build It From Inside The Organization First

I've been called a slogan-hater. Nothing could be further from the truth. But I do hate bad slogans, which I define as anything that isn't instantly recognizable as the uniqueness and essence of your brand. That's why I was/am a fan of "Everyday Low Prices," "The Ultimate Driving Machine" and "Just Do It." But all too often you end up with the likes of, "Travel Should Take You Places," "Life. Well Spent" and "More Driving Pleasure." How many different logos could rest comfortably above those tag lines? Too many. Two is too many. In case you're wondering, it's Hilton, Sears and BMW, respectively.

Conversely, when you think search, sexy lingerie or fried chicken, what instantly comes to mind? Of course, Google, Victoria's Secret and KFC, respectively. The point is a brand is about an idea, concept or approach. Would you rather have a slogan like "Feel the Difference" or own a powerful idea like, "safety?"

In Jackson, the research led us to a certain approach, which I won't reveal out of respect for those still affiliated with the brand. But rather than create a slogan, a more externally-focused communication tool, we articulated the approach in a brand mission, an internally governed road map to creating a unique, focused and sustainable brand. Why a brand mission? How does it differ from a company mission statement?

A brand mission is just as sounds, a mission and a path to creating a brand. It's usually distilled in a few sentences, focuses on unique value, relevance, and style and tone, and clarifies what you do, why you do it and how you do it for the entire organization to fulfill. A great brand mission should leave no doubt as to who you are and who you aren't! Two of my favorite brand missions are Google's, "Do No Evil" and Ritz-Carlton's, "We are Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen." Brilliant! A company mission statement is usually chock full of superiority claims rather than points of differentiation, aspirations rather than tangible ways to deliver, and platitudes rather than straight talk. They are generally full of something else!

Another way to distinguish between brand and company mission is the wall test. A great brand mission should only be able to hang on one wall, yours. Corporate missions can usually hang on any company's wall.

Following this line of thinking, The Station for FOX 40 News brand mission became the strategy and entire focus of the organization, and every one's responsibility. That's the only way to truly bring your brand to life. It also must be driven from the top down, you must bleed it from everything you do and base every decision you make on it. Right now, in this tough economy, too many decisions are being made in boardrooms rather than in brand rooms. Remember, brands are about and for the consumer. While these tactics might keep your brand afloat in the short term, where will it be when the economy recovers? Are you telling consumers that your brand is bailing on them at a time when they need things they can count on? I'd hate for my brand to be in that boat. But if you have a brand mission in place, and are anchoring all your decisions to it, there is a good chance it wouldn't need a life jacket. Why hasn't Honda offered an assurance or buy-back program? It doesn't need one! It is being true to its brand yet economically relevant by focusing on how it's higher quality and lower maintenance costs equate to lower ownership costs.

Ultimately, you must hold everyone inside your organization and everything you do accountable to your brand mission. Otherwise, it will never become true, never become authentic, never sustain you during downturns. It will just end up being like a corporate mission: not worth the paper it's printed on!

Every aspect of the strategy we devised focused on bringing the brand mission to life, even down to the name, Your Station for FOX 40 News. Rather than forgettable call letters or multiple names like FOX 40 for the station and FOX 40 News for news products, we went with just one for simplicity, to provide distinction in a sea of call sign-driven monikers, and signal to viewers and internal stakeholders alike what is our priority.

In the year leading up to launch, top station executives Leigh White and Mark Kunkel built in daily accountability's for ensuring organization-wide brand compliance They even provided severe weather training from the National Weather Service to certify every single employee as trained storm spotters.

In the meantime, Magid V.P. and consultant, Pete Seyfer, and I created and spearheaded on-going brand training, not just for the news and marketing, the "face" of the brand mission, but for every person, every department in the station. Every little detail like how to properly answer the phone, the role account executives were to play in the brand and not just dealing with clients and prospects, to what every second of FOX 40 News at 9 PM would look, sound and feel like, and everything in between, was orchestrated and aligned to deliver on the brand mission. It's the only way to ensure every interaction customers, prospects, clients, community partners, etc., have with your brand is consistent and delivers, no over-delivers, on the expectation you create.

Launch with a Whisper

How can you place a media buy and still call it a soft launch? It depends on how you define "soft launch." It's one thing to let people know about a new product. It's another thing to anoint it. Huh?

Let me explain it this way: The launch campaign promoted the arrival of the newscast and in a new time period, but it never directly reveals the actual brand strategy. No other expectation was created, other than one guerrilla tactic to create sampling: All the important weather and news in the first 10 minutes (guerrilla because it's an hour-long newscast). Anytime you launch a new product, even with all the advance strategic planning and brand training, orientation, systems, rehearsals, etc., the likelihood that your product will live up to a prematurely anointed expectation, is slim. That's troublesome because your brand only gets one chance to make a first impression. You risk creating brand baggage, which you have to offload before you can get back to building it. Most importantly, if you are truly living your brand mission every single moment, your audience should have no doubt, and immediately, as to what you are all about.

This approach makes sense for brands in virtually all product categories - not just media - because of how congested all have truly become, and how many me-too products and services are out there making me-too claims. If you're still skeptical, I suggest you explore the launches of Google, Starbucks, Hugo Boss, Haagen-Dazs, YouTube and Swatch, to name a few. They avoided traditional media. In fact, some never uttered a paid word.

Bottom Line

What it comes down to is that branding is really how you walk the walk. Advertising is how you talk the walk. Developing a brand mission to crystallize how you put one foot in front of the other, making it your entire organization's only focus, driving expectations and accountability from the CEO's chair down through the entire organization, and creating and implementing systems, mandatories, on-going training, feedback, evaluations and accountability's that you hold people to every single day, before you ever utter a word publicly, is the best approach to creating an authentic, lasting brand experience for customers and prospects, and a brand-driven culture that will provide immediate rewards and continue to lift and grow your brand well into the future.

1 comment:

  1. Kurt, you did an AMAZING job with the launch of the news. I learned so much from all the effort that you put in and I was thrilled to see the ratings for YOU so that you could see what your hard work produced. :D Will drop you a line soon! Great work here...