The Tom Dougherty Blog
Disney announced yesterday that profits were up by 28%, but there was a disturbing nugget in the ensuing conference call with analysts.
Disney CEO Roger Iger had to fight off questions from those analysts about the future of ESPN, the cable sports giant that have seen subscriber losses, staff cutbacks and a general loss of brand sense over the last year.
No one is suggesting that ESPN is going away anytime soon, but the days of it dominating the sports landscape – and being profitable for Disney shareholders – are waning.
There are a handful of factors affecting ESPN, some of them the fault of the company and some not. The network had been the prince of cable TV, often charging cable companies the highest rate among all the channels available. That was because no self-respecting sports fan could live without it.
Now, as cable companies are seeing subscribers cut the cord, the number of ESPN subscribers is dropping because of that trend. In turn, advertisers are looking elsewhere to spend their money, such as in streaming services (Hulu), social media (Facebook, Twitter) and sponsorships.
ESPN was once the bully, but now it is becoming the weakling at the beach. It has laid off hundreds of workers, closed the sports and culture website Grantland, and found itself in competition with other sports networks, such as Fox Sports 1.
ESPN is its own worst enemy.
All those issues can be attributed to market shifts, and ESPN has responded with its own streaming app and continuing to dominate certain sports, like college basketball.
If you look deeper, though, you see that ESPN just simply isn’t all that important anymore. Ratings for SportsCenter, its flagship recap show, have lagged and individual sports leagues (such as the NBA, NFL and MLB) have their own highlight channels.
I was once a faithful viewer of SportsCenter, but I rarely watch it anymore. For one thing, the Internet (primarily, Twitter) has become timelier than SportsCenter. For another thing, I’ve grown weary of its analysts who add nothing to the sports conversation. They are simply boring. You have former athletes who are mind-numbingly predictable or you have the nut job yellers (Stephen A. Smith, Skip Bayless) begging to be seen as important.
ESPN used to know who it was for (and who it was not for). It had wit. (Think of the Dan Patrick/Keith Olbermann SportsCenter broadcasts.) It was akin to David Letterman in the stuffy sports world dominated by the big networks.
Now, it’s just…blah. Market forces are hurting ESPN. But it would help itself if it did the difficult work of finding out what makes it different in order to be culturally relevant again.
How powerful are beliefs when it comes to the self-identification that I call branding. In many ways it is the All Powerful Oz. You know Oz? He is the man behind the curtain that pretends to be a reality.
Not only do our belief systems control and create the purposes and needs that we covet in life, they also shape and filter the information we see every day. I am making the argument that our beliefs control everything we do, use, buy and integrate into our lives. This is why we tell brands that, if they wish to grow market share, they need to personify (i.e. reflect) the beliefs of the target audience they wish to influence. It is not enough for a brand to have the bells and whistles of innovation because consumers view the value of a brand through the colored lenses of their own precepts.
What exactly do I mean by this? The point I am making is that unless you pander to the beliefs of the target audience you will never break through to them. Pander can have very negative connotations. But the filters of prejudice (meaning to pre-judge based upon core beliefs) are so powerful that no message can get through. If the message does get through, human beings bend that message to reinforce their world view.
What people believe about Planned Parenthood.
Here is a politically hot topic example. The pro-life faction of American society holds the precept that life begins at conception as fundamental to their very being. Its members see an attack on their position as an attack on themselves. It is deeply personal. Please forgive me if I am using a topic close to your heart to make a point. I could just as easily chosen from another belief system. This one, however, is timely.
Remember a few months back, videos were circulating on Facebook with a hidden camera exposing Planned Parenthood for selling fetal body parts? Many of my Facebook friends shared the video and many more expressed their outrage over the expose. Planned Parenthood became the most worthy advisory of their desire to see abortion eliminated. As a belief system, this is the Manga Carta of personal identity. So steeped is it in the fabric of believers that it surpasses all other concerns.
So, when the reports started to circulate that the video tape was in fact edited and manipulated, did the same Facebook friends circulate the rebuttal? Nope. Not a one. They chose to believe the first report because it supported the agenda of their beliefs. They did what we all do when faced with information that seems to be at odds with our core beliefs. They ignore it.
But wait, it gets worse. Just recently, a very conservative judge in Texas (in a very conservative state) brought charges up on that video tape. Not against the Planned Parenthood characters. Nope. He charged the producers of the tape with fraud and intent to commit a crime (soliciting the sale of human parts).
So what do the right-to -life believers say about this? Well it turns out to be just another example of corrupt government, reinforcing their belief in the institutional injustice of today’s government. Truth, which is always subjective anyway, simply can’t win and has no place in the minds of true believers.
Brands and marketers who wish to change markets and grow share at the expense of their competitors should pay special heed to the power of belief. If your brand does not understand the preceptive power of the prospects you wish to influence, you run the risk of them ignoring you at best or seeing you as a reinforcement of how out of touch you are at worst. No new truth or product benefit will save you. Human beings covet the WHY. They want to know why something is true and not just simply the facts. Great brands know this. That’s why choosey mothers choose Jif. Don’t believe me? Ask Skippy.
We’re a day away from the New Hampshire primary as the race to the Presidency continues on its second stop. It’s panning for fool’s gold to take the results as a signifier of how nominations will eventually pan out, but the case of Marco Rubio is fascinating to me.
He emerged from the Iowa caucuses as the establishment frontrunner, finishing a close third to winner Ted Cruz and runner-up Donald Trump. He was the one who got the most favorable press out of Iowa simply because he almost beat Trump. The storyline was that Trump was a paper tiger and Cruz was sure to lose in the New Hampshire primary.
Then Saturday night’s debate happened.
In what was a curious strategy, Chris Christie blasted Rubio up and down and the Florida senator was under attack all night. (Surprisingly, Cruz and Trump were largely left untouched.)
The storyline now is that Rubio is too practiced to win as he kept repeating the same message over and over. “Let’s dispel once and for all this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country and make this country more like the rest of the world,” Rubio said on repeat.
As @dick_nixon (a remarkably astute political parody account) said, “He sounded like a Chatty Cathy doll with a stuck voice box.”
Rubio from a brand perspective.
Let’s look at this from a brand standpoint. The political ramifications may very well be damaging as many past Presidents (such Reagan, Bill Clinton and even George W. Bush) won based on the force of their personality and message. An overly practiced message turns you into Michael Dukakis.
Staying on point is crucial when developing a brand because any step away from that brand message is ultimately damaging to the brand. The message becomes less believable.
But there’s a crucial difference in having a strong brand and what Marco Rubio is doing here. The message must be deeply meaningful to your audience.
The thing I kept thinking about when I heard Rubio repeat the same mantra is that he’d better have the right message or he’s going to be tuned out.
For any message to be effective, it must be important to the target audience (I’m not sure if this one is) and different than what the competition is saying (Trump said it was different in the debate, but emotionally it feels the same).
My guess is that Rubio will need to find a different message to have a chance at the Republican nomination. While being on message is fine, the message has been so ineffective that the right and the left are mocking him.
When I was young, I enjoyed arcade classics like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man. Simple games that involved a joystick and a couple of buttons. These days, I am afraid I could never learn what the plethora of buttons do on a Playstation or X-Box controller. Ultimately, I would end up doing the button “mash” to accomplish much of anything. This is why a video game controller hasn’t touched my hand in decades.
It is also probably why the one gaming brand I am attracted to is Nintendo. Its systems have always felt like they were rooted in simplicity. Which is an attribute I admire. The brand houses some of the most recognizable gaming characters like Mario and Link.
A handful of years ago, Nintendo was riding high on its Wii system. A Wii system was once next to impossible to wrangle. Customers would snatch them up as soon as they hit the selling floor almost a year after their release.
Nintendo needs to think outside of the box.
All of this means that Nintendo doesn’t have the same permission to release the action packed, shoot-em up games as its rivals do and must consider a new strategy. For instance, the company has to think more innocently with its games — consider the titles it offers compared to its competitors. Yoshi World vs. Grand Theft Auto.
A few years back, I was contemplating the next steps that the gaming giant should make. Then, I suggested that the company needed to look outside of itself and partner with a company that is top-of-mind, like Apple.
Turns out, Nintendo is doing just that.
Its first foray into the Apple app world was a failed social network/game attempt. However, I have high hopes for its second attempt which will feature a “very familiar character.” This is its best move since the release of the Wii.
By joining the Apple ecosystem, Nintendo’s reach expands tenfold. With Sony and Microsoft ruling the gaming category, Nintendo now has permission to “Think Different.”
The quarterback matchup in Super Bowl 50 is going to be fierce, with the old guard (Peyton Manning) facing the new one (Cam Newton) in a battle of contrasting styles.
And I’m not just talking about what happens on the field. No, a recent poll among industry insiders by NYSportsJournalism.com named Newton as the most marketable player in the NFL.
That means he’s topping Manning, who led the NFL this season in endorsements with more than $12 million pocketed. That’s no surprise to anyone as we’ve all seen him in spots for Papa John’s, Nationwide, Nike, DirecTV and Buick.
Cam Newton, meanwhile, has signed deals with Under Armor, Dannon Oikos, Gatorade, Microsoft, Beats by Dre, GMC, Drakker Essence, EA Sports and Belk. That doesn’t even account for being the host of Nickelodeon’s upcoming “I Wanna Be,” an adventure-documentary series set to air later this year.
What’s interesting to me is that there has been some consternation in the media about Cam Newton’s actions on the field. Letters to The Charlotte Observer have chided him for dancing in the end zone, pointing after a first down and generally playing against the stereotype of the stoic NFL quarterback.
(Never mind that Aaron Rodgers does the championship belt move after a TD or that JJ Watt screams or that Rob Gronkowski slams the ball to the ground.)
The supposed outrage against Newton is actually small and simply a made-up storyline for Super Bowl week. However, Cam Newton is a new kind of quarterback. One who plays with joy. He is often smiling, high-fiving teammates and giving footballs to the kids lining the end zone stands.
Even though I might have some bias because I live in North Carolina, I ask: How can you not like that?
What Cam Newton means to Millennials.
There’s another part to this, and I don’t mean the race angle that has popped up in some discussions. We’re entering a new age when it comes to demographics. Advertisers are scrambling to understand Millennials, the incoming buying audience.
Like any new generation, its members have their own personality traits. What makes Millennials so different is that they are the first generation to grow up in the iPhone world.
There’s not the space here to go into how today’s world has affected them. But our research demonstrates that Millennials are less judgmental than previous generations and a Cam Newton-style quarterback is more in line with their personalities than the stoic images of Unitas, Montana, Manning and the like.
So, no matter where you stand on the Cam Newton issue today, you’d better get used to it. Cam Newton, the marketable NFL player, is here to stay.
The problem with the political party brands of today.
Brand reveals a great deal about those that embrace it. We know that the most powerful brands in the world are those that express the positive aspirations of those that adhere to it.
There are many brands at play in the United States today and, while the political party brands are mere sub-brands of the US parent brand, we need to be careful as to the values of the sub-brands and recognize that they reflect upon the parent and often change the parent brand.
As an example, Volkswagen, the parent brand of the German automaker, has been adversely affected by a breach in trust from one of its automobile sub-brands. The diesel emission controversy has affected the Volkswagen brand itself. We all wonder how trustworthy any claim made by VW itself might be taken. This loss of brand luster is not felt just by the purchasers of the cars and the dealerships that sell them. Rest assured that the workers and engineers that make and create the cars also feel let down and betrayed.
Both political party brands are guilty.
My comments today are aimed directly at both main political party brands today because they are both guilty of the same offense. They both besmirch the parent brand. The United States itself.
Recent polling indicates that most citizens in the US today are furious at the government’s ability to work. Shelby Foote, the late great Civil War historian, once said that the Civil War was a result of an inability to come to peaceful compromise. To which, he added, “had always been our genius.” We all know that the vitriol being eschewed by both parties, while entertaining, is at its root destructive. Look to history to see examples of change agents who created a sense of American accomplishment while correcting government ills. Both political party brands can lay claim to this.
Ronald Reagan, one of the most revered of American Presidents ignited a powerful desire for corrective change while instilling in Americans a sense of accomplishment and destiny. No one could accuse Ronald Reagan of meanness or pettiness. He was at the same time passionate and affable.
On the Democratic side, look to FDR as an example of a President elected in a period of great problems. His positiveness and affable personality guided the nation through its most challenging times. No one could accuse Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan of the meanness and woe is me politics we find ourselves subjected to today. Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil were friendly adversaries. They liked each other and found a way to be united in purpose. As a result, government worked.
Is it possible to be a proud American and think our nation is on the verge of ruin? Can we elect officials who tell us that government can’t be trusted? Do we wish to be party to the sort of rhetoric that is in many ways responsible for the very state of affairs to which we all complain?
Let’s demand more from our emotional sub-brands. Let’s remember that all is not bad in America and that by working together, building bridges and not by constructing barriers we all benefit and our proud parent brand— the United States of America — is no longer sullied.
It demonstrates the how ineffective most Super Bowl ads are that Budweiser’s Shock Top beer ad could end up being the best of the night.
Before we get to the spot itself, there are inherent reasons why advertising during the TV event of the year rarely works out. One is that the cost of buying airtime is so high ($5 million for a 30-second spot) that I generally feel the money is best spent elsewhere.
But if you decide to do a Super Bowl ad, it should be about more than just raising awareness. And that’s the real problem. The companies financially able to afford a Super Bowl spot usually don’t have an awareness problem.
Secondly, and most importantly, ad agencies use Super Bowl spots to win awards, which is why the ads are produced strictly as entertainment. They often do very little to actually steal market share.
In fact, on Monday, when all of us (including possibly me) rate the night’s ads, we usually rate them based on their entertainment value. Not on how effective they are in increasing market share.
At least Shock Top has some meaning in its spot.
But here’s an interesting way to do it: Budweiser’s Shock Top beer ad. This is a beer brand that is not as well known as many of the other Budweiser brands, so its awareness is in need of raising. (Don’t fret. There will be plenty of Bud Lite ads aired during the game, I’m sure.) It is not, let’s say, Doritos who doesn’t have an awareness problem and whose Super Bowl ad is just a (somewhat lame) funny attempt at saying: Doritos are tasty.
No, most of us don’t know Shock Top beer. And the banter between comedian T.J. Miller and the Shock Top mascot is a personification of unfiltered talk for an unfiltered beer.
Budweiser will take that 1:25 spot and split it into 30-second spots for the Super Bowl, and I’ll admit that it’s pretty funny. (Check out Miller in the hilarious HBO comedy, Silicon Valley.)
The big three American lagers (Budweiser, Miller and Coors) have seen their market share eroded due to the rise of other offerings (wine, liquor, hard cider, etc.), especially microbrews.
Therefore, unfiltered by itself is not a switching trigger, but Shock Top has taken that product benefit and given it an emotional (and funny) meaning. It has at least followed through on its meaning, which is more than you will be able to say for most of the Super Bowl ads.
The Shock Top commercial may not be the best in class (I would have chosen another switching trigger and precept that exists in the market.) But, when watching the Super Bowl, count the number of ads you see whose message goes beyond the expected (such as that everybody, including a fetus, wants to have Doritos) and actually attempts a message.
You’ll be able to count on them with one hand.
The Donald Trump debate controversy is both a brilliant move on Trump’s part and an opportunity for the other Republican candidates.
Yes, I’ll be watching the debate tonight even without the presence of Trump because the most interesting part of this is what the other candidates will do. Will they use the stage to bash Trump? Will they bash each other? Will they continue to attack Hillary Clinton? Or will one of them emerge as an alternative to the Trump bluster?
Each of those tactics has a logic but also pose some danger. If they use the debate to take down Trump, it might seem petty because he won’t be there. It could, in effect, make Trump the de facto winner of the debate without him even being there.
A deft politician (and one hasn’t emerged among the Republican candidates yet) could straddle the line between seeming important while using the Trump debate controversy to damage Trump’s brand.
How candidates should handle the Trump debate issue.
If not that, then what are the candidates to do? They could go at one another (primarily Ted Cruz, I’m guessing, as he’s second in the polls) but that also helps Trump. It keeps him out of the fray and his standing untouched.
Taking on Clinton will no doubt happen, but that won’t distinguish any one of them from the others. It’s the safe strategy but it won’t change the polls (or the upcoming Iowa vote) much.
Instead, what’s called for is something much harder to do. There have been two problems facing the other candidates that need to be addressed tonight with the Trump debate issue hanging in the air. For one, Trump (and, to some extent, Cruz) has tapped into a belief that government is broken and that a certain target audience has not been heard or involved. That has left the so-called insiders (Rubio, Christie, Bush) fighting over the same votes, when one of them needs to drop out to consolidate that wing of the party.
In absence of that, though, none of them has found a belief they can align their own brands with that resonates with voters. No wonder Trump leads the polls. The rest of them just sound alike and trite. What does Marco Rubio stand for? Jeb? Christie? What belief system do they represent?
Answering those questions is the hard work of politics and brand building. The Trump debate situation sounds petty on the surface but Trump understands that he doesn’t do well in debates, he has nothing to gain by being involved and that the belief system he represents is about fighting the status quo.
As silly as it sounds, Trump staying out of the debate demonstrates a sort of strength to his voter base.
The only way the Trump debate controversy backfires on him is if one or two of the other candidates take the opportunity to present something new: A brand that represents another belief system strongly felt among Republican voters.
I’m not keeping my hopes up. And I’m sure Trump isn’t either.