A critical look at CNN branding

CNN Branding Strategy

It may seem ridiculous to some that TV networks must develop a brand to remain relevant, but who can deny that some of the most successful cable networks – HBO, FX, and ESPN to name a few – have brands that are meaningful to the audience? Their power is reflected in the ratings.

On the other end of the scale, you have CNN, which is dropping so far in the ratings that even its Headline News channel is beating it. Maybe the trouble can be found in the CNN branding itself?

Original Market For CNN

CNN LogoCNN was born in a different era and defined its brand, not by the self-description of its customer using brand anthropology, but by process (cable) and purpose (News Network). At the time, the brand was both a revolutionary and reactionary response to a perceived need.

Print media and radio snippets dominated the news in those days. But, for increasingly savvy viewers, print media lacked immediacy and radio lacked depth. The networks, at the time, invested heavily in their news and remained the dominant broadcast authority.

What was needed was a new venue of cable access that allowed for an in-depth extension of what was then referred to as “the nightly news.” A 24/7 news bureau. It was a viable idea at the time because it was about news happening now.

As the cable market matured, with the differences between broadcast and cable blurred, the market changed. Competition for the genre developed by CNN increased in the arrival of MSNBC and, more pointedly, FOX.

FOX Changed The Game

FOX made no bones about its agenda and offers. It is not a news network. It is an entertainment network with right-leaning personalities and opinion-dominated news. Its timeline, “We Report. You Decide.” has tapped into the belief of a target audience that mainstream media is bias.

CNN Branding StrategyAs such, FOX reflects a target audience better than CNN branding and, by definition, has a more loyal and fervent following. Those that tune into FOX do not do so to acquire knowledge and information.

They tune in for affirmation and perspective — a perspective that allows them to see the activities and actions of the day through a favorable light.

CNN recognized this difference and attempted to reclaim the banner of “clearest news available”. They hired (incidentally, on 9/11/01), Aaron Brown, who they believed was cut from the same cloth as Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley. A solid newsman and writer, dedicated to presenting the news. Fair and unvarnished.

What it soon realized is the market is not clamoring for such news. Instead, a market raised on People Magazine and increasingly dependent on the Internet for news wanted something different.

When Aaron Brown failed in the ratings, he was replaced by Anderson Cooper and the transition from Cable News Network to CNN was complete. It became a hybrid of entertainment and entertainment masquerading as news.

Reading the News vs Personality

Because a brand is all about permissions, does a “news” network that dedicates much of its broadcast time to Anderson Cooper and the late  Larry King have permission to be the authority on the day’s events? The answer is a resounding no and the result is an entertainment network without focus or direction.

CNN branding StrategyAs a result, in its attempt to be everything for everyone CNN has become unimportant to all. It is an empty brand. (Read about Larry King here.)

The bulk of the evening news on the network represents this shift. CBS covered 10 minutes each evening of the Vietnam War for 10 years. Through it, we were informed and transformed.

CNN covered Michael Jackson’s death practically 24/7 for three weeks and the earthquake in Haiti for over a month. When it did break for news, it has become a shell of its former self.

CNN Branding: Lack of Perspective

Instead of presenting the news, CNN finds it as their duty to present “both sides” of the story. What ensues is a thin statement of that piece of news and then a 20-minute debate between pundits from both extreme sides. That leaves the audience with nothing. The CNN branding is very thin indeed.

It follows that if CNN did a story on 11 pm and showed images of the dark, they would have two “experts” argue both sides. One would claim it was dark and the other would argue aggressively that it was light out.

What the brand of CNN is left with is bad and repetitive entertainment and hyperbole that masquerades as news. As a brand, they need to change and grow up or face the fact that falling ratings are going to be a way of life.

The lack of viewership translates into a lack of importance. FOX has its audience. CNN, in an attempt to be everything to everyone, has turned its back on its audience.

Link to CNN here