Sounding Board: Branding in the age of Oprah

What can retailers and CPG firms learn from this brand-building powerhouse?

By Len Lewis

They laughed, cried tears of sorrow and joy, held hands and hugged. They reminisced about good times and bad and promised never to lose touch. But dry your tears, swallow that lump in your throat and open your eyes and ears. Welcome to Branding 101: The Age of Oprah!

As we limp into 2010 with pundits warning that the “new frugality” among American consumers is settling in for a long winter’s nap, more than ever we need to examine why people buy, whom they buy from and how to build a brand in an age of communications overkill.

After watching Oprah (Yes, I watch Oprah sometimes. What’s it to you?) announce to gasps and wails that she was leaving her show after 25 years, I read some blogs and tweets on the topic. Aside from the expected cynicism, they showed a genuine outpouring of angst, affection, pride and concern. It doesn’t make any difference that this powerful and wealthy woman is leaving to start her own cable network. Oprah transcends all things economic. She’s no huckster, TV star or celebrity sycophant. She’s a trusted friend, mother, daughter, sister and confidante to millions of people. She only wants what’s best for you. Which is exactly why she can tell you what shows to watch, books to read, foods to eat and, yes, how to vote.

This deep-seated connection with people isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s why Marilyn, Bogie and Elvis remain commercial icons decades after their deaths and why Michael Jackson is likely to join them. For my money, no one’s better at building brand icons than the entertainment industry—from the massive publicity machines of the old Hollywood studio system to the narrow hallways of Motown Records. But it’s also why we buy Tide and Hershey’s chocolate, shop at Target and Wal-Mart, wear Nike, eat McDonald’s, drink Coke, drive Hyundais and not Edsels and blow our noses with Kleenex tissue. It’s what Sarah Palin is trying to sell and why people gave billions of dollars to Bernie Madoff.

Conversely, lack of sustainable brand building and a less than compelling product message is why GM is pulling the plug on Saturn, why Sears is heading for the boneyard and why Bernie’s in the Big House.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. But there are specific reasons brands succeed and fail—and often do both spectacularly during the course of their lives. In a recent article excerpted from her book, Building Brand Value The Playboy Way, marketer Susan Gunelius reminds us how powerful a global brand it became—not because founder Hugh Hefner sold sex, but a lifestyle to which every red-blooded American male aspired (Of course, I just read it for the articles). And where could you find a better brand champion than Hefner, she asks. Like it or not, this is someone who walked the talk, albeit a bit slower these days, and some would say is now a walking anachronism. But who—man or woman—is that brand champion in your organization?

Industry experts and academicians lay out in excruciating detail how companies dilute their brands yet continue to blame consumers for “not getting it” or cutthroat competition for short-circuiting their efforts. But one of the most common problems is that retailers, as well as manufacturers, tend to sell products rather than brands. But consumers faced with a glut of products, see little difference between them. In addition, “marketing” too often becomes an exercise in discounting because everyone knows to make a product appealing you have to sell it cheaper than the guy down the street. This is a dangerous road to travel, especially for budding private labels. Moreover, this only enables you to connect with people until the promotion expires. It’s short-term financial expediency at the expense of long-term brand building.

Additionally, branding is more than just creating a nice looking logo, adjusting the weekly ad circular or building a snappy website. The medium is not the message; it is simply a vehicle that carries it. It’s about building and maintaining an emotional connection with consumers that goes beyond the seasonal “doorbusters” and hot specials and into year-round loyalty. You may think your customers know you, but what they know is what you sell this week. The question is whether they truly identify with you and trust your message to guide them.

The reality is that your brand is simply another face in the crowd. It’s up to you whether you’re Oprah or Edsel.

Len Lewis, a regular Grocery Headquarters columnist, is a veteran industry journalist, commentator and editorial director of Lewis Com­munications, Inc. He is the author of The Trader Joe’s Ad­venture—Turning a Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. He can be reached at or at

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