Last month, Warner Brothers Discovery consolidated its streaming apps by rebranding the “HBO Max” app as simply “Max.” Like many people, I shuddered as another corporate conglomerate discarded a well-cultivated brand. After all, HBO has spent decades building a brand known for prestige television. Shows like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Game of Thrones, The Larry Sanders Show, The Last of Us, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and my personal favorite, The Wire, have earned HBO a reputation for gritty, challenging, high quality shows for adults.
A few months ago, I wrote about how people often choose brands because they make up part of their social identity. In other words, they affiliate themselves with particular brands because it's a way for them to send a message to other people about who they are. When I say that I am an HBO fan, what I am saying is that I enjoy challenging television. When I'm sending this message to others, the key is not just about what the HBO brand is; it's also about what it's not. By saying that I am an HBO fan, I am implicitly rejecting the type of low quality television put out by the Kardashian clan. In other words, I like to watch HBO because I am a television snob.
A recent Variety article explained the company's justification for the rebrand: “To signal a broader programming mix” and “to make the flagship streamer more family friendly.” In other words, the company wants to combine the HBO brand with the opposite of what it currently is. Mythbusters and Dirty Jobs, two of the popular vanguards of the Discovery Channel, are the type of shows that I expect to be on in the background when I drop my car off for repairs at the dealership; they couldn't be farther from Barry or Boardwalk Empire, which are smart shows that require you to pay attention. (Meanwhile, complaining that HBO isn't family friendly is like complaining that Pixar doesn't have any racy R-rated movies. No s***, Sherlock. That's the point!)
Perhaps my feelings on the topic aren't surprising given that my roots lie in Alternative Rock radio, which, as the name of the format implies, defines itself by rejecting something else. In fact, I choose to consume many brands because of what they're not. And I'm not alone.
Many brands are built on the idea of exclusivity. For example, CrossFit's exclusivity stands in stark contrast to Planet Fitness' inclusivity. The entire appeal of CrossFit is the idea that not everybody can do it. CrossFit adopting a “no grunting policy” to make everyone feel welcome makes about as much sense as a Harley Davidson for Soccer Moms.
In the digital era, companies have prioritized growth over everything else. To do this, they have aimed to be everything to everyone — think Amazon, Wal-Mart, Netflix, Spotify, etc. These companies are aggregators. The value that they offer is variety and convenience. But this places them in direct conflict with brands that explicitly reject the idea that they're for everybody.
What happens when a corporation focused on growth acquires a brand that, by definition, isn't for everyone?
Don't Be Quick to Dispose of Brands
While Warner Brothers Discovery didn't discard the HBO brand outright, by combining HBO into an app with channels that have the opposite brand image, they effectively undermined it. The HBO brand has been diminished in favor of of a larger corporate plan.
Like companies in many other industries, radio broadcasters have been too quick to discard established brands. I have been fortunate to work for some fantastic brands — K-Rock in New York City, WBCN in Boston, The End in Seattle, The Point in St. Louis, Mix 106.5 in Silicon Valley, and WBRU in Providence — but many of them are gone, abandoned by their corporate owners. I think this was short-sighted.
There are two types of assets: those that appreciate (get more valuable with time), and those that depreciate (get less valuable over time). Radio towers are depreciating assets. They will be worth less in ten years than they are today. But a well-cultivated brand appreciates. With the passage of time, people become more familiar with a brand, and its power grows.
That's why I was so excited to see the return of Live 105 in San Francisco last week. Live 105 is one of the few stations that I am more familiar with as a listener than as an industry insider. Live 105 was my favorite station when I was young. It was the first station that I ever set foot in: In high school, I visited the station to interview morning man Alex Bennett for my school's newspaper. Like many Bay Area residents, I have developed an affinity for the brand that can't be replicated quickly no matter how big your marketing budget is.
I would rather own the brand than the tower. The brand can be leveraged in new, exciting, and more profitable ways. Live 105 could become a website or a magazine or a podcast collective or a concert series or all of the above. But the radio tower will only ever be a radio tower.
As an industry, we should take better care of our more heritage brands. They are very very difficult to replace.
The Rise of Public Facing Corporate Radio Brands
When I embarked upon my career in radio in the 90s, the companies behind the call letters were unknown to the audience. NPR, which doesn't actually own the stations that its programming can be heard on, was perhaps the only widely recognized radio brand. That changed when Clear Channel successfully rebranded itself as iHeart Media. A few years ago, Entercom followed suit by rebranding as Audacy. This weren't just company name changes; they also represent an overt effort to build a public-facing brand from what had largely been invisible parent corporations.
I think these moves make a lot of sense. To compete with the likes of Spotify, SiriusXM, and Pandora — or, on the advertising end, with Facebook and Google — a nationally recognized brand name can be a powerful asset. It also makes sense for smaller regional broadcasts to build a brand name that is larger than their individual stations.
The tricky part, of course, is striking the right balance between the corporate brand and the station brands. In many cases, the corporate brand name does not yet have the same wide recognition that many individual stations have. Within any given market, a heritage radio station is likely to have far more name recognition than the parent company even if the parent company's brand covers a larger geographic footprint. This can put the two brands in conflict with each other, particularly in the digital space.
Let's take a closer look at two places where this happens:
Digital Conflict #1: “Advertise With Us”
The first is on the radio station's “Advertise With Us” page. In the past, I have offered tips for improving this webpage. Yet I have seen a fair number of radio stations who don't have an “Advertise With Us” page on their domain. Instead, the “Advertise” link takes the website visitor to a corporate site.
Having run usability tests on dozens of radio station websites, I have seen first-hand what a jarring experience this can be for the end user. When somebody visits the WKRP website, clicks on the “Advertise” link, and is suddenly thrust onto the Vandelay Industries corporate homepage, it's discombobulating. Too often, the corporate site makes no little or no mention of the radio station whose site the user just arrived from.
There's nothing inherently wrong with taking people to the corporate site when they click an “Advertise” link as long as steps are taken to ensure a smooth user experience. But if somebody arrives at a webpage by clicking on an “Advertise” link on an individual station's website, the only thing we know about that person is that they expressed an interest in advertising on that station. We want to use that knowledge to our advantage.
The solution here is rather simple: Set up a specific landing page on the corporate site for visitors coming from each station's site. A visitor who clicks on an “Advertise” link for WKRP in Cincinnati should be taken to a different landing page than a visitor from WNYX in New York City. These pages should be tailored to the intent of the user, who has expressed interest in the station, not touting unrelated client services.
Digital Conflict #2: The Mobile App
Should a radio company create an individual app for each of its stations or combine them all into a single app under the corporate name? This is essentially the dilemma that Warner Brothers Discovery faced with HBO.
While the “Advertise With Us” conflict is relatively easy one to address, this second one is not. There is no single obvious correct answer, and it's easy to see how reasonable people could disagree on the best course of action.
There are many issues to balance here, including how much money and manpower it takes to maintain multiple apps. In many ways, it's more effective to roll everything into a single app.
However, doing so can undermine the user experience, starting with the moment that listeners search for a station's app in the app store. These app stores are search engines. What happens when somebody enters a station's name into the search bar? Is it obvious to them which of the search results is the app that they should download? Or is the app store filled with other apps that are trying to cash in on the station's brand name? By abandoning the station's brand name in the app store, are you surrendering downloads to impersonators?
I think there's a strong case to be made that heritage stations with strong brand name recognition should have their own mobile apps in addition to the corporate app, but there are plenty of reasons why this could be a logistical nightmare. The right answer for a company with hundreds of stations may be different than a company with dozens. Perhaps the best way to ensure that companies find the right path forward is to make sure that the right staff members are part of the decision-making process, including both a branding expert from the programming department and a technical expert who can speak to the logistics.
It's a challenge building and maintaining one strong brand; building two at different levels of the corporation that sometimes compete with each other is even harder. Make sure your company has thoroughly thought through all of the implications of having multiple brands, including any digital spaces where you'll be forced to choose one over the other.
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