Media Companies are Not Brands (but they should be)


IMC full-time student Cathy Chen shares a sample piece of work she did from the spring Media Economics and Technology course taught by Judy Franks


If I asked you to name your favorite brands, chances are high you would name a traditional consumer good. For example, a clothing company. Or maybe a technology manufacturer that reminds you of fruit. You probably would not think of traditional media companies like the BBC or New York Times, despite the fact both organizations are recognized around the world as leaders in their field. The root cause for this way of thinking is that the industry has been slow to evolve into genuine “transmedia” entities. Let’s examine this idea more closely.


What does it mean to be “transmedia” and how does it impact brand recognition?


A transmedia brand delivers a single promise that in turn allows a business to thrive in any medium, rather than having to prevail across all platforms.


When I asked you to name your favorite brands, you probably thought about iconic names like Nike or Apple. These companies have been incredibly successful at brand building because they clearly communicate a single promise or experience across all mediums. In addition, a healthy amount of competition in the market has helped these companies refine and tailor their messaging to target very defined segments. Media companies have trouble understanding and replicating this.


What is the fundamental cause of this issue, and what should media companies do to address the problem?


There are more competitors that make up for very fragmented audiences nowadays, and there is increasing competition between media organizations for viewership and relevance. This trend encourages innovation in the way the media engage with consumers. Thus, in an age of media convergence, the division between media companies will keep narrowing, and transmedia platforms will continue to emerge.


To become a transmedia brand, a media company should first become a brand. According to renowned marketing strategist Seth Godin, “A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”


Then we may ask, what’s the cause of this issue, why can’t media companies grow into transmedia brands? The answer is threefold: First, the media is not structured to easily change how it generates revenue. Second, most media companies do not understand what it means to be a transmedia brand. And finally, few media organizations know what their consumers want. Combined, these three shortcomings radically undermine any confidence to take risks in new investment.


First, a vast majority of media companies generate revenue through advertising. This is a barrier to becoming a successful brand. The urgency and immediacy of celebrity gossip and clickbait does not incentivize a sustainable long-term strategy that will help a media business grow into a transmedia brand. I don’t believe all media companies have a firm understanding of how the media ecosystem works and they often neglect unmet consumer needs. Media companies need to take consumer’s needs and the content product itself into consideration to create a long-term strategy. Maybe it’s time the media stopped obsessing over Nielsen data points and began to explore new ways to measure success.


Second, I argue that the media has misunderstood the true definition of what it means to be a transmedia brand. I define transmedia as a single promise that in turn allows a business to thrive in any medium, rather than having to prevail across all platforms. In other words, platforms need to be supplementary to something bigger. Media companies that don’t understand this principle try to be relevant through engagement across new platforms without first defining what they want to say. A media organization should first set its brand promise, then find the right platform to communicate it. For example, Amazon acquired the Huffington Post because they correctly identified their need to become better at content distribution.


Third, there is a fundamental problem with the “separation between church and state” in media companies; the people who are in charge of content are separate from those in charge of business operation. When those who are in business operations are so focused on a single profitable platform, they’re blind to see the benefit of innovation in content and technologies. Therefore, a media company should internally restructure to facilitate better communication and understanding between teams.


Do you believe that certain legacy media sectors are better setup for the transition than others, or do they all equally face this challenge? 

Most legacy players are no longer classified by traditional platforms. We see their presence on social media like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and even Snapchat discovery channels. Classical definitions are no longer accurate so we can’t classify media as single platform companies.

Most legacy players are following similar strategic patterns and taking action for digital growth. These organizations will always have core competencies in their original business models and do not need to push into new platforms (NPR will not attack the TV space, and ABC won’t try to beat NYT at print media). In order to stay relevant, legacy players must make the most of digital and social platforms which their audience is actively a part of. Therefore, these companies need to better engage new and existing segments with tools such as Facebook or Snapchat.

Within each platform, different media companies choose to have diverse levels of involvement. Some media deliver content more consistently on one platform versus another, and others do it less frequently. An interesting point is that CNN, NPR, and Huffington Post are all on Snapchat discovery, whereas the New York Times and Time Magazine choose not to be.

Consumers go to different brands for different needs. For example, NPR dominates breaking news on radio and CNN dominates the same category on TV. But legacy players are starting to compete for the time and presence in consumers lives where they share more similarities in content such as Facebook feeds and mobile apps. Therefore, legacy media organizations who understand the importance of becoming transmedia and know how to deliver a single promise are better setup for this transition.


What are some of the key principles everyone should follow to create a thriving brand? How do these principles compare to the basics of Integrated Marketing Communications?


When creating a thriving brand, one should


  • Place customers first. Consumers choose media brands based on the content they want to access instead of platforms, and consumers will follow successful brands across platforms if they like the content.
  • Follow criteria mandated by SIVA (Solution, Incentive, Value, and Access). We know what we are asking the audience to give up: either money or time (value). And we want to build a brand that that is readily available and accessible from various platforms at the right moment in a consumer’s life. We want to be ever-present and able to engage with them in a manner that fits in their daily lifestyle (access).
  • We have to think beyond the product function, features, and benefits toward something broader and perhaps more intangible. For example, when we see Vogue, we think of fashion. Vogue has conquered that immediate connotation and top-of-mind awareness in consumers and because of that consumers don’t have to wade through too much extraneous platforms to find fashion content—they can just go to platforms where they know Vogue is present.
  • We want to build a brand that serves as a “Trustmark”. We want to make sure that the content experience will live up to its promise.

Last but not least, a transmedia brand is adaptable to changes. In IMC, we are made aware of the ambiguity surrounding the industry’s future. We are able to recognize the impact of new technologies and changing consumer expectations, and how these elements can radically shift the media landscape. Finally, we acknowledge the need for organizations to be adaptable to these influences if they want to be competitive in this dynamic media environment and within the minds of consumers.


Cathy Chen has a passion for culture and storytelling. A happy traveler and blogger, she enjoys telling travel stories in different languages. Cathy became interested in global marketing while living and studying in China, Japan, and France. She majored in International Studies with a focus in Political Science and French at UC San Diego and Science Po Lyon. Before pursuing her Master’s at Northwestern, she worked in international education, public policy, and consulting. Cathy is specializing in Brand Strategy and Data Analytics at Medill, and is inspired to start her marketing career as a strategist.

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