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The Value of Branding: Oprah Winfrey

By Scott Costa, Publisher, tED magazine

Like many of my columns, this comes from a true story.  I headed to Tampa this week to attend the Independent Electrical Contractors show. That means I got to board a plane at 8:45am and head south on Tuesday morning.  I was admittedly a little sleepy, but had one of those eye-opening moments when I saw the headline in the USA Today newspaper the man in front of me was reading.

“The ‘Oprah effect’: Does everything she touch turn to gold?”

In case you didn’t hear, Oprah bought herself a piece of Weight Watchers.  Technically, according to news reports, she bought 10% of all Weight Watchers stock last Friday at the closing price. That would be $6.79 a share. So, as of Friday night, her “piece” of Weight Watchers was worth an estimated $43.4 million.

And then the deal was announced on Monday morning. By Monday afternoon, her $6.79 a share stock was worth nearly $14 a share.  And by Wednesday morning, October 21, just a little more than a two full business days after the deal was announced, Weight Watchers stock was selling at $19.42 a share.  The stock was just .95 cents from tripling its value in two days.

They call that “The Oprah Effect.”  Everything she touches turns to gold. Her TV talk show was at the top when she stopped producing it nearly 6 years ago. Who can forget her popular “Everybody gets a car!” episode that she broadcast on September 13, 2004.  That was more than 11 years ago. Watching it again is still pretty amazing.

She also did shows on “Oprah’s favorite things,” and sales of those things would go through the roof. She started a book club, and the books she was reading would immediately jump to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List. Ever heard of Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Suze Orman or Deepak Chopra?  All come to you courtesy of Oprah, and all are still extremely successful today.

Oprah started her own TV network, and the speculation was that it would become her one failure. And it started slowly. But thanks to some hard work and some exclusive interviews (Lance Armstrong announcing he cheated), the network is turning a nice profit these days. Some even speculate it was her support of Barack Obama that helped him be elected President in 2008.

Say what you want about Oprah’s ability to create TV shows and popular people and books. And maybe her politics really did not have anything to do with the current President of the United States. And maybe Weight Watchers just got lucky that it’s stock jumped by such a huge amount over the past three days, potentially pulling the struggling company out of what has been a financial nose-dive over the past few years.  But I hardly think all of this is simply because Oprah found a four-leaf clover one day and she never lost it.  Nobody is that lucky.

This is about brand. Oprah is her own brand. And you can dislike Oprah and her books and her shows and her politics from now until the end of time. But Oprah’s brand is wildly successful. Not lucky, just successful.  And we can all learn something from that.

You’ve probably read this before from me.  Apple is a wildly successful brand. So is Nike. And Coca-Cola.  I admire those brands, and I buy and use their products. But the truth is, they are just things. They are a symbol of what they do, and they do it every day. But as Fast Company Magazine pointed out in an article nearly 20 years ago, laundry detergent and running shoes don’t have a pulse. People do.  Oprah has a pulse, and she uses it to live her brand every day.

She told people, and showed them, that she struggles with her weight. Being a part of Weight Watchers is a perfect fit. She read all of those books and she used all of those “favorite products” and you believed they would make your life better because it made her life better. She used the one resource she could rely upon to make her brand a multi-billion dollar success: herself.  It’s time to lean on your people to build your brand. They need to be that pulse for you.

Back in September, I attended the UnleashWD conference in Chicago. I thought I had a pretty good idea of how to define what a brand is.  But Unleash founder Dirk Beveridge really hit the nail on the head. Your brand is not your promise. Your brand is your promise delivered. And you don’t get to pick your brand. Your customers do. So you should have the people who work with you give it a pulse and make sure you are living it every day.

Oprah is also working toward the future, and using technology to get there. Keep in mind, her talk show has been off the air for almost 6 years. Her core audience is getting older. But she has embraced technology and is still connecting with her fans digitally.  As of today, she has 29 million followers on Twitter. Another 4.2 million on Instagram. By comparison, I personally have 28 Twitter followers and my Instagram account contains exactly zero pictures and 35 followers. Now go ask a Millennial how popular both are. My two teenagers couldn’t live without either. So I am way behind. But Oprah is marching her brand right into the next generation. That might be a smart business practice for all of us.

Before you say the Oprah strategy will only work on consumers, and we live in a B2B world, keep this in mind.  At the NAED AdVenture Conference this past August, speaker David Meerman Scott told us we need to market away from the B2B world.  The first “B” is business, and that’s us. But that second “B” isn’t really a business. It’s people. You need to brand yourself and market your business toward people, because they are the decision makers. Meerman Scott says you need to focus your marketing and brand on people with a pulse, not a logo or image.

To be honest, I never really thought much about Oprah before I saw that newspaper headline on Tuesday morning. Now I think she’s a great lesson on using the people you work with to brand yourself the right way.  I’ll be adding her to my list of “companies” like Apple and Nike that I like to follow to see how her pulse will continue to grow.


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