Destruction of a Brand

I’ve seen and written many articles through the years about what it takes to make a great radio station. But few have ever taken the time to talk about what drives a station from the top to the bottom.

We’ve all seen the movie… a station is on top for years, and then something happens and poof! The long-time successful brand dies. What can cause this? The first obvious cause is the sign on of a new competitor… but that competitor doesn’t stand a chance to bring down a big brand unless the big brand is vulnerable in some way that can be exploited. Here are the top reasons why big station brands collapse:

1) NEW COMPETITOR EXPLOITS VULNERABILITIES: This is usually because the “big brand” is alone in a format and assumes it will always be this way. Smart operators know that they should be constantly looking at potential weaknesses in their strongest brands, and continue to invest in the brands to keep them strong and shore up vulnerabilities. One of the biggest in this category is the successful stand-alone that runs too many commercials. Just because you have no competition doesn’t mean you can get away with 20 minutes of spots per hour… like Jim Cramer says – “bears make money, bulls make money, pigs get slaughtered”.

2) OWNERSHIP CHANGE: This is a biggie. Many times new owners take over a big brand and the first thing they do is go looking for “efficiencies” (i.e. budget cuts). OK, if the station has it’s own private employee spa – that’s one thing. But most of the time it’s things like “do we REALLY need a morning show producer?” or “can’t we just use someone else at one of the other stations to produce the imaging?” – and before you know it, the station sounds different.

3) RESOURCE CUTS: Taking away tools that the PD uses just because the GM doesn’t understand the value of the tool.  Budget items like marketing and research are essential. You don’t just decide that a big brand no longer needs these. If anything, you need them MORE just to occasionally take the temperature of the brand and make sure it’s still as bullet-proof as you think it is.

4) LOSS OF A BIG TALENT: Usually a big AM show talent. As large corporations continue to kill off big morning shows because they don’t want to pay the large salaries, and those that are left are told to “shut up and play more music,” this is becoming less of a risk. But this is the type of thinking that puts radio in a downward spiral because a great morning show is one of the few EXCLUSIVE content generators on your station…. your competitors get the same songs that you get – but only you have the big morning show – so you win. This still holds true today, regardless of what the big companies believe.

5) CHANGE FOR THE SAKE OF CHANGE: Usually some corporate pencil-pusher comes into town and becomes a self-appointed “expert” on the market within a matter of hours. With total disregard to the nuances of the market, they make arbitrary changes to the successful brand with the thought that they are “improving” it, when in reality they kill it. Then try to blame the PD who never wanted the arbitrary changes in the first place.  As a corporate VP, and now a consultant, I am always careful not to mess with what was working, but rather understand WHY it works… and then deal with the things that were truly broken. As the old saying goes “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

6) CHANGES IN TECHNOLOGY: This is what did in the big AM stations that old-timers in radio look back with such fondness. WABC, WLS, CKLW, etc… all done in by the shift from AM to FM. Interestingly, each of these that I’ve mentioned had FM signals as well… and I’ve always wondered if they simply would have moved those brands over to FM – would they still be around as music brands today? (I know some half-heartedly tried, but it was too late and not done correctly).  Take note, the wifi dashboard is coming – that will be another technological challenge – at least for those who fail to establish brands that users are passionate about so they follow the brand to whatever technology emerges.

7) BAD SALES MANAGEMENT: I love it when sometime tells me “we used to have a rhythmic CHR here, it was #1 in almost every demo, but we simply couldn’t sell it.” Some version of this has been told to me at least a thousand times in my life. My response is always the same – “then get better sales people”. If you have a number one product with consumers, and you can’t sell it, you have the wrong sales force. At WKQI, I had a great Sales Manager, Allyson Hillman, who basically got rid of excuse-making sellers who said that CHR was “too hard to sell”, and instead found sellers who actually loved the station personally and because they were personally fans of the product, it wasn’t hard at all for them to sell. Rebecca Falk, my Promotions and Marketing director, was great at literally teaching the sellers why we could put our name on some things and not others – she and I would work together on a unified message, and between Rebecca, Allyson, and I, we developed a protective wall around the brand that allowed business to get done without putting our name on bad agency ideas. As a side note – some of the added value requests from major agencies were amusing. I could write a whole book on the bad ideas that I can’t imagine ANY station agreeing to. (“Battery trivia” on the morning show for a spot buy from Duracell – huh? Who comes up with this crap? Makes me want to start an ad agency with real ideas – but I digress…) If you are a PD that allowed  “battery trivia” on the air,  you are a whore that should be strung between two cars going in opposite directions and have your insides pulled out (now I really digress…)

8) FAILURE TO EVOLVE WITH THE LISTENER: This one is slow and painful, and sometimes creeps up on you without you knowing. For example, I recently heard a big market  heritage CHR using “listen for the touch-tones” as a cue to call mechanism. I wonder if millennials have any idea what “touch-tones” are or why a station would use them as a cue to call. Dated. Dumb. This is where the “power of precedent” can kill a brand… or as I like to call it – “but we’ve always done it this way!” syndrome. You have to know where to draw the line with change. If you change too much of a big, heritage product, you will kill the brand… but… failure to keep up with contemporary tastes also can kill you. The key is knowing WHAT to change, and WHY… without “fixing” what isn’t broken.

If you have a strong heritage brand, congratulations! Now the hard part begins – keeping it strong. By paying attention to the items above, you will have years and years of success – as long as you don’t become a pig – because “pigs get slaughtered”.





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