Author: Jessica Lichtenfeld

Stay-At-Home Run: How Your Sports Radio Brand Can Thrive When Sports Return

Tuesdays With Coleman

Judging from the sweat that immediately surfaces under my cloth mask during my daily walks, summer has arrived in Washington, DC. To be perfectly honest, I’m not the biggest fan of summer. I dislike heat and humidity. I have a sizable and beloved jacket collection. I am unusually susceptible to mosquito bites. But there are things I do love about summer. The beach. Steamed blue crabs in Old Bay.

And baseball.

I am not a huge fan of watching baseball on television. Doesn’t do it for me. And I honestly don’t care about scores, even though I want my home team to win. What I love about baseball is being there—I love the crowd, the collective excitement, the thrill of a stolen base or a home run, the hot dogs. The beer.

There’s been a ton of discussion these days about sports and how they will be handled once the country starts to open up on a larger scale. Experts aren’t sure when it will be safe to attend a baseball game in a stadium, but in most cases they’re pretty sure it won’t be for a while and that a ton of expensive precautions will have to be taken. At this point there’s a lot we don’t know, but we do know that we’re not ready yet and won’t be for some time. Personally, I don’t expect to attend a baseball game for at least another year.

The Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox played in an empty stadium on April 29, 2015 due to Freddie Gray protests in the city.

Does that mean I’ll watch a game on TV? For me, probably not. An empty stadium fills me with sadness and dread. Without the noise, it all falls flat.

So what’s a baseball fan to do? Well, as I, a known media history buff, like to say, maybe everything old is new again.

I’ve been watching a lot of Mad Men lately (by the time this blog post is published, it won’t be on Netflix anymore, sorry people), and something in Season 4, Episode 7 (“The Suitcase”) caught my attention. In that episode, Don and Peggy go to a bar and listen to the historic 1965 Ali-Liston fight, the one where Ali knocked out Liston in the first round. Our heroes aren’t paying attention to the whole thing– they’re nursing their drinks, they’re talking about all kinds of serious topics that require spoiler tags, but when the announcers get excited the way great play-by-play announcers do, they sit straight up on their barstools.

Mad Men’s Don and Peggy listen to the Ali-Liston fight on the radio while chatting at a bar in Season 4’s “The Suitcase”.

This is how a lot of entertainment has been for me these past couple of months. I have loved listening to what I used to experience in person. Jazz brunches. Comedy sets. Classical concerts. Lectures from the New York Public Library. All from the comfort of my own home. Sometimes my attention gets diverted, sometimes I need a bathroom break, sometimes I need a refill on my Old Fashioned, and that’s all okay because I’m at home. And the temperature can be whatever I want it to be.

It is a pleasure and a real privilege to be able to enjoy these things at home. But when it comes to baseball, I really want the in-person experience.

Baseball may not be played in 2020 because of disagreements between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association. Whenever it does return, a recent article in Inside Radio outlines how sports executives are planning to handle baseball play-by-play and create safe experiences for announcers as well as exciting moments for listeners. Of course, play-by-play hasn’t gone away and has continued to be important to stations and to many fans, even in “normal” times. I would argue that with stadiums empty and the visual experience significantly altered, play-by-play on the radio is going to be critical as players hit the diamond again.

So how can you take advantage of these unusual times? For your radio station, I would take it a few steps beyond broadcasting the game—make play-by-play an at-home event. Use the new entertainment routines we’ve established to be there for your loyal listeners and for those of us who are sorely missing our in-person experience.

Partner with a local spot where people can order their hot dogs and popcorn at a discount before the game. Run a social media contest where listeners post photos of (properly socially distanced) listening parties on Instagram with a customized hashtag. Disturbed by the idea of canned crowd noise? Make it fun—play the noise from a big historical game and make listeners guess what it is. Some lucky contest winner might get a bushel of blue crabs delivered to their door, complete with newspaper, Old Bay and cold Natty Boh, to be enjoyed at home while the Orioles trounce the Yankees (#hottake #dontatme #gobirds).

All of these ideas would serve your brand. You are the destination for your local team, and you are there for local fans. You know that times are different and people are missing out, so you want to help them enjoy games just as much, if not more, than they did last summer. You can use this opportunity to draw in new listeners who hadn’t thought about experiencing the games the way people did before TV was ubiquitous.

It may not be the same experience, but it can be a new experience… one that takes its cues from an old one that should never be forgotten.

Bring back baseball!

How to Connect With Your Audience in a Crisis

Tuesdays With ColemanAs the world has turned upside down for the foreseeable future, the team at Coleman Insights has been engaged in conversations with our clients about how to navigate the new landscape. We recognize the ability of radio stations and other audio-based media to shine in moments of crisis, and there are already numerous examples of this occurring. On the other hand, we also recognize the lack of an “adversity road map.” There is no playbook that dictates how each brand should respond. Should you continue to deliver your format without any significant modifications? Is this a moment to break format completely and provide relevant crisis information instead? These are difficult strategic decisions. The specific choices are also hard.

Our consultant team has been having ongoing internal discussions about strategies for the audio entertainment industry. The result is the following special Thursday edition of Tuesdays With Coleman, a compilation of thoughts and ideas our team would like to share with you, with the understanding that there is no single solution for everyone.

  • Recognize unusual times call for unusual measures.

Everyone has something to contribute during a global emergency. Regardless of what your brand regularly delivers, your listeners are affected by the COVID-19 outbreak and your response should reflect this. Your brand has a voice and a platform to be heard when listeners need it the most. Known, trusted personalities should play a major role and leverage the intimate connections they have with their listeners.

  • Consider the role of your brand in COVID-19 coverage.

Understand the need your brand fulfills.

News brands have a responsibility to provide comprehensive, relevant coverage. These brands might consider whether there are opportunities to go outside the typical format. For example, does more long-form programming or an increased number of updates make sense? These decisions should be determined by the role of the brand–in this case, being a provider of constant, reliable and trustworthy information during the crisis.

Listeners may be visiting your music station to get away from news coverage, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to stay connected. Does it make sense to employ a “We’re following the news so you don’t have to” approach? This allows talent to play a reassuring role; listeners can count on enjoying content on a music station without feeling like the world will pass by if they aren’t watching CNN or Fox News at that moment.

A full-service Adult Contemporary station may play a more personality-forward role of providing news and information. On the other hand, if your brand primarily provides comfort and escape, like a Soft Adult Contemporary radio station, constant news updates may be a harrowing intrusion and contrary to your brand. In fact, brands built on comfort and escape should lean in to that image, as it is particularly valuable when the real world is more chaotic.

  • Recognize that listening patterns are likely in significant flux.

If many people aren’t going to work or school, typical in-car commute listening levels no longer apply. What about everyone who is temporarily working from home? Or businesses that have been forced to close, like bars and restaurants? Will radio listening increase or decrease?

Reduced commuting will have a significant effect on listening patterns

With that in mind, consider the impact on how people may be consuming your station, podcast or streaming service and the programming options you may have.

With entire families now at home throughout the day, what about specialty programming geared to them during traditional at work hours? Should you do this on your main platform or would offering this through podcasts, separate streaming channels, etc. make more sense?

Aggressively promote all your listening platforms, keeping in mind that smart speaker listening is heavier at home than in the workplace and a surge of at home listening may be taking place.

  • Provide increased authentic and actionable listener engagement.

Listeners will find comfort in others going through the same issues. You may find yourself broadcasting from your home, which may be out of your comfort zone. Rather than trying to project a sense of business as usual, embrace the change! If the dog barks, the child screams or the husband sighs in the background, that’s real life. It’s exactly what your listener is going through. Let sharing be the mantra–you could, for example, have listeners upload pictures of their home offices to your social pages and share yours.

Find experts to feature on your shows. You don’t have to have all the COVID-19 answers yourself, and some of the best content is being generated by personalities across multiple formats interviewing those on the front lines of the crisis.

Anthony Fauci is the director of the NIAID

NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) Director Anthony Fauci has been extremely media-friendly in providing crisis guidance

Consider taking more listener phone calls. Allow them to share feelings and information that may be valuable to other listeners.

Think about brand-appropriate actionable advice you can offer listeners that is applicable to the current environment (i.e., how to work at home while the kids are in online school, the best binge-able series on Netflix or which delivery services have waived their fees).

Modify your tone. Be empathetic to the new needs of an uncertain audience.

  • Rally your community.

In times of crisis, “Community” surges to a higher level of importance on the Image PyramidSM. As they would with aggressively promoting a Base Music or Talk position, brands should be going over the top with their community efforts. Build real community bulletins (here’s what is open, new hours for grocery stores, new restrictions, etc.). Be the voice of the community, invite listeners to participate and share as appropriate. Listeners will tell people where they can buy toilet paper (well, maybe they’ll share that information), who delivers groceries and how to find free learning resources for kids. Post the information on your website.

Don’t just think of your community as your market. Your community is your audience. A Hip Hop station and Classic Rock station will not rally the same communities, but each has the power to inspire, engage and activate their respective followers.

If you make a concerted effort now to think about what you can really do for your community and your audience, your efforts will create a halo over your brand when things settle down.

Consider reading two Tuesdays With Coleman posts in which we covered the important role of radio in a crisis:

Here’s to Local Radio and Waffle House

The Power of Radio in Tough Times

All of us at Coleman Insights welcome your input and would love to hear your thoughts on how audio brands can best serve our communities during this challenging time.

We’re all in this together.

Warren, Jon, Jessica, Sam, John, Meghan & Jay

Changing the Country Radio Conversation

Tuesdays With Coleman

Last Tuesday evening, my colleague Sam Milkman and I had the pleasure and privilege of presenting our findings from a recent study to a room full of Country industry folks—performers, agents, publishers, reporters, etc.—several stories above the streets of Nashville. I’m admittedly bad at estimating numbers of people in a room, but I counted a good number of emphatic head nods, a few breakouts of applause, and a couple of vocalized statements of agreement, so I think we were talking to about 75 people.

Sam Milkman and Jessica Lichtenfeld present at the CMT Equal Play Campaign panel discussion in Nashville. Credit: Daniel Brown for CMT/ViacomCBS

The crowd was gathered to launch CMT’s Equal Play initiative; back in January, the cable net, a ViacomCBS network, announced that it would devote half of its video hours to female artists. This is, arguably, a Big Deal—no network has, as far as I can remember, made such a bold statement with its programming.

The move was inspired by Leslie Fram, CMT’s SVP of Music Strategy and a longtime radio personality and programmer. Leslie is also a founder of Change the Conversation, an organization devoted to improving the environment for female artists in Country music, and she is incredibly passionate about making sure female Country artists—both newcomers and well-established performers—get their due.

It has long been understood that many Country radio programmers limit the exposure of female artists on their stations and have often placed limits on how many songs by female artists that can be played per hour. Journalist Chris Willman tweeted back in January that KKGO in Los Angeles had played two songs by female artists in a row, and “can’t they get fined for that?” Little did Chris know at the time, we had already presented our study to CMT that focused on audience perceptions of this very issue. (Chris was there on Tuesday, by the way, and got a nice round of applause.) How’s that for parallel ideas?

You see, CMT approached us in the Fall of 2019 looking for a research partner to answer some questions about the Country audience. CMT’s goal in commissioning this research was to dispel some of the “conventional wisdom” about Country radio listeners:

  • Country fans aren’t interested in hearing songs by female artists
  • Listeners think male Country artists have better voices and sing better songs than female Country artists
  • Listeners don’t think women play a huge role in current Country music, past or present
  • Country listeners don’t want to hear more women on the radio

Sam and I collaborated with the Insights team at CMT—with an assist from our founder, Jon Coleman—to design a survey in which we asked direct questions of the Country radio audience. Our goal was to figure out whether these pieces of “conventional wisdom” were real or imagined, and whether the Country radio audience in the US would be open to hearing more female artists on Country radio stations.

What we found was heartening. Not only are women recognized for the major role they’ve played in the history of Country music and for their current contributions, but Country listeners are also overwhelmingly open to hearing more from women on Country radio. 7 in 10 listeners agree that they want to hear more from women in Country radio and 84% agree with the statement, “I want equal play for female artists on Country radio.” And when we asked our respondents whether they prefer male artists to female artists, over half said they have no preference. Why? Well, at the end of the day, for this majority of Country radio fans, “a good song is a good song, no matter who sings it.”

As we shared this information with the crowd on Tuesday, you could feel the support and the buzz. We’re at a time where many female up-and-coming Country artists have great songs—that they write themselves or for other artists—and stories to tell, and they’re not afraid to be loud. This room of publishers and managers was so supportive, men and women alike, and committed to driving change in the industry. The radio people in the room talked about opening playlists and letting more women in, and not allowing old industry conventions to hold them back from playing great new songs. Publishers talked about encouraging female songwriters and making space for them. Everyone recognized that change won’t happen overnight, but conversations like the ones on Tuesday are a great start to acknowledging that conventional wisdom no longer applies.

And we at Coleman Insights were part of it. Good research provides an understanding of the audience and, in cases like these, the insights you need if you think it’s time to change a conversation.

Making Your Brand a Habit

Tuesdays With Coleman

I recently moved to a new city in a new state (well, a new district, if we’re being pedantic, because I moved to Washington, DC). If you’ve ever made a long-distance move, you know there are a bunch of things you have to do to establish habits in your new home. You learn which day is trash day, you find the best places to walk your dog, you locate the nearest gym (or Crossfit box because this is DC), you figure out the fastest route to the best supermarket, you find the best place for cocktails and… you find your new go-to local radio station.

But do you?

I listened almost exclusively to one Raleigh radio station for the five years I lived there. I got in my car and put on that station, and once I got to my office I opened my browser and listened to that station until the local morning news was finished.

And then I moved. And even though I’m in a different city, it’s hard to break that local Raleigh station habit. After all, it’s so easy to open that familiar webpage and hear those familiar voices.

Of course, now I have different basic needs. The weather in DC isn’t the weather in Raleigh. The traffic is very (VERY) different. There are Metro delays to think about. And then there’s the local news.

But are these service elements reason enough for me to start a new radio habit? What’s stopping me from going online to find my local information and continuing to listen to my beloved Raleigh station?

Local radio stations have a big advantage over streaming services and national networks—they’re local. If I want to fully integrate myself into my new community and learn what makes my new city tick, I have to listen to local radio.

The trouble is, it’s hard to form new habits, and technology is constantly offering ways for us to keep our old ones. Pandora and Spotify want to be in my car, which gives me a reason not to find a local station so I can have music on my morning commute. Amazon’s already in there with the Echo Auto, so now Alexa comes along for the ride and finds whatever music I ask her for. Apps are there to tell me what the temperature is like outside, and Siri famously tells us all whether it’s raining or not so we don’t even need to stick our faces out the window. I can stream almost any radio station anywhere in the world as long as I have a device and a WiFi connection.

Apple Car Play

What’s more, I don’t even know which radio station to pick! I’m not going to sit in my car and hit the seek button over and over, especially if I’m trying to pay attention to traffic. I’m in a unique position because the nature of my job means I know which stations are available here in DC, but most newcomers don’t have that knowledge. Where are all the radio ads urging me to make their stations my new daily habit?

Radio doesn’t have to get lost in all of the options. Radio should be the habit. Radio should be the first thing people think of when they get in their cars in the morning. Make local radio the destination when people want to know why Route 29 is completely backed up until 495. That’s the easy part.

The less easy part—and I say this because it’s far from impossible—is getting listeners to stick around. Make your local radio station a habit for newcomers and long-term residents alike. Bring people in with interesting content as well as their favorite music. Schedule your contests for specific days and times. Remember to promote your station as much as possible, on the air and externally.

I realize this doesn’t sound much different from the usual advice, and it’s not. But it’s important to always remember that every day, listeners have more options for their daily needs. And someone who is new to your city may not know that you’re even there, so make it your goal to introduce yourself.

Make yourself their new habit in their new home.

When Radio Stations Underperform Their Images

Tuesdays With Coleman

In the course of our research, we sometimes encounter brands that are experiencing a lack of balance. For example, a station will have what looks like a strong brand—it’s known for being “the Rock station” or “the Oldies station” or “the Old School station,” whatever its Base Music Position might be. Its music images—that is, the styles listeners associate with the station—might even be dominant, meaning that no other station in the market competes. Based on these measures alone, the station is doing really well.

But listenership shows a different story. Ratings are stagnant or even down. The station fights for recognition. It’s not top-of-mind. Listeners don’t think of it for much beyond its music, and they aren’t really listening, even if they’re fans of the music the station is primarily known for playing.

Weird, right?

Well, not exactly. This isn’t an everyday occurrence, but it’s not completely rare, either. This imbalance is an indication that something might be up with a station’s execution. A station might, for example, be…

  • Playing the “wrong” Rock music on “the Rock station”—maybe you’ve gone too new or too hard, away from what your core audience loves

 

  • Running too many contests and giveaways, especially ones that don’t directly connect with your music—the “Old School station” can absolutely give away tickets to the Teddy Riley Tour featuring Keith Sweat and Guy (note: this does not exist but it should), but should be wary of giveaways with confusing brand messages or no connection to its Base Music Position

 

  • Airing a morning show that doesn’t connect with the Base Music Position or its fans—maybe the hosts are much older than the audience of “the Hits station” and they talk about things the audience doesn’t care about, or perhaps the morning show on a Classic Rock station plays next to no music when that’s what its listeners have told us in the past that they want

Imagine a Starbucks that had so much success with non-coffee drinks that it stopped serving coffee altogether. While it’s true that many Starbucks customers go there for the green tea and the Unicorn Frappuccinos, Starbucks is, at its heart—its “base”—a coffee shop. A Starbucks without Pike Place would likely alienate its core audience; they would probably still associate Starbucks with coffee, but they would go elsewhere for their basic brew.

That’s what happens to a radio station that underperforms its music images. Too much misalignment of the brand and its expectations and the audience will drift away.

What’s the remedy? While it’s different for every station that experiences this discrepancy, there are a few approaches, and they all involve getting back to basics:

  1. Focus on the music mix. Are you playing the right titles? Too much new music, not enough Gold? Vice versa? Are you playing too much of a style that doesn’t appeal to fans of the music you’re most associated with? Perceptual research can help guide the strategy, while music testing can ensure you’re playing the right songs based on that strategy.

 

  1. Focus on the music—period. Don’t get caught up in too many contests. Or, bring the music back into the contests.

 

  1. Make sure your morning show is hitting the right notes with your listeners—are the hosts working with your core audience, talking to them on their level? Is there too much music during the show, or maybe too little?

 

  1. Once your music position is solid, you can focus more on building your brand. Look to the Coleman Insights Image Pyramid. Become known first for your music, then you can add on, but remember that your Base Music Position is the core of your brand, and everything else should be built upon it.

A Frappuccino is really nice and all, but your core listeners see a Frappuccino as just a way to add stuff to what they ultimately want—a good cup of coffee.

When it’s Time to Hunt (for Talent), Go Outside

Tuesdays With Coleman

This September, NBC will debut “A Little Late With Lilly Singh,” a new late-late-night talk show in what will be the former timeslot of “Last Call With Carson Daly.” NBC’s choice of host for this timeslot is a bold one for the network in a lot of ways. Lilly Singh will be the only woman with a late-night broadcast network show. She’s Canadian. She’s a young woman of color. She is also relatively unknown to the general TV-watching public. Lilly Singh earned her chops not on the stand-up comedy scene or as a bit player in sitcoms.

Lilly Singh is a star on YouTube.

Lilly Singh

Lilly Singh started a YouTube channel as IISuperwomanII, and will now take over Carson Daly’s late night slot on NBC.

Ms. Singh is not the first person to build a career from that platform (we wouldn’t have Shawn Mendes without it), but it’s fair to say that she’s the first person to be plucked from YouTube by a major network and given her very own eponymous TV show right out of the gate. Say what you will about the 1:35am timeslot on NBC, it’s still part of a network with a lot of heritage and a good amount of prestige that relies on advertising for its success, so it doesn’t make its host choices lightly.

TV is looking for talent in new places and banking on that talent. Why can’t radio?

When radio stations and syndicators look for on-air talent, they tend to look fairly inward. And that’s understandable on some level, because we all know radio isn’t like visual media. If your audience can see you, you work a lot with facial expressions and body language. Radio requires everything to be in the voice. It’s not a skill everyone has, for sure. It’s not always translatable from film or TV. Radio hosts also have to be able to think fast and be creative on the fly, read copy often with little notice and, in many cases, be willing to wake up at ungodly hours and make their way to the studio in all types of weather conditions. Great hosts are not always easy to find.

But why not… try?

I’m reminded of major films that took huge casting risks and ended up with something great. 2006 brought us the long-awaited film version of Dreamgirls—who knew Beyonce could act? Jennifer Hudson, at that point known primarily to the public as a runner-up on American Idol, even won an Oscar! Yalitza Aparicio, the star of recent Best Picture nominee Roma, was a schoolteacher. In a different part of the media universe, Megan Amram, a writer for some of my favorite sitcoms, got hired because of her clever and indie-popular Twitter feed. These people all had that something and were given a chance.

Yalitza Aparicio

Yalitza Aparicio was an outside find for a Hollywood feature film.

Now, I’m not completely naïve. I’m sure there was a lot of hard work that went into polishing the performances in Dreamgirls and Roma, and I’m sure Ms. Amram took a while to get comfortable in the Parks and Recreation writers’ room.

So why not apply some of the resources radio already uses into developing innovative and interesting on-air talent? Program directors coach their morning show hosts all the time, and I’m privileged to know some wonderful consultants out there whose careers are built on perfecting on-air charisma and chemistry.

There are already some successful stories of hosts plucked from other areas. D.L. Hughley comes to mind; his established career in comedy and TV hosting have served him well on his nationally syndicated morning show. And say what you will about Dr. Laura Schlessinger, but her ultimately extremely successful radio career started when she simply called into an LA-based talk show and impressed the host enough to get a gig. She was working as a biologist at the time, which reminds me that Janeane Garofalo’s character in The Truth About Cats and Dogs was a veterinarian-turned-radio-host (fictional, yes, but same idea).

My colleague Jay Nachlis knows firsthand about finding talent where you least expect it. Back in July, Jay made the case for hiring someone who was thrust into Internet fame because she eavesdropped on a conversation and Tweeted about it. His argument comes from experience; Jay told me a story about how when he was a PD here in Raleigh, back in the early 00s, he ran a “Search for Supermouth” competition. He hired the winner of that contest, a college student named Megan Sosne, to work at his station—and Ms. Sosne went on to several on-air gigs, eventually landing a longstanding hosting job at KBKS in Seattle and starting a podcast.

So how about it, radio? We at Coleman Insights talk about Outside vs. Inside Thinking all the time, and this is one of those areas where radio can definitely go “outside.” There might be a comedian out there whose brand of humor is perfect for your afternoon drive audience. You might be looking for an additional cast member to balance your morning show whose ratings are good but whose perceptual images are lackluster, and you might find that person on local cable access. Or from a contest. Or from your local karaoke bar.

Or stations can find talent on YouTube. People like Lilly Singh, who are building a huge base of followers that you can tap into as future listeners to your station. Potential radio talent really is all around you, even if you might not realize it at first glance.

When you’re looking for your Next Big Thing, don’t just stick to the studio. Look further afield. Like NBC.

 

Does the Stunt fit the Brand?

Tuesdays With Coleman

Back in June, I wrote in this blog about IHOP’s universally maligned and quite misguided “attempt” at rebranding itself to IHOB (“International House of Burgers”). Apparently that turned out to be IHOP trolling us all, but I do wonder if the “Gotcha!” was always in the plans or if it was a result of public backlash. Chicken and the egg, and all that. Regardless, IHOP, the International House of Pancakes, is still IHOP.

International House of Pancakes ihob logo

Of course, because it’s still IHOP, they tried again, this time with somewhat better results. Did you know that February 9, 2019, was National Pizza Day? I didn’t. (Yes, I’m ashamed of myself.) But IHOP did. So they, for two days only, created the Pancizza, a pizza-sized pancake delivered to you hot and fresh in a pizza box for $4.99. (It’s pronounced, “pan-KEET-za,” for the record, as the box helpfully tells us.) If you are lucky enough to live in NYC, LA, Chicago or Dallas, you had access to one of these tasty treasures for a limited time only. You were also limited to Bacon & Cheddar, Cupcake (?) and Original Pancake. I believe there were also dipping sauces, especially wonderful for those out there who like to mix bacon, cheddar cheese and butter pecan syrup.

ihop pancizza

This time? It… kinda worked. While I’m completely with Thrillist’s Dustin Nelson when he calls the Pancizza “weird,” I have a much more favorable opinion of this stunt than IHOP’s last attempt at getting buzz for its brand.

Why is this one better?

First, IHOP stayed in their lane. I’m not a huge fan of people being told to stay in their lanes, but brands? Please do. The Pancizza might be a little silly, but at its heart, it is a pancake. Which is appropriate from the International House of Pancakes.

Second, the stunt was short-lived. It was just that—a stunt, transparently designed to generate some buzz, even of the, “Um… excuse me?” variety.

Third, the brand embraced the quirkiness. IHOP was not trying to be super fancy and present itself as something it’s not (*cough*Palessi*cough*). The Pancizza reinforces that IHOP knows what it is. IHOP is a place for pancakes, a humble and simple breakfast food for people from all walks of life who just need some delicious carbs. So even on National Pizza Day, IHOP embraced its essence and celebrated with its own, pancake-based twist.

Palessi Branding

Payless Shoe Source attempted a last-ditch publicity stunt by selling their shoes at a pop-up boutique called “Palessi.” The company recently announced it will close all U.S. stores by the end of May.

I kind of look forward to what they’ll do next. Last Friday was National Margarita Day. While I hope there will not be tequila-infused pancakes anywhere anytime soon, a Key Lime pancake might not be so bad.

The lesson here is one that lies at the root of all good branding: don’t try to be something you’re not. Unless you’re willing to completely flip your brand (like a pancake!), remember who you are and make sure any stunt you run is a good fit. Embrace the brand you’ve worked so hard to establish and align accordingly.

Radio’s New Softer Side

At the tail end of 2018 and in the first part of 2019, there’s been an interesting wave that seems to be, on a medium-ish scale, sweeping over the radio landscape. A significant number of stations in the US and Canada have flipped to a Soft Adult Contemporary (AC) format that started gaining traction in 2016 when KISQ in San Francisco flipped and became “The Breeze.” The Breeze is… well, it’s breezy. It’s designed to be great for your workday; songs on The Breeze don’t require you to work too hard to understand them, many of them are hits from years past and they’re all intended to put a smile on your face.

KISQ 98.1 The Breeze San Francisco

So the big question is… why? Why is this format so popular all of a sudden? Why are stations turning to the soft, “lite” music they started rejecting 25 years ago?

My colleague Meghan Campbell and I recently discussed our views on why this format is suddenly so popular.

JESSICA’S TAKE

To me, the Soft AC format is all about hygge. Haven’t heard of hygge? Google Translate will tell you that it’s the Danish word for “fun”, but really, it describes a kind of coziness. Hygge is a movement, a way for people (usually women) to incorporate relaxation into their lives. Hygge is a way to shut out the craziness of the world and just breathe.

Woman relaxing listening to radio at work hygge

I firmly believe that people seek out hygge and Soft Adult Contemporary-type formats because we’re surrounded by chaos. In a world that is so uncertain and seemingly unstable, where information flies at us so much faster than it ever did, where our news sources fight with each other and family relationships erode because of political differences, people are looking for an anchor in a sea of chaos. In times of strife and trouble, we look for things that are familiar and calming. We try to create order in our lives where we can.

The Breeze and its variations provide a space where the music is calm, we know many of the songs by heart (even if we think we forgot them) and we get to go back to a time where things seemed much simpler.

MEGHAN’S TAKE

For me, it’s less about creating a space for yourself than it is about how everyone gets it. I think the magic of Soft AC is that it can be a familiar, shared experience.

In a fragmented world, people yearn for shared experiences. I love going to concerts—have you noticed the rise of big festivals, where people can gather for several days of enjoying music together? These concerts always feature a headliner people know. There is some discovery of new artists, which is great, but the biggest acts are generally the ones all people can enjoy, no matter their age or stage in the life cycle.

We all remember the songs we hear on Soft AC stations, and they’re not limited to one decade or one artist. On a Soft AC station, you’ll hear artists ranging from Billy Joel to Styx, from Adele to Christina Perri. You might not like every song played on the station, but listen for a little bit and you’ll hear something that triggers nostalgia, and so will the person listening with you.

Jessica mentioned all of the news and information that flies around us. I find that it’s less about the speed of information and more that there’s just too much of it. You can end up as your own island of entertainment, choosing shows and movies and music from a variety of sources. There is a playlist for every taste on every different streaming service.

A couple of weeks ago, everyone was watching Bird Box on Netflix. My social media feed was full of it. So was my mother’s. And it sounded scary and intense—the opposite of Jessica’s hygge—but people were engaged with the show and each other, seeking out that shared experience.

Bird Box Challenge Netflix
The “Bird Box Challenge” was a shared social media experience that involved blindfolding oneself.

The Soft AC format is like that, a way for people who gravitate towards different styles and eras to come around one format that works for almost everyone. People from all walks of life coming together to share familiar, comfortable songs and artists.

***

Regardless of why people are listening to the format, there is definitely something that draws people in. Right now, we don’t know whether I’m right, or Meghan’s right—maybe we’re both right, or we’re both wrong—but time and research will tell how strong these soft sounds will continue to be.

Getting to the Why

Tuesdays With Coleman

Years ago, I was presenting some results to an internal client. He was a sales rep who had seen dozens of quantitative research studies my team conducted. We had asked a question about social media, and he said, “Why are they using Friendster instead of Myspace [it was a long time ago]? What’s the difference?” We hadn’t asked that question in the study—it wasn’t one of the questions we were trying to answer at the time.

But sometimes, we do want to get further into the “why”.

There is a ton of information we can gather during quantitative research. In addition to that, it’s trendable and concise. You can ask a lot of “what” and “who” and “how” in quantitative research and get many of the answers you need to inform your programming strategy and tighten your marketing efforts.

But sometimes you just want to know more about the “why”.

Perceptual, or qualitative research might tell you that listeners love your music but don’t feel your personalities fit the brand—or vice versa. Maybe your station gets a lot of buzz and positive responses from its listeners but your ratings are going in the wrong direction. Or maybe you’re one of four similarly-performing stations in your market and you want to figure out what’s really resonating with your listeners and what isn’t and how you can separate from the pack.

We’ve all seen focus groups represented on TV. They’re written to come across as really dry, with boring questions and a monotonous narrator who goes around the room waiting for answers. I’ve sat in on a few of those (pre-Coleman Insights, of course). But in reality, the dry, boring focus group is pretty far from the norm. They’re also not like those focus groups in recent Chevy commercials. Yes, everyone wears a name tag, but no, very few focus groups end in giant reveals of big trucks and scrolling JD Power endorsements. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a facility where you could fit a truck in the elevator.

Chevy focus groups

Most focus groups don’t reveal giant trucks in elevators.

The biggest reveals in a focus group come from the people. These 8-12 representatives of your station’s listeners are there to answer your questions and tell you things you may never have considered. They may reveal things you had a hunch about but couldn’t confirm. The best groups are the ones in which your listeners engage not just with the moderator but with each other.

“I used to love to listen to KAAA, they had this crazy guy on in the mornings when I was a kid.”

“Oh yeah, I remember him!”

“What happened to him?”

“He went over to KBBB so I listened to him there for a while, but I hated the music on KBBB so I stopped and now I listen to KCCC.”

“Same here. They play too much Bruno Mars and it’s tired. KCCC is soooo much better.”

“What makes you like KCCC?” and so on.

Why Focus Groups

Sometimes we go into groups with an idea of what our participants will tell us. I love it when we’re wrong. I once co-moderated a focus group about strong characters on television. I thought they would love this one, be turned off by that one, think this other one was weak. Some of my ideas were turned around completely by the time I left. Our participants shared their thoughts clearly—not always succinctly, but that’s where I came in—and we were able to steer the client in a direction that was unexpected but ultimately made a lot of sense.

A while back, I did some focus groups where we were trying to guide advertising for a media company. The work we presented to our groups was slick and interesting. The first group had very clear opinions about one set. The next had clear opinions about another. Throughout the process, we learned a ton about why some of the copy worked and why some didn’t. Even in their disparate feedback, the participants proved to be savvy and articulate and enormously helpful.

This is front-row research. “Let’s find out what that man in the green shirt really thinks about the at-work contest he keeps mentioning.” “What did Theresa say about our morning show producer?” You can see firsthand how certain themes are consistent across groups and how some opinions are outliers.

From there, we take these insights and help you use them to shape your brand’s strategy.

Focus groups aren’t a replacement for solid quantitative research, but they’re a great way to expand, to fill in gaps, to answer tough questions. And they’re a great way to hear more about the “why”.

International House Of Branding Bewilderment

Tuesdays With Coleman

International House of Burgers. Not Breakfast. Not even Brunch. Burgers.

If you were able to tear yourself away from Singapore this past week and pay attention to something with slightly lower stakes, you’ve seen and/or heard about IHOP’s total branding switch to IHOb. No longer the place we think of when it’s 2am and we want some pancakes. Now IHOP wants us to think of them for… burgers.

IHOP becomes IHOb

National—nay, global—reaction has been pretty harsh, though bewildered might be a better word for it. Wendy’s used its stealthily snarky Twitter account to raise its proverbial eyebrows. Those of us who work with brands and branding for a living raised our actual eyebrows.

Back in March, our president, Warren Kurtzman, wrote in this blog about how restaurants can make changes while still staying true to their brand identities. It is similar to the way we encourage radio stations to keep their base music positions in mind when they want to make changes. When developing images, we believe a brand’s base position is most important, as indicated in our Image PyramidSM  below.

Coleman Insights Image Pyramid

Making changes to your brand is nuanced and not without its challenges, but it can certainly be done. And I can kind of understand why IHOP was feeling a bit old and tired and wanted to make a change. Pancakes aren’t exactly hip these days.

This change, however, boggles many minds. There are a couple of reasons why this has raised so many questions, both to the branding community and the general public:

First: It’s too abrupt. Start with more… burger promotion, if you will. IHOP has served burgers for years (don’t they have a pretty good tuna melt, too?), so promoting those instead of the Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘n’ Fruity might have made a welcome change. It would have allowed customers to remember that oh yeah, IHOP isn’t ONLY for pancakes. But they can still get their short stacks if they want them.

Second: The rollout isn’t complete. In the screenshot of the website on this page, the URL still reads “ihop”, and that tab on the top? “Pancakes, Pancakes, Pancakes.” Now, the company has since said this is simply a temporary stunt and wasn’t intended to stick. But then, why change the company’s Twitter handle? Why plan to use the name in promotions all summer? It’s just clunky. Either go all in with a re-brand, or run a well-thought-out promotion focusing on the burgers you already serve.

Third: It simply doesn’t make sense and it’s not true to the essence of the brand.

Let me elaborate on that one. In a few past lives, I’ve done a lot of work studying Millennials and how they operate. The one word that always comes up is “authenticity.” Millennials are very sharp and aware when someone or something isn’t authentic. This does not mean that a brand can never adjust or change, nor does it mean that Millennials expect products and brands to always “behave” the same way. What they’re looking for—what even we older-than-Millennials are looking for—is a brand that remains true to itself and doesn’t try too hard to appeal to some suddenly desirable yet different demographic. If Old Navy changed its name to Young Navy and stopped selling cheap jeans, that would be inauthentic. If Whole Foods started selling Heinz ketchup, that would be inauthentic, but if it started carrying a line of Heinz Organic Limited Edition ketchup, that would be more true to the Whole Foods brand. And customers are smart. They know when a brand is trying to be “too cool for school.” They especially know when a brand is turning its back on its base.

IHOP (oy, “IHOb”) is trying to be too cool for school. What is so wrong with pancakes? That’s what you’ve been known for since… well, forever. And even if pancakes aren’t chic or fashionable, being the International House of Pancakes makes you different from Applebee’s or Chili’s or Bob’s Big Boy.

Go ahead and promote your burgers. But please, don’t do it at the expense of your awesome, strong, iconic brand. As we like to say here at Coleman Insights, your base position is the core of your brand, and you should always be true to it.