Author: Jon Coleman

Radio Needs to Shift the Overton Window

Coleman Insights Senior Consultant John Boyne and I first heard of the term “Overton Window” around 2006, and the person who taught us about it was Glenn Beck. We were doing work for Beck when he was on Headline News. Beck explained how the Overton Window changes and redefines perceptions of what is acceptable content, and how that changes as creators push for an edge. He noted that if the “acceptable” is never challenged, the content becomes bland. The show eventually loses its edge and becomes vulnerable to new content creators. He was committed to not letting that happen to himself.  He was intentionally moving the Overton Window, shifting expectations of political talk. Glenn Beck predicted the Overton Window would continue to move, making certain things that seem shocking, out of place, or off-brand become in-brand because the Overton Window has moved.

The shifting of the Overton Window in political talk began with the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. The FCC Fairness Doctrine, which began in 1949, required holders of broadcast licenses to present opposing sides of controversial issues of public importance. With the 1987 debut of The Rush Limbaugh Show at KFBK-AM in Sacramento, the Overton Window began its shift. Before Limbaugh, listeners expected purely unbiased information on radio talk shows. For some time after the end of the doctrine, talk stations generally featured guests from both sides, even if not required to.

When moving the Overton Window, you must do it in little increments. If you go too far, the whole thing blows up and it doesn’t work. By focusing on an incremental shift, you change perceptions over time and it’s not as controversial or startling to the audience.

Notice how TikTok has moved the Overton Window for social media while Instagram and Facebook have lost their luster. It is difficult for brands to remain relevant when things are changing all the time.

Radio had a 60- or 70-year advantage of nobody moving the Overton Window in any significant way, though individual stations have done things to change perceptions individually. But with no one dramatically changing expectations, stations often got caught being stagnant.

Radio as a medium also has an expectation or image with consumers. For years, radio was the place for “my favorite” music, for entertaining talk, news, political talk, and more. But, because of a lack of dramatic change in individual stations, the Overton Window in which the medium lived (consumer expectations for how and where to consume music, entertaining talk, political talk, etc.) was not changing either.

New innovations and platforms have shifted the perceptions of music media. But radio is not part of the discussion often enough because it has not been a part of the changing of the Overton Window’s expectation set for music and talk. Radio as a medium is no longer offering what many consumers expect for radio’s type of content. It has allowed other media and their offerings to move the window.

For radio to change the Overton Window, it must do things that are dramatically new and maybe even risky. It must do things that podcasts, YouTube, and TikTok either cannot do or are not expected to do. And yes, live and local is important, but it’s not nearly enough on its own.

It needs to be game-changing.

The Overton Window of the medium’s expectation will only change when enough stations in enough markets are doing something different. Noticeably different.

Look how the Overton Window is changing television. The expectation has shifted so far away from linear TV to on-demand content, it has left broadcast TV in a hugely precarious position. Networks get incremental success with certain shows, but they don’t change the expectation of what broadcast TV can do.

Here’s Apple changing the expectation of what a smartwatch can do. It’s changing the Overton Window of the product.

So how does radio move the Overton Window?

For starters, every radio talent needs to be an expert at triggering emotional connections. If radio is to reach younger consumers, it needs to be live during times when teenagers at least have the chance to be listening.

And it needs game-changing content.

By all accounts, putting an NSFW show about medical and relationship advice for teenagers and young adults on an FM Alternative station sounds like lunacy. But Loveline, which aired on KROQ in Los Angeles from 1983-2018, attracted new young listeners and shifted the Overton Window for the station and format as it spread in syndication.

We’re talking about changing the expectation of an entire medium. It’s not easy, and may not be possible. It will require some very big thinking.

But picture a radio medium that significantly changes its value proposition. Then, picture someone outside of the business, a well-known celebrity with significant credibility with younger demos talking about their love and passion for radio and changing expectations of what to expect from the medium.

That’s how to get the Overton Window to shift. It is the way forward.

The Brand Violation of Elon Musk

There has been and will continue to be much written on Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. It’s had such a pop culture impact, don’t be surprised if the consequences of his erratic management decisions are the subject of a Harvard course down the road. Yet I can’t help but notice that reaction to Musk’s decisions at Twitter is predominantly about their effect on Twitter. To be sure, those effects have reached far and wide, from fired staff to banned (and reinstated) users to random unscientific polls being used to make important strategic decisions.

What particularly fascinates me is how Elon Musk committed a brand violation.

Elon Musk Twitter

Why was Elon Musk so willing to firebomb his carefully crafted images around innovation and vision? He founded a space company and an electric car company, and by most measures, both were doing quite well.

If you stepped into 2023 not knowing anything about Musk’s political leanings, you’d almost certainly assume he’s always been far-right. He’s railed against Covid restrictions, Joe Biden, and “woke” politics. He unbanned Donald Trump from Twitter. He tweeted a link to a conspiracy theory about the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband.

And yet, on November 7th, 2022, he tweeted, “To be clear, my historical party affiliation has been Independent, with an actual voting history of entirely Democrat until this year.”

If that’s true, maybe that’s the whole point. Musk was able to keep his positive images intact because most everyone didn’t know what his political bent was. Nobody cared.

Obviously not every Tesla owner drives one to save the environment, but surely plenty do. And it’s no surprise that environmental protection polls better with liberals than conservatives. If you start to make your personal politics public, especially when they may be out of sync with your consumers, that’s dangerous territory.

Musk injecting politics into his business is just one example of a brand violation, yet there are many we see across sectors including audio entertainment.

We’ve seen morning personalities on music radio stations cross the line of what’s expected of the station or show’s respective brand, including injecting polarizing political content.

We’ve seen personalities on Soft Adult Contemporary stations attempt to be too foreground, when listeners of that format tend to want a soothing background presentation that puts the music first.

ESPN and other sports outlets regularly wrestle with a classic brand violation of the format. How much non-sports content can it get away with? When ESPN tried to veer too far from sports with a unique presentation of SportsCenter with Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, it failed because that’s not what viewers expected of SportsCenter. Smith himself called it “a bad fit.”

Jemele Hill ESPN

Jemele Hill and Michael Smith’s version of Sportscenter on ESPN was by Smith’s admission, a “bad fit.”

And so, The Elon Musk Twitter experiment will live as a crucial branding lesson, the types of lessons we learn often when studying audio brands. Understand your perceptions, track them, and ensure the content you generate is in sync with the consumer expectations or expect erratic and negative results.

Also, don’t mix politics with consumer products.

How Al Ries Influenced Coleman Insights

This past week, we learned legendary marketer Al Ries passed away. Matt Bailey, president of our sister company Integr8 Research, sent an internal email stating simply, “Without his work, we wouldn’t have ours.”

How true that is. You can see the influence of Al Ries all over Coleman Insights, including in Tuesdays With Coleman blogs that reference him, like “What’s Your Word,” “Lack of Focus=Lack of Greatness,” “Need a Slogan? Bring the Sledgehammer”, and “The Line Extension Trap.”

Coleman Insights was not the first radio research company. The earliest research companies certainly illuminated and pointed out what the consumer was thinking about and issues to address. But in the early 80s, as I began to talk to consumers and hear what they were saying, it became clear there was a gap between what people inside the radio station and outside the radio station were thinking. I realized the program directors and general managers way overestimated the levels of interest of the listeners.

At this same time, books by marketers Al Ries and Jack Trout became very popular. These included “Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind” and “Marketing Warfare” in the 80s and “The 22 Immutable Laws Of Marketing” and “Focus: The Future Of Your Company Depends On It” (my favorite) in the 90s.

I related to so much of what Ries and Trout were saying because of what I was experiencing as a radio researcher. Unintentionally at first but intentionally later, I made these principles a core focus of our company. The best way I can describe this is:

It’s not the product. It’s what’s in the mind of the consumer.

So, we began to really think about how the consumer thinks, and the communication process between the radio station and its listeners. It was this focus that I believe led to some of the most successful stations which used communication methods as much as or more than they focused on the music or spoken word product.

Take KZZP in Phoenix in 1985. Along with Guy Zapoleon and the team at KZZP, we recommended they start using “The #1 Hit Music Station.” You’re used to hearing that positioner now, but it was not being used back then. At that time, KZZP was in a battle with KOPA, but KOPA wasn’t clear about what it was, the station was shifting the music around and they were constantly tweaking the product, because they thought the product was all that mattered. But by using “The #1 Hit Music Station,” we went for the mind of the consumer. Within about six months, KOPA was destroyed, and it flipped months later. That principle, battling for the mind, was all based on Al Ries’ philosophy.

Back then, I heard one station using “Lite” for the first time and thought it was genius. There were stations all over the United States in the Soft Adult Contemporary format, but they weren’t differentiated from other AC stations. Al Ries talks about creating your own category, and at the time there was no Soft AC category. But when you called the station “Lite” or “Lite Rock,” you created a new ladder, and the station could become the leader in the category that every other station in the format was compared to. On so many occasions, Al Ries’s books gave me confidence that what I was seeing wasn’t just a radio thing but were universal marketing principles.

More recently, I feel some have veered away from Ries’ principles, thinking digital tools will simply track consumer behavior and we won’t need marketing “gimmicks.” Over time, it’s been made clear the branding piece is so necessary. You need to communicate how your product fits in the marketplace and how it’s different. Fortunately, it feels like there is more of a swing happening back towards the image development side.

One thing I know Al Ries would agree with is the importance of external marketing. For audio brands, external marketing is perceived differently than marketing on the brand itself. It’s perceived as an editorial message about the product. You can define what the product is, in a way through external messaging, that you can’t internally. So, in other words, all the liners in the world won’t matter that much without external marketing that gives credibility to what the radio station, podcast, streaming service, and so on is doing.

Al Ries and Jack Trout taught me the need to talk to consumers in plain, real language. We get so caught up in the hype that we forget to talk to people. And they taught me that it’s too easy to try to be “cute,” creating messages that don’t mean anything to the consumer. You need to tell them what you’re doing as clearly as possible.

When you see Coleman Insights talking about core philosophies such as Outside Thinking, the Image Pyramid, or the Brand-Content Matrix, there is an abundance of Al Ries influence to thank for it. I’ll always be grateful for his work.

Rethinking Radio Bonuses

Every program director and air talent at a radio station is well-versed in how bonuses work. Get good ratings, you get a bonus. Get bad ratings, you don’t get a bonus (and perhaps get shown the door). There are many reasons why we should rethink the way radio rewards its employees, not the least of which being the sample challenges and wobbles of Nielsen ratings. But there’s also a more important philosophical reason to reevaluate radio’s bonus system: it’s rewarding the wrong thing.

Evidence from other businesses suggests that bonuses based on institutionalizing certain behaviors will achieve better consumer response than just focusing on the ultimate goal of more customers or more profit. For radio, that means focusing on a show’s behaviors, not ratings. To achieve ratings goals a show needs to have a well-thought-out process and perform behaviors that are proven to achieve a better show, and then better ratings will follow. Management should consider rewarding those processes and behaviors.

It’s no secret that we’re big believers in playing the long game. Building strong brands takes time and patience, but big brands are well rewarded. Weaker brands can manipulate ratings in the short-term with things like tactical contesting, but that takes substantial budget allocation. There’s one problem with tying the bonus of a PD or air talent to ratings–they usually can’t count on the budget being there, and they don’t get to make that decision. And yet, they’re penalized for it when it’s not.

The San Francisco Giants generated some buzz in the baseball world in 2021, when it focused on process and behavior over results, and the team notably overperformed expectations.

If the Giants treated their players like radio treats its talent, it would focus only on statistics like Batting Average and Earned Run Average the same way radio focuses on ratings. But rather, the team intensely focuses on the things that can truly affect positive change.

In other words, because batters were taught to more carefully select which pitches to swing at, they struck out less and walked more. This resulted in more runs scored because there were more players on base.

Rather than trying to find traditionally strong home run hitters, players were taught to focus on the specific launch angle of the ball off the bat (hitting the ball at specific angles was proven to be the sweet spot for hitting home runs) rather than randomly swinging away trying to get their bonus by hitting more home runs. When the Giants focused their players on launch angle, not on the number of home runs hit, the number of home runs went way up. They were the MLB leader last year in that category (and in one of the hardest ballparks to hit home runs).

What if, instead of bonusing morning shows on ratings, you bonused them on the process? Here are a few thought starters on what behaviors could be rewarded:

  • The process followed for planning and generating content for the show, rather than just saying “get better ratings” or “get a 5 share” (the equivalent of pushing for them to hit more home runs.
  • The number of meetings team members had in a week with the belief that more meetings mean more and better communication.
  • The subjective quality of the show as rated by the team themselves. Let them set their own level of show expectations.
  • Their willingness and expression of building the station brand versus just focusing on their own show.
  • Their ability and discipline in following a strategic plan.

Great shows wouldn’t be demoralized when a bad ratings book hits because they’d know they were doing the job that was expected of them. Management would be supporting them, rather than only focusing on ratings.  If building the station and show brand and ratings is truly a long-term game, support the morning show and keep them focused on the longer term.

Should bonuses be focused on behaviors rather than ratings?

What if morning shows were more involved in the strategic process rather than just being the domain of management? What if a station allowed the show to do their own research as a signal that you have their back? Would they accept and respond better to consumer feedback if they participated in it? What if they designed and conducted a study like a mediaEKG Deep Dive to test specific pieces of content? And, to the point of this blog, what if they were bonused based on how they responded and adjusted the show based on what was learned?

Radio thrives when it rethinks the way it’s done things. Maybe it’s time to rethink bonuses.

Prep Your Show With George Carlin’s Scientific Method

You may have seen or heard about the new Judd Apatow documentary, George Carlin’s American Dream, now playing on HBO. It is a celebration of the late comedian’s life and career (hard to believe he passed away 14 years ago), and features interviews from fellow comedians including Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart. Of all the things we learn about Carlin, one thing sticks with me­­—his immense dedication to preparation. The lessons for personalities, from radio morning hosts to podcasters, are clear.

When I started in radio, the idea of researching morning shows was not well-received. It was seen as researching art, and therefore subjective and difficult to measure. Over time, we discovered we could identify components of shows that resonated more than others, and which personalities formed deep bonds with their listeners. Through that process, we learned that the greatest, most successful shows prepare. A lot.

If you watch George Carlin perform, on a basic level, he can appear pretty loopy. His act could give the impression that he was out of control, a free form artist ranting and raving about issues on his mind. But the reality was, George Carlin was extremely practiced and precise. So precise, in fact, other comedians refer to his comedic method as scientific and groundbreaking.

Watch at 6:24 when Jon Stewart explains, “It’s so often when you’re in a creative pursuit that you think, infrastructure or setting up a system is the antithesis of comedy or inspiration or creativity. And the lesson from him (Carlin) is like, actually it’s the opposite.”

The root of Carlin’s system has a home at the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, donated by his daughter Kelly after he died. It’s a filing system that includes paper scraps with words and phrases sorted by category. As Carlin estate archivist Logan Heftel explains, “That’s how he built this collection of independent ideas that he was able to cross-reference and start to build larger routines from.” He eventually shifted the ideas to a computer, but the process remained the same.

Carlin was asked in an interview about a routine called “A List Of People I Can Do Without.” The interviewer wondered, how many jokes did he have to write to come up with 25? Carlin responded that it was 40 or 50, and the 25 that did end up making it got reworked and reworked, getting better and better.

Carlin’s process has rubbed off on countless comedians over the years, including Jerry Seinfeld. In “How To Write A Joke,” Seinfeld describes the long and arduous process of perfecting one simple joke about a Pop Tart.

The lesson? It’s not that simple.

Radio talent coach Steve Reynolds works with talent every day and sees their processes firsthand. To him, the correlation of preparation to results is completely obvious.

“There was a day when we in morning radio could wing it.  I’d never recommend that to a show today. When coupled with everyone’s need for immediate gratification, listeners bail at the slightest sense that a show has no idea where it’s going. And trust me, they can tell.  I’m watching lots of Carlin on YouTube, and two things stand out about his comedy and this amazing HBO special. First, George Carlin evolved as a performer. As he grew as a talent, his comedic voice became more genuine. In the iconic version of Carlin we all remember, he tackled big topics and shared his very genuine take on them, thus his comedy was much more authentic. The other thing that stands out to me is his immense prep. He was a student of the craft, working endlessly as is evidenced by those notes you see in the special. Every word of every routine is carefully picked. For us in radio, we must first choose the right topics. Then have a true understanding of our take. Then decide where we want to take the audience. Doing four hours of original radio each day (maybe 16-20 content breaks), there’s just no way you can pull that off without planning.”

These lessons and examples should resonate with all entertainers, not just comedians. If show preparation is sitting around and randomly throwing out ideas, the show will feel random. If the approach is like a scientific method like Carlin’s or Stewart’s or Seinfeld’s, it has a much higher chance of success.

Best of 2020: Should Radio Go Back to Normal?

As we spend four weeks of December revisiting some of our most-read blogs over the past four years, we find this week’s entry to be remarkably appropriate from a timing standpoint. It is also the most buzzed about Tuesdays With Coleman blog since we started the series.

The timing is appropriate because “Should Radio Go Back to Normal” by Jon Coleman was published one year ago. In fact, exactly one year ago tomorrow, when things in the world (and the Radio industry) were decidedly not normal. Thankfully, although the wrath of Covid is still highly relevant and impactful, the business has returned to much healthier levels and there is a sense of optimism for 2022.

Jon’s blog was about using the pandemic pause to reassess the future of the Radio industry, and he offered a wide range of thought starters and ideas. Many were also introduced for the first time to Blue Ocean Strategy. You may read this and feel great about how far we’ve come in one year, maybe you’ll think nothing has really changed, or perhaps your feelings will fall somewhere in the middle.

We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

“Should Radio Go Back to Normal?” by Jon Coleman

The inclination of many will be to write off 2020 as a horrible year for the world and for our business. The question is, will radio “get back to normal” in 2021 or 2022 or should it be focused on a new business model?

Significant challenges often force industries to reevaluate, and some good can come out of this one. It may not be what everyone in the industry wants to hear, but companies are being forced to focus on return on investment (ROI). By that I am not even talking about financial ROI, though that is a part of it, but consumer ROI. What things really generate audience and audience loyalty? Which stations and shows will get a consumer ROI? As an industry, making consumer ROI a priority will require care, balancing broad appeal with a likely slow but narrowing focus to generate more core passion. Plus, as I will address below, I think it is time to start investigating totally new opportunities for radio stations and companies.

But first, let me talk about the here and now. Radio’s workforce­­–including owners, General Managers, and Program Directors–have been tasked to do more with less. This requires a laser focus on things that really matter. This does not mean that every cost cutting move is a good one or that radio can be fully healthy by cutting left and right. Owners need to know what the wheat is and what the chaff is.

So, what is the wheat and what is the chaff? What matters? First, format dominant and revenue critical stations matter. They are the wheat that will get radio to the future. Also, strong personalities, strong music, and strong leaders on those stations matter.

But, all this is a status quo or defensive strategy. It is likely to extend the life of the best stations well into the future, but it is not the dramatic cure that will attract new non-users to the medium in large numbers and as passionate fans. Radio needs offensive strategies. Just as you can’t win a football game without an offense, radio cannot reinvigorate the medium with defense alone. It needs to play great defense right now, but it also needs an offensive strategy going forward.

I think the offensive strategy begins with the weak stations that may fill a format hole, but do little for the future. Radio needs to look to new ways to truly energize the medium. This comes from changing the paradigm about how we program our weakest stations. Right now our paradigm for these weak stations is music, news/talk, 12 commercials an hour, music sweeps, stop sets, morning shows, etc. It’s the world we live in and the world advertisers live in. And it’s been essentially unchanged for decades.

Coleman Insights believes in the importance of these elements for the majority of the most successful stations.  Music is still an overwhelmingly important listener benefit, but we also recognize that competition for the music listener is getting harder every day and will get harder in the future.

However, looking down the road, there may not be enough music lanes to support three to five stations in a cluster. And the weakest music or talk stations trick us into thinking we don’t need to think about more important changes that might actually grow the audience and revenue opportunities on these signals. There are already weak sisters in every company and every cluster and there will be more down the road. Employing the strategies of the successful sisters may not be enough for the weaker sister stations.

This is where the current paradigm meets the new competitive world. In order to grow as a medium and stop playing just defense, we must examine other paradigms. We need to find values for consumers that go beyond just our music and personalities. Radio must find new ways by experimenting.  I don’t mean throwing ideas willy-nilly against the wall, but strategically considering all ideas, evaluating them carefully, and then throwing them against the wall.

We need to find new ways of attracting both non-consumers and current listeners and making them passionate about what we offer. We do this by creating uncontested market space for growth, rather than continuing to attempt to compete in a vicious sea of competition in a shrinking profit pool. This technique is called Blue Ocean Strategy. Radio is in the bloody, shark-infested “red” section of the ocean, fighting with itself and constantly emerging competitors. It should be creating new, innovative, never-before-heard concepts to draw new audience in the clear “blue” section of the ocean. Radio needs to Blue Ocean its world. We need to stop thinking about how we can get people to listen to our clusters’ weak stations a little more just so we can squeeze in six more minutes a day and marginally increase our time spent listening (which is generally pointless or at best a stalling tactic) but instead think about what role radio might play in the lives of consumers in the media world in which we increasingly live. Use this process to develop new types of programs within existing stations or totally new formats that don’t rely on music, stop sets, and the rules of the last 40 years. This does not mean throwing out good principled programming “rules” (throwing the baby out with the bathwater), but it does mean setting up a small tub next to the big one in which we can play with new ideas (smartly experiment).

To that end we need to ask: What groups of consumers are there that don’t listen to radio or do not listen a lot? What interests and excites them? What media do they consume and why?

We should also rethink how we segment the audience. What segments of the population are not currently served by the media landscape as it stands now? Perhaps we should set aside the traditional demographics we use to segment audience and start examining how our country is reorganizing along nontraditional lines. Rural/Urban, Secular/Religious, etc. Are there lifestyle segments that might be passionate if they were served? Are there new ways of segmenting political segments versus the traditional conservative, moderate, and liberal? Does the move to the left and right in many media create an opportunity in the middle?

What kinds of formats that radio does not or only minimally offers could create new interest in the medium? Could there be talk radio targeted at women? Does the popularity of Dave Ramsey suggest a full time personal finance station? Could radio play a bigger role in the emerging podcast market by having a format devoted to the leading podcasts (on FM)? Is it time to bring back progressive talk radio?  Could a well done national financial news-focused news/talk station find success on FM (versus being relegated to 1500am) in 2021? Could a Black news network on big FM signals draw a substantial audience? All of these are totally different from radio’s main offerings today or are a clearly narrowing of the appeal in search of a more passionate audience.

And, just as we need to think about our radio programming paradigm, we may need to think even harder about the economics of radio. Can new stations be built successfully on a basis other than selling commercials to local advertisers? Is local spot business the only way of doing it? Would the revenue proposition be different if the product on our stations was entirely different?

We can write off 2020 and go back to normal in 2021, or we can view 2020 as an opportunity to challenge ourselves in 2021 and bring new people to the medium. We can do this by creating new experiences and not mimicking the programming we offer right now. We can do this by creating programming that is so manifestly different that it creates a whole new expectation and is compelling enough to truly impact potential radio consumers and fans.

Best of 2018: Should I Play That Song On My Radio Station?

In late 2017, Coleman Insights introduced Tuesdays With Coleman, a weekly blog series offering tips and insights on branding, content, and research strategy. Using a combination of Google Analytics and reader engagement, we’re spending the next few weeks presenting the most impactful blogs of the past four years by reprinting one blog per year. Many of the themes are timeless and worth revisiting. Unsurprisingly, the first blog was authored by Coleman Insights founder Jon Coleman, the scribe on two of the four.

Here’s 2018’s featured blog from September 25th of that year. In this blog, Jon uses concepts such as Outside Thinking, the Brand-Content Matrix, and the introduction of the Acceptance-Fit Matrix to explain why a song’s popularity isn’t a good enough reason on its own to play it.

“Should I Play That Song On My Radio Station?” by Jon Coleman

For radio program directors, the question of which songs to play and which to leave out is as old as the medium itself.  If it was only about playing popular songs, radio stations would be broader than they are.  Why is that?  Well, just like restaurants don’t all serve the same popular foods and generally must choose what to serve, radio stations also focus on types, styles and eras of music.

Pizza Hut doesn’t sell hamburgers. CHR stations don’t play country.

Outback Steakhouse doesn’t sell Chinese food. Rock stations don’t play pop music.

Chipotle doesn’t sell pancakes. Hip Hop stations don’t play Taylor Swift.

These choices seem obvious, but are they always?  How can a program director think about what to play when consumers listen to popular music and music that seems right for the format?  How can they know when to stretch beyond the narrowest definition of their format?  When can they take chances and when should they play it safe?

Just as they choose restaurants and most brands based on simplistic image perceptions, consumers also select radio stations based on an image they have of that station.

As we’ve illustrated in our explanations of Outside Thinking, that image may be formulated based on Type (like Rock, Country or Hip Hop); Era (like 80s, 90s or 00s); or Texture (like Hard, Soft or Upbeat).

But in the real world, not every song a station plays will meet the pure definition of the brand it represents to its audience.

Sometimes, a program director will want to throw in a song just to “freshen things up.”

Other times a song will reach such a high level of popularity in the zeitgeist, a program director may feel compelled to play it even if it is outside the format lane.

Program directors will fill their music tests with “fishing expeditions” to see what happens.

Every program director and music director is faced with the decision of whether or not to play songs on their stations and is left questioning if it was the right choice because of Fit.

So, when to play and when not to play?

Don Benson, the former President and CEO of Lincoln Financial Media, put it something like this:

You can be entrepreneurial in your own lane. You can’t be entrepreneurial in your fringe lanes.

What Don means by that is your format lane gives you license to introduce your audience to songs and even sounds they haven’t heard. When you play outside your lane, you risk losing listeners and may encourage brand erosion.

For most listeners, this isn’t a conscious thought process. In the moment, if they really like it, a listener may sit through a song that feels out of sync with the brand and wait for the radio station to return to expectation. If they don’t really like it, and it’s out of sync, the listener is less likely to stay.

The real danger here is, if a station plays out-of-sync songs too often—songs that aren’t consistent with its brand perception—the listener will lose confidence in the station’s ability to deliver what the listener wants.

The Coleman Insights Brand-Content MatrixSM dictates that the success of great radio stations is the result of two dimensions. First, the station’s brand strength—its top of mind awareness and perception. Second, its in-the-moment content strength—a function of how compelling the content is. The Brand-Content Matrix shows the most successful radio stations marry high-quality content with a well-established brand.

In many ways, the decision-making process on whether or not to play a song on your radio station can be handled in much the same way…using an Acceptance-Fit Matrix.

Acceptance Fit Matrix

Ideally, your radio station will play a high percentage of songs that test well (High Acceptance) and fit your station’s brand (High Fit).

But, there always will be moments of questioning.

In the late 80s and very early 90s, for example, pop music took a milder, less edgy turn. During this period, artists like Richard Marx, Mike and the Mechanics, Wilson Phillips and Michael Bolton topped the charts.

For CHR stations, playing too much of this fringe ACish sound risked undermining their brand expectation. The expectations were edgier and had more tempo. The center-lane pop was from artists like Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna.

Stations had to be careful how quickly and deeply to move into the fringe sound—not just for fear of brand erosion, but also the risk of making themselves vulnerable to attack by more focused formats like Hot AC or edgier stations like Hip Hop.

As the Acceptance-Fit Matrix indicates, if a song is outside your own lane, it had better be exceptionally popular to play it.  A song that is exceptionally popular but not in the center lane is in the lower right quadrant. You may be able to get away with that. But, if it is only moderately popular it will be a tune out and will hurt your image.

Our recommendation is to evaluate every song in your library in terms of both Acceptance and Fit.

Aim for highly popular songs that are a great fit with your brand.

The less it fits your brand, the more selective you should be.

So when it’s time to ask “should I play that song on my radio station?”

Be smart.

Be thoughtful.

Be strategic.

And, be entrepreneurial.

Just do it in your own lane.

The Subway Branding Challenge

As a brand matures, it builds perceptual images. Some of these images are of great benefit to the brand; strong and powerful positive word associations. Inevitably, every brand has at least some negative images as well. In last week’s Tuesdays With Coleman blog, I wrote about Victoria’s Secret. After years of success, the women’s clothing store had to deal with declining sales brought on by negative images that included outdated campaigns and models. Their answer was to introduce a far more diverse lineup of models and clothes, targeting women that would have never previously shopped at Victoria’s Secret. That strategy requires a major change in consumer perceptions. One option to accomplish that perceptual shift is a name change. But that would have required starting from scratch and a massive investment to educate the consumer as to what the new name stands for. Or the brand can keep the name, but dramatically change direction and be loud about it so distracted consumers will notice. As I alluded to last week, Victoria’s Secret opted for the latter strategy—keeping the name while aggressively changing direction.

There’s another brand going through tough times and declining sales, and this week we’ll examine what happens when a brand attempts a major strategic directional change the wrong way. As recently as 2013, Subway had 41% of the market share for “limited-service sandwich chains”. Today, it’s down to 28% and slipping. Competition is one big reason why. Sales at Jersey Mike’s, Firehouse Subs, and Jimmy John’s doubled and tripled over the same time frame. Other reasons include overexpansion, a breakfast failure, and internal issues. Recently it was sued, claiming the tuna wasn’t actually tuna. From a branding standpoint, the impact of spokesperson Jared Fogle going to jail in 2015 on child sex charges can’t be overstated. From 2000 to 2015, Jared was the face of Subway and the marketing wasn’t so much about the product as it was about how Subway is healthy and can help you lose weight.

When they dropped Jared, instead of continuing to focus on health and diet, Subway started focusing on the product. And it turned out the product, as competitors offered fresher, healthier, more innovative alternatives, just wasn’t that exciting.

If this part sounds familiar, perhaps the Domino’s Pizza 2009 “Oh Yes We Did” campaign comes to mind.

Domino’s didn’t tiptoe around the fact that research showed many consumers perceived Domino’s to have an inferior product. They made an incredible video admitting it, and millions of views later, it’s still worth a watch.

Themes of this video were sliced into smaller, snackable pieces of audio and visual marketing including social media posts.

Like Victoria’s Secret, Domino’s dramatically changed its strategic direction by reinventing its pizza from the ground up. And when it was time to tell people about it, the message was very clear and it was everywhere.

Did the campaign work for Domino’s? I bet its shareholders think so. The day that video was published to YouTube, Domino’s stock traded at around eight dollars a share.

Today, it’s just under $500 per share. Wish I’d bought that stock.

Back to Subway, which announced “massive menu changes” in July of this year. 20 new menu updates and new and improved ingredients. They apparently gave away one million free subs to celebrate the launch. Did you know about that? I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t realize Subway made any changes until a colleague told me about it. And I had just had lunch AT SUBWAY.

To be fair, Subway did run TV commercials touting the new items. The spot starred four of the most recognizable athletes on Earth—Serena Williams, Megan Rapinoe, Stephen Curry, and Tom Brady (who basically says at the end that he wouldn’t personally eat it).

It’s no different than the classic Radio mistake—a radio station that is trying to build a Base Music Position uses a big personality to promote the station. You remember the personality, not the kind of music the station plays. Just like Subway. You remember Tom Brady, not the new menu.

I vividly remember when this spot first ran. I had lunch with my colleagues John Boyne, Warren Kurtzman and Jay Nachlis (not at Subway), when one of us mentioned the new Subway ad with all the athletes. None of us knew what the ad was about. What could Subway have done differently?

  • Celebrities likely got in the way of the messaging. Subway could have made sure the message was more direct.
  • The sandwiches in the advertising looked identical to the previous sandwiches. If selling a major change, they needed to look significantly different.
  • The Tom Brady nod to the advertising-skeptic generation probably went over people’s heads.
  • The in-store experience should have also been dramatically different, with clear, new presentations of the new sandwiches and ingredients and even a refurbishing of the stores for people to notice.
  • The logo needed to change to communicate a major shift. Subway has multiple major head-on competitors.
  • Subway probably didn’t run enough marketing for a campaign of this magnitude.

So remember the lesson of last week’s blog: If a brand changes its strategy dramatically without changing its name, it requires a dramatic plan. A name change alone is not enough. But without a name change the product change needs to be HUGE.

For the best chance at success, use the Victoria’s Secret/Domino’s method, not the Subway method. Aggressively market, but most importantly be very clear about the new position you’re trying to sell without letting other noise get in the way.




The Victoria’s Secret Branding Challenge



Earlier this summer, Victoria’s Secret revealed an upcoming change in its strategic direction. As the New York Times put it, “the most extreme brand turnaround in recent memory.” In many respects, what Victoria’s Secret is trying to do flies in the face of what we’ve learned and practiced regarding branding and marketing over the years. Consider a radio station that has been in the same format for 30 years, with perceptual images deeply ingrained. For 30 years, the name hasn’t changed, the logo hasn’t notably changed, and it’s been playing the same styles of music and targeting the same demographic. Then one day, the station decides it’s going to target a different consumer, change its product, and overhaul its messaging. But it’s keeping the name.

That’s what Victoria’s Secret is attempting, but with lingerie instead of songs.

Me, doing blog research

The perceptual images Victoria’s Secret carries today were developed in the 90s, thanks in large part to its annual fashion shows. The shows featured tall, skinny models like Gisele Bundchen, Heidi Klum, and Tyra Banks. This was followed in 1997 by the introduction of the Victoria’s Secret “Angel”, and advertising regularly featured skinny models in skimpy outfits.

In recent years, a variety of factors contributed to sales declines. These included other brands starting to use plus-size models, while Victoria’s Secret stuck to its size zero models; the fashion show being seen as outdated; and the brand being seen as tone-deaf to changing attitudes.

To try and turn things around, Victoria’s Secret employed an “all-in,” “go big or go home” strategy.

The biggest and most obvious move was ditching the Angels for the VS Collective for a more diverse group of brand representatives. This includes soccer star Megan Rapinoe, plus-sized model Paloma Elsesser, transgender model and actress Valentina Sampaio, actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas, 17-year-old skier Eileen Gu, and former child refugee Amanda de Cadenet.

This received a great deal of press at the announcement, but the company’s moves appear to be continually aggressive towards changing perceptions of what Victoria’s Secret stands for.

The company’s new direct marketing catalog looks decidedly different–more diverse in ethnicity and body size. Its new YouTube videos do not have the look of a brand stuck in the past. It is making drastic changes to its product line as well, adding larger sizes and items like maternity bras.

Of course, the big question is, will this all work?

Victoria’s Secret faces headwinds in two areas related to its rebrand. One: images are like icebergs. Slow to develop, even slower to erode. Can it shed its deeply held image as an outdated company that is only for skinny women? Two: are there enough women that want the new direction from Victoria’s Secret?


In the comments underneath the new YouTube video, you’ll find some very positive, affirming comments. But you’ll also find “Bring the fashion show back,” “Bring back the angels,” and “This is H&M, not Victoria’s Secret. Bring your classic style back.”

Time will tell if Victoria’s Secret’s rebrand is successful, but I like the way they are going about it. If a brand changes its strategy dramatically without changing its name, it requires a dramatic plan. Simply put, a brand cannot overcome deep perceptions without aggressive, in-your-face marketing that clearly states the new strategy. One could argue that Victoria’s Secret isn’t going far enough in their marketing – the outside of their stores look the same. The logo is the same. The company isn’t going as far as they could in verbally communicating the new direction.

On the other hand, there’s another big company that is also currently going through a rebrand to modernize and connect with younger consumers, and it also kept its name. But unlike Victoria’s Secret, nobody is noticing because this other company is being decidedly undramatic about its changes. As we’ve pointed out countless times when discussing Outside Thinking, consumers aren’t paying close attention. It’s not that this brand isn’t spending money on marketing. It’s just all wrong.

I’ll cover that in next week’s blog.




Radio’s Got a Story to Tell

Sometimes a radio station changes its name, format, or both. Other times it makes a morning show switch—sometimes the talent leaves voluntarily, in other instances not so much.

How do stations usually handle these large-scale changes? On far too many occasions, they move forward in their on-air presentations like it’s “business as usual.”

And that is bad business.

Radio station management often doesn’t think about the brands’ relationship to the audience. When big decisions are made, they avoid telling listeners because there is an underlying line of thinking that radio is “show biz” and therefore explanations are somehow unnecessary. “Talk” to the audience? We don’t actually talk to the audience. We present. We’ll make the change and they’ll get it.

Over the course of doing focus groups throughout my career, I heard from radio listeners that had been exposed to these types of changes, in instances where the station didn’t talk about the changes. The audience never understood. If it was a morning show change, they would ask, “Where did the morning show go?” “Where did these new guys come from?” The way these changes were handled generated a sense of confusion. It also created a sense of disappointment and sometimes anger. The radio station has asked its listeners to build a relationship with its hosts. Now the hosts listeners have built relationships with have been taken away and they don’t get an explanation?

Sounds pretty crappy when you really think about it.

A classic example of how to not handle a change was how ESPN handled Mike & Mike. The hugely successful show that paired anchor Mike Greenberg with former NFL player Mike Golic aired on ESPN Radio for 17 years. Then, all of a sudden in 2017, it was announced that Greenberg would be leaving to host his own show. It was never really explained to the audience why he was leaving. When Trey Wingo was brought on to replace Greenberg, the new show was never clearly defined. Why should the audience care? There were reports of acrimony and bad blood between Greenberg and Golic, and Golic and Wingo ultimately didn’t last three years.

Perhaps the show would not have survived anyway, but in many respects it never had a chance. When you replace a heritage show that features hosts that have undeniable chemistry with a new show that is essentially starting from scratch, you need to let the audience in on the change. By doing so, you are asking permission for them to give you the time needed to develop the new show. When you don’t, when you just expect them to “get it,” their reaction is far more likely to be negative. “They took away my favorite show and replaced it with a worse one.”

Golic and Wingo were simply put in a terrible position.

Here’s another example.

YouTuber Stevin John released his first Blippi video in 2014. Wearing a blue shirt with bright orange glasses, suspenders, and a bow tie, John presented Blippi as a children’s entertainer and educator. Blippi has been a massive success in children’s entertainment. Blippi has 13 million YouTube subscribers and an additional 11 million on a Spanish language account. The videos have racked up billions of views. That’s billions with a b.

Five years after launching Blippi (in 2019,) fans attending the Blippi Live tour noticed that Stevin John wasn’t the one playing the Blippi character. It was the same orange and blue clothes, but it was actor Clayton Grimm on stage with no explanation. Audiences were just expected to accept that Blippi was Blippi, no matter who played him. Recently, John launched a new Learn With Blippi series of videos on YouTube, and Clayton Grimm is now also the online Blippi. What did viewers think? The comments are turned off.

This has resulted in widespread confusion, with online comments that include, “Who’s this??! This ain’t gonna fly with my kids,” while another wrote, “My 3-year-old said, ‘That’s not Blippi.”

If you dig deep enough, you’ll find John addressed the issue in an interview with Billboard before the 2019 tour. “I won’t be on the road, but I am obviously extremely involved with the whole process,” he said. “Blippi is as a character and I’m the creative force behind it, but since YouTube is a monster and all of these platforms are really crazy I can’t go on the road for many weeks or months at a time.”

When you’re trying to deliver a crucially important widespread message about a change to your brand, maybe an industry publication like Billboard isn’t the way to go. This is a message that should have been delivered aggressively through traditional media and social media, and should be clearly front and center on the Blippi website. But it’s not. In fact, the answer to the question “Who is the actor that plays Blippi?” on the FAQ page is Stevin John.

What happens when a radio station changes its name or music?

When a station makes a wholesale change to its brand—a name change, music shift, new imaging, perhaps new air talent—it cannot emerge “fully developed.”

Your station can’t have one name, one music library, one set of DJs, and one imaging package on the air on a Thursday, and suddenly debut all new things on a Friday and pretend like nothing has happened.

This is in part because listeners are not paying close enough attention. They will not pick up on the nuances you expect them to. The result is that the new brand doesn’t get the opportunity to build properly because the audience is confused.

They changed their name from G102 to The Vibe? Why? That morning show I listened to every morning for five years is gone. Why? They’re not playing my favorite songs anymore. Why?

Every brand change needs a story. You cannot just jump in the pool with no explanation.

There was a rock station in Davenport, Iowa in the 80s that ignored their brand fit and followed the music trends. The station started playing popular Top 40 artists like Prince and Madonna. The ratings tanked and listeners were furious. Ultimately, station management realized they had made a mistake and recognized they were damaging the brand. When they corrected their error, they didn’t just take Prince and Madonna off and hope the audience picked up on it. The program director went on the air and apologized. He explained why they did it, why they were changing back, and handled it with some self-deprecation.

The ratings came roaring back.

When E. Alvin Davis was a program director and consultant, he explained the value of having the PD talk to the audience about what they were doing. He would introduce himself in promos explaining new contests. Here’s what it’s called, here’s why we’re doing it, and here’s how to play. Let the audience peek behind the curtain.

Ultimately, that’s the whole point. Let your audience peek behind the curtain. If you tell them why you changed the station (and please, do not insult their intelligence and say, “you told us you wanted it”,) they are more likely to accept it. If you explain why the music has changed, they are more likely to notice (and listen). If you explain why the new morning show is there and why the other one left, they are more likely to give the show a chance.

Show biz is an important part of radio, but sometimes we need to dial it back just a bit. When changes are made, be intimate and honest and don’t pretend the change didn’t happen. If your goal is to build strong bonds with your audience, you’ve got to be willing to share the ride with them, in good times and in challenging times. If you treat the audience like the bond doesn’t exist, the bond will be broken and the change for naught.