Changing an image isn’t easy.
Once the audience becomes familiar with and develops a perception of you or your radio station, it can stick there for a good, long time. As our John Boyne points out, images are like icebergs. Slow to develop, slow to erode.
If your station is known for playing 90s Country and you want to win the New Country image, just playing some current and recurrent Country titles will not get it done.
If your station was known as one brand name for 20 years and you change the name but keep the exact same format, you better believe the audience will still think of the old name.
If you have a jock with a reputation for being outrageous and you want him to adopt a less edgy image, it’s going to take more than a few breaks without boobs.
But, as the one and only Howard Stern has shown us, changing an image—even one as imprinted and indelible as his—is possible.
Howard Stern is so synonymous with the term “Shock Jock,” it would be difficult to think of anyone or anything besides him when hearing the words. Even today.
But Howard, who has been out promoting his new book, “Howard Stern Comes Again,” has indeed worked at changing his very big image.
Howard’s previous brand was not afraid to say anything or embarrass anyone. The goal was to bring everyone in the establishment down. It was sometimes angry, viscous and vile.
Howard’s new brand is a more enlightened guy shaped by a full range of life experience—the highs of great success and a wonderful relationship and the extremely painful lows of divorce, absence and distance from children. He was and still is the most amazing interviewer ever born, but he’s no longer seeking to exploit and ruin his guests. He still asks the questions that most of us would be too reserved to ask and every interview reveals something you previously never knew about the guest. But it is no longer like listening to a waterboarding session.
Howard Stern’s authenticity is what allows his brand to evolve. Because he was a real person in the beginning of his career—sometimes really angry, really obnoxious and really curious—he can be real with his audience now. That is his real brand, not the “Shock Jock” as he is often portrayed or as he sometimes portrayed himself. Certainly many people started out life as edgy, somewhat obnoxious, angry know-it-alls. But time and the zigs and zags of life change us. We have kids, wives, we lose people, we find ourselves (if we are lucky) and we can no longer be “that guy” anymore. Most of us grew up, and Howard did too eventually.
Could Howard have been an “actor” and faked it through the rest of his career, remaining the same brand he was in the 80s and 90s? I’m sure he could have. But because he is so authentic and willing to take risks he has the opportunity to evolve and add an entirely new arc to his storyline.
I remember the reaction to Howard’s announcement that he and Allison planned to divorce. Many thought that the divorce would change his brand for the worse. The backstop of a wife at home provided some limit to where he could go. He could look, but never touch (like most married guys). He toyed with his fantasies, but you knew he would never act on them. But without a wife, there’s no limit. He would no longer be constrained like the regular guy listening, and worse perhaps he would no longer feel his pain. Somehow, Howard found a way to continue to be the average guy–the tortured man–as he navigated the single period of his life.
The move to Sirius XM brought similar challenges. No FCC? Who was he going to hate for limiting him? Sure, he began to curse when it felt natural, but he did not become more extreme when he had this newfound freedom. If anything, he began the evolution to where his brand is today.
Brand research could tell us just how much Howard’s images have shifted, and it’s likely his image for “Shock Jock” is still plenty strong. In fact, many media outlets still lead Stern stories with that exact descriptor. But my instinct is that other brand attributes are gaining strength. “Authentic,” “Interviewer” and “Enlightened” are all likely bigger pieces of the Stern brand than ever before.
The fact that Stern is still saddled with the “Shock Jock” image in 2019 further illustrates the point every brand must remember:
Changing content alone will not change your brand image.
Howard can be softer and less mean on-air, but unless he tells people he’s changed and how, the image will not change.
It’s a takeaway applicable to every brand, whether it’s Howard Stern or your radio station. No matter what image you’re trying to change, it takes commitment, discipline and a whole lot of patience.
Howard is certainly determined to show it can be done, and based upon his history, I’m betting he will get there.