Tag Archives: branding

Why You Should Plan For Focus Groups In 2022

Regular readers of Tuesdays with Coleman may recall when we made a big deal about our introduction of CampfireSM Online Discussion earlier this year. This service, which allows us to deliver qualitative insights to the audio brands we work with, utilizes an innovative online platform through which we deeply engage with a group of carefully screened consumers over the course of a week. We have delivered numerous Campfires already this year and have been gratified by the positive reactions we have received from the clients who have used our newest service.

While Campfire represents an exciting innovation in the world of qualitative research, this blog is going to focus on one of the oldest tools in the researcher toolkit—focus groups. The COVID-19 pandemic has prevented us from doing any of our 20/20 Focus Group studies for clients over the last 18 months, and even with a great new tool like Campfire available to us, I still think there are insights that only focus groups can deliver. My hope—obviously for many reasons besides this—is that it will be safe soon to gather consumers together to talk about the audio brands they consume and delve into the emotions that are the drivers of their behaviors. Focus groups have been derided by many for being “old school,” prone to the biases of those who moderate them, and far too often being driven by one or two participants who dominate the conversation and influence the softer-spoken attendees. Yes, they have been around a long time, but when they are moderated by someone who has been trained properly, they can unearth things that no other form of research I have seen in my nearly 35 years in this business can find.

One of my favorite focus group stories is truly old school; more than a half-century ago, General Mills learned via focus groups that their new line of Betty Crocker cake mixes was not selling well because homemakers felt guilty about how easy they were to use. When, based on that qualitative insight, the product was changed so that instead of just requiring the addition of water, the mix required that consumers also had to add eggs, the sales took off and the product became a staple of American kitchens.

A few years ago, I attended focus groups moderated by a colleague of mine for a Hip Hop station that was curious about a new sound that seemed to be testing well in their new music research. The clients and I sat with our mouths wide open behind the glass when we heard every Hip Hop fan in the group use a term to describe this genre that was clearly widespread “on the streets” but had not been heard by any radio programmers yet. By the next morning, there was imaging on the station using the term the focus group respondents taught us!

A few months ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a story, “Why Companies Shouldn’t Give Up on Focus Groups”[subscription required], that echoed many of the themes I am sharing here. It spoke of how in the rush to embrace big data—which, in many cases, can be very valuable—many large companies ended up looking the same and offering similar products and services because they were relying on the same input, behavioral data. The parallels in the audio business are looking at metrics such as Nielsen ratings, podcast downloads, and streaming channel user counts and trying to strategize based on the same data that everyone else has. In the WSJ article, a branding consultant named Martin Lindstrom, who has worked for firms ranging from Lego to Burger King to Swissair remarked, “The few companies that decide to go the opposite way of looking at the qualitative data, the small data, time after time discover insights which lead them to something profound, and that’s where you have true innovation take place.”

Branding consultant and best-selling author Martin Lindstrom

While the term “in these unprecedented times” is drastically overused these days, I can not imagine a time when the kinds of qualitative insights focus groups provide could be more useful. Another compelling quote in the WSJ article concerns the impact of the pandemic on consumers and how “It cannot be understated what a big shift has occurred. Companies should understand and study that because we’ve been altered in a way that is pretty profound.” The article goes on to state that “adapting to that new reality will require understanding the relative depth of people’s fear and fatigue. And that can’t be found on a spreadsheet.” The way people consume audio—which was already undergoing changes that were accelerated by the pandemic—is changing so dramatically that we need all the qualitative tools at our disposal to grasp the implications of these changes.

Focus groups are hard; they are also time consuming and expensive. Our Campfire Online Focus Groups provide an easier and somewhat less expensive way to gather qualitative insights, and while I applaud the clients who have invested in such studies with us this year, I hope that many of them—and clients who have not done much qualitative work in recent years—recognize that focus group research should be in their plans as soon as it is safe for us to conduct such studies.

As one of my heroes, Ferris Bueller, memorably said,  Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everything is a Marketing Decision

When you’ve been at the forefront of media research for as long as our company’s founder Jon Coleman has, you’re bound to have lots of “quotables.”

Of course, not everyone at Coleman Insights today can spout off every one of Jon’s nuggets of wisdom. But there’s one most of us have burned into our memory: “Every song you play is a marketing decision.”

Why is this one so sticky?

“Every song you play is a marketing decision” is a simple way of explaining how important your brand is to the success of a music-based radio station. The answer to the question to “Why did you play that song?” should never be “Because it tests.” The answer should be “Because it tests” and “Because it fits.” As Warren Kurtzman wrote when Coleman Insights introduced the FACT360 Strategic Music Test almost exactly six years ago, “to be right for your station, a song should absolutely be popular among and familiar to your target audience. It should also, however, reinforce the brand essence of your station or at least the essence of the brand you’re trying to build.”

Warren explained that it’s not just every song that makes a statement about your brand; it’s the positioning and imaging efforts you employ as well.

But that’s not all. Everything on a radio station is a marketing decision, and that very fact is what makes programming one so daunting and complex. It starts with a song, and expands to the positioning, the imaging, the personalities and how they present the brand. But it further spreads to elements like specialty hours and weekends. It includes the look of external marketing. The content of the website. The tone of the social media pages. The appearance at remote broadcasts. Even the spots played on the station, and certainly the sound of a station on its stream.

There’s no question that the demand on a programmer’s time makes it incredibly difficult to put every piece of content under the brand microscope, and it is realistically impossible to ensure that everything on a radio station meets the brand standards of the PD.

Just don’t ever say these three words: “It’s just one.”

It’s just one song. It’s just one specialty hour of music that’s completely different from what the station is known for, rather than an hour that expands and deepens a positive image. It’s just one­­ – ahem – “enhancement” commercial on an AC station. It’s just one remote with terrible audio. It’s just one talk break. It’s just one social media post. It’s just our stream (In a future Tuesdays With Coleman, we’ll address one way streaming content can adversely affect a station’s brand.)

The attitude of “It’s just one” leads to a piling up of “ones.” And that can end up creating a cumulative issue over time.

Every moment counts. Everything is a marketing decision.

 

 

Brand Subtraction: Less May Be More

Let’s say you’re responsible for overseeing a brand. If something is not working, you add something to make it more appealing. Right?

If something is working, you add more things to make it even better. Right?

We’ve addressed this instinct of addition a number of times in our Tuesdays With Coleman blogs. In “Too Many Messages,” Warren Kurtzman illustrated how adding messages to advertisements lowers the likelihood of remembering any single message from the ad. Jay Nachlis alluded to the explosion in entertainment options while quoting Jerry Seinfeld in “Lack of Focus=Lack of Greatness.” HBO’s ascent to juggernaut status happened by focusing on one great show at a time on Sunday nights, which Jon Coleman points out in “Can HBO and Radio Have it All?”

Now, there’s new science to back up addition by subtraction. Inc.’s Jeff Haden refers to a new University of Virginia study that revealed when people attempt to improve something, they default to “additive transformations,” while ignoring “subtractive transformations.”

It’s why a bar owner may think adding Taco Tuesday to his already loaded list of promotions will be just the thing to boost profit margins.

It’s why software developers think adding more features will make their applications easier to use.

And it’s why a radio program director may think adding more music or special features for the sake of quantity will result in more listening and higher ratings.

So, if we know that we’re inclined to add to solve problems, what happens when we’re prompted to subtract to solve the same problems?

When reminded they could remove items or elements, participants in the University of Virginia study were twice as likely to make subtractive changes than additive changes. And the changes were more effective.

Instead of considering what you can add to solve a problem, consider what you can subtract.

How would that focus your radio station’s music message? Or your podcast’s topic? Or one of your streaming service’s channels?

The takeaway is the take away.

 

 

I Can Tell How Healthy Your Brand Is With One Question

Remember when you went to the fair as a kid and there was a booth called “Fool the Guesser?” This eccentric gentleman was tasked with guessing your age (within two years), your weight (within 3 pounds), or the month of your birthday (within two months). If he got the answer wrong, you won a prize. It was a simple trick. He had to know the answer to just one question. As crazy as this guy looked, somehow, he seemed to always get the answer correct, mystifying the gathering crowd.

“Fool The Guesser” at the New York State Fair. Source: Syracuse.com

Was he psychic? Or are these things just obvious to an astute observer?[1]

Many years ago, I met a radio researcher who claimed that the answer to just one question was the key to winning or losing radio stations. Just like in Fool the Guesser. Curious about what that question might be? I was too. The question was “What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of (radio station name)?”

His line of thinking was that if most listeners mentioned the base music position of the radio station, the station was in a healthy place. If they mentioned the morning show, a contest, a feature, or some other programming element before music, he would say the station was not properly branded, and in a bit of trouble. The classic radio example is Howard Stern. Howard’s brand was so powerful, it overpowered the base positions of the stations that carried his show. When he fled for Sirius, a large percentage of the brands were forced to flip with no foundation to stand on.

Today, that remains a critical question and one of the most valuable health checks you can perform on your radio station. Indeed, it forms the foundation of the Coleman Insights Image Pyramid philosophy. Listeners must be able to, in a word or two, be able to explain what your station represents. What kind of music is it famous for? This applies for Spoken Word stations as well, with the Base Talk position replacing the Base Music position.

The Coleman Insights Image Pyramid

As the Image Pyramid demonstrates, the importance of the correct answer to the “one question” doesn’t mean the other elements are not important to study as well. The base position is the foundation, the other elements provide brand depth.

The “one question” exercise can be applied to any brand. Certainly, other audio brands in the podcast and streaming segments, but in other product categories as well. Take Spirit Airlines, in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. If consumers start regularly answering the one question with “cancelled flights” instead of “low fares,” Spirit is going to have a serious problem.

While no replacement for comprehensive research, try this exercise with your brand. Ask about the first thing that comes to mind.

What’s the answer?

[1] Here’s a fun article about “The Guesser” you might enjoy: https://www.syracuse.com/cny/2013/08/your_age_weight_and_birth_month_are_fair_game_for_the_guesser_at_the_new_york_state_fair.html

Nobody Likes Kale

Coleman Insights’ Brand-Content Matrix measures brand and content strength. The goal is to be in the upper right quadrant, at the intersection of strong brand and great content. While we generally share examples of where audio brands fall on the Brand-Content Matrix, today we’ll have a little fun. I’ll demonstrate how this tool can be used to evaluate the brand and content strength of just about anything. Even a vegetable.

Kale is disgusting. It is dry, has a texture so rubbery my car could drive on it, and leaves your mouth with a bitter aftertaste. Mmmmm.

But my opinion isn’t shared by millions who eat kale everyday and think it offers “great content.” It’s become a brand juggernaut in the health food space.  But kale didn’t always have a strong brand, and it wasn’t loved for its content either. If kale—kale!—can build a brand and develop strong content, surely your brand can too. Let’s explore how it was done.

First of all, while its popularity may be, kale itself is definitely not new. Kale has been cultivated for over 2,000 years in North America, and the frost-resistant crop dates back to 600 BC when the Celts brought it from Europe to Asia Minor. Legend has it that the largest buyer of kale prior to 2012 was Pizza Hut. They used it as garnish around their salad bars.

Pizza Hut using kale on its salad bar

But today, kale is found in high priced foods and beverages and is a darling of the health food industry.

Which hipster is responsible for this disaster?

Actually, it may be Martha Stewart’s fault.

Her company’s Whole Living magazine branded kale a “powerfood” in 2008. Then she published a recipe for kale slaw in 2009. The next thing you know, Dr. Oz is talking about kale and thyroids, Gwenyth Paltrow’s making kale chips, and your kale smoothie–natch, “superfood smoothie”—is $8.95.

The rise of kale was pretty handy for the food industry, as you can snag a bunch of it at Walmart for 78 cents. Which I contend is still overpriced.

THE BRANDING AND MARKETING OF KALE

Kale would not and could not have climbed its way up the brand ladder from buffet garnish at the Hut to chic miracle green without some really impressive branding and marketing efforts. Calling it a “superfood” and “power food” is utter genius. Getting the right celebrities behind it powers the engine.

This is how kale’s brand shifted from weak to strong, but it still had a content problem. You may be drawn to try kale thanks to its brand strength, but you won’t try it again if you don’t like it.

An equally brilliant move by the kale brigade was the decision to include kale as a secondary ingredient in so many recipes.

You likely don’t order a kale smoothie—maybe you order a pineapple kale or blueberry kale version. Or something like the Detox Island Green smoothie at Tropical Smoothie Café with spinach, kale, mango, pineapple, banana, and fresh ginger.

Fun fact, I’ve had the Detox Island Green smoothie. It’s delicious. You know why? IT DOESN’T TASTE LIKE KALE!

Fruit masks the flavor of the kale.

So does the spicy sweet potato and avocado sauce in a Southwestern Kale Power Salad.

“Oh, I sauteé kale! It tastes so good!” Maybe that’s because you mix in garlic and bacon.

So you see, the kale squad didn’t just run a master class in branding. They knew the taste of mere kale alone would keep its sad spot in the upper left quadrant of the Brand-Content Matrix (strong brand, poor content.) So close, but yet so far.

Because they figured out how to boost the brand as well as improve the eating experience, it could easily be argued that kale is in fact it its rightful position in the upper right quadrant, with its strong brand and great content.

I can only hope we’re towards the end of this long national nightmare. But in the meantime, I’ll tip my cap to team kale, and take this moment to remind you that there needs to be consistent, deliberate efforts undertaken to build a strong brand. But that is simply not enough.

You better also come to the party with strong content. If your content is mere kale-level, it is incumbent on you to spice it up and make it a superfood.

Finally, let’s toast this branding/content moment with a strawberry-banana smoothie.

You know, what smoothies are supposed to be made of.

Gathering the Family Together for Noods

Tuesdays With Coleman

With all the news lately, you may have missed one of the all-time greatest examples of a brand-content mismatch.

The Kraft Macaroni & Cheese “Send Noods” campaign.

Yep, that Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. The one you remember eating as a kid. The one your kids ask for by name. The brand that’s part of warm family memories around the dinner table.

The campaign encouraged consumers to visit enjoynoods.com (don’t bother, it’s gone), posts on the brand’s social media sites (they’re gone, too), and using the hashtag #sendnoods to get free boxes of Mac & Cheese to send to family and friends.

Creative and impressively designed marketing pieces includes blurred out images:

Top View Magazine Mockup by Anthony Boyd Graphics

Wordplay…

Top View Magazine Mockup by Anthony Boyd Graphics

And a video (since deleted from Kraft’s official pages) starring former SNL cast member Vanessa Bayer laying beside the fireplace encouraging you to send noods, not nudes.

The campaign was scheduled to last from October 6th-11th, so by the time Kraft removed the content in response to outraged parents claiming they were sexualizing mac & cheese, it was already over.

So, was the campaign successful?

Kraft says they delivered over 20,000 boxes of mac. They certainly got some buzz, though it was likely limited thanks to everything else going on in the world.

For certain brands, a campaign using innuendo and double-entendres designed to surprise and grab attention makes perfect sense.

But for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese–a brand built on pretty much the opposite image–it doesn’t seem like the greatest move. On our Brand-Content MatrixSM, we’d put this campaign in the upper left quadrant. Kraft Macaroni & Cheese has an incredibly strong brand, but executed poor content out of sync with its images.

Brand Content Matrix

Brands should aim to be in the upper right quadrant of the Brand-Content Matrix.

Would they have had even greater response if, for example, they launched a campaign inviting parents to send pictures or videos of their kids saying “cheese”? If there’s one thing I know, it’s that parents love showing off their children, and that’s an example of content that’s perfectly in line with the brand. That would be in the upper right quadrant.

Kraft is a big brand, strong enough to easily move pass a branding faux pas. Not every brand would be.

Do you agree? Did Kraft miss the mark or was the campaign worth it?

The Story of a Once Dominant Brand

Tuesdays With Coleman

This is the story of a once-dominant radio station that did everything right.

The owners deployed a perceptual research (Plan DeveloperSM) study on the brand every single year to ensure its market position was the most optimal one. It had an enviable Image PyramidSM: a strong Base Music Position, a dominant morning show that complemented the brand, and deep images that permeated the community.

The Coleman Insights Image Pyramid

Because this station consistently fielded research, we saw things that were not obviously there. Ratings were great. Revenue was great. But there was trouble brewing, and we could identify it early.

For obvious reasons, we can’t share identifying information such as the market, station, and personalities, but we invite you to take a look back at the progression of studies done for this brand over a nearly fifteen year period to get a clearer glimpse of how the process works–and how valuable perceptual research can be.

At one time, our client station was in an outstanding position. Their perceptual research looked very strong. It was strongly associated with its desired music images and the morning show was the dominant leader in the market. In fact, in the early stages of research, our morning show was growing with Cume and P1 listeners and there were few signs of weakness.

Then a new competitor launched. It wasn’t the first time our station had fended off competitors. If ratings and revenue were the measure of success, the client station was still in an outstanding place. The new competitor was on a weak signal, which limited its potential. But early on, despite what ratings showed, the morning show on the new competitor displayed positive early indicators in our research. And, despite what the ratings said, we saw the first signs of image erosion with our show.

About a year later, it was clear the crosstown morning show showed impressive promise with the younger end of our target demographic. We recommended attempting to acquire the other morning show.

Eleven months later, our morning show still performed well in the ratings, but there was a clear disconnect with the younger end. At this point, our station had a far stronger Base Music Position and in fact the competitor’s base position was weakening. But their morning show was growing and was wildly popular among their P1s. Their show was not performing to its potential because that station’s Base Music Position was weak. Again, we recommended making a play for the other show.

A year later, the weakness of our competitor’s music position continued to hamper their morning show, which lacked familiarity in the market. But the show was outperforming our show perceptually on the younger end. We believed, particularly because of its weak music position, getting this show would be devastating to the other station. We once again recommended going after it.

Another year later: We insisted a morning show change needed to be made. The host of the other show had been given the time needed to develop into a superstar. Our show’s fan base was now significantly older than the target of our station. But by this point, making a pitch for their show was getting out of reach.

Two years later: Our station’s perceptual position had eroded. Cume Conversion (the percentage of listeners that convert into loyal P1s) plummeted. Momentum images were concerning, with a high number of listeners that felt our station was “not as good as it used to be.” By this point, our morning show was replaced, but it was too late–and the new morning show was not a good fit and had high negative images.

Three years later: The competitor was now the preferred station in our target demographic. The other show was in syndication.

The station has arguably never recovered, going through a variety of format shifts and talent lineups while the competitor continues to thrive.

Every good researcher will tell you that their job isn’t to tell you what you want to hear–it’s to tell you what you need to hear, as we did here. And fortunately, we often get to deliver good news–but hearing bad news can be immensely valuable. It would be easy to say, “Why didn’t they just make the change??”…but of course it’s more complicated than that, including money issues and people issues. It’s hard to pull the trigger on something when ratings and revenue show things are going well.

By deploying strategic research, you get to see things that aren’t immediately obvious. You get to make the decisions that can have remarkable impacts on your brand. It’s certainly better than relying on ratings and gut alone.

The Everlasting Effects of a Roof-Raising Brand

Tuesdays With Coleman

In the world of brand building, never forget that perceptions associated with your brand can last a long time. A very long, long time.

There are a great many positives that can result from remaining consistent in your brand building initiatives. For example, the longer you use the same logo and repeat the same core messaging, the more opportunity you have to build brand association. If the images are positive, you build loyalty.

Brothers Dan and Frank Carney’s first Pizza Hut opened in 1958 in Wichita, Kansas. But it wasn’t until 1969 when the company was looking for a way to differentiate its brand, that Pizza Hut unveiled its first restaurant with a red roof.

Pizza Hut original red roof

Pizza Hut added the red roof to its logo and used that version until 1999.

The pizza business went through massive changes thanks to the widespread convenience of delivery. Today, less than 10 percent of Pizza Hut’s sales are dine-in. The market changes led to smaller stores and abandonment of the big restaurants with the red roof.

A visit to Used To Be A Pizza Hut features a map of North America where you can find locations of repurposed red roof Pizza Huts, some of which (shockingly) didn’t make it. Many of the roofs are no longer red, but the architecture is unmistakable.

Where Pan Pizza, salad bars, and family memories were once made, the Spyce Gentlemen’s Club and After Dark Adult Store would later hold court.

“You know that place that used to be a Pizza Hut? Great seafood and chicken, fast.”

“I remember eating at that Pizza Hut when I was a kid. I get my diabetes medication there.”

If you remember eating in a Pizza Hut, one look at any building with the signature Pizza Hut design likely evokes the brand images you remember, positive or negative. They stick with you. It’s an image any business that takes its place in the old building lives with.

It’s also a reminder that your content is not everything. You may have the best gentlemen’s club, seafood and chicken or pharmacy in town, but because of the power of a brand, it will always be in the old Pizza Hut.

Although your brand may not be building distinct structures, you are always building your brand. Never forget how long those images can last.

After 20 dormant years, Pizza Hut brought back the old classic red roof logo in 2019, evoking nostalgia and a taste for the familiar. Perhaps considering what 2020 has ended up bringing us, it was a timely decision.

Brand Like Your Life or (Liquid) Death Depends on It

Tuesdays With Coleman

You are always thinking of ways to get more listeners. How to best promote your talent. Which contests to run. How to make your brand “sticky”. We often see in our research that sticky brands–brands that do memorable things and become top of mind for those attributes–are more likely to grow their audience.

You can generate lasting, memorable images of your brand with great brand marketing. And the best part? Much of the brand marketing you can do to build those images is free or low-cost. The imaging on a radio station. The cover art you choose for your podcast. The name of a streaming channel. The home page on your website. These are not just opportunities to promote your brand, they are opportunities to build your brand.

Every piece of imaging you produce, every video you record, every photo you release, every blog you write should go through your brand filter. Does this support my brand and will it build my brand?

Enter Liquid Death Mountain Water.

Liquid Death Mountain Water

At liquiddeath.com, you’ll see:

  • A memorable, in-your-face positioning statement: “Murder Your Thirst”.
  • The “Contact Us” button is labeled “Summon Us”.
  • Their rewards program allows you to “Earn Skulls”.
  • There’s a blue button on the top right that says “HELL YES”. I didn’t know what the hell it was, but I had to find out.
  • And….

I’m not going to leave out the best part: the Killer Baby Namer. Enter your last name, gender (or select the “death to gender” option), pick from a list of hilarious desired occupations for your child, and you’ll discover your baby’s name. (If I was going to have another kid, Rock Murderdome Nachlis sounds pretty sweet). Scroll down, and you’ll see that the company will send you an 18-year supply of Liquid Death if you upload a copy of the birth certificate with their killer baby name.

This brand knows exactly who and what it is, and you can only imagine how much fun they had putting this together.

What if your audio brand barreled in with this kind of chutzpah on the website? What brand-building game could you put on your site that’s not “Enter your name and listen for it?” How would you relabel your navigation tabs? What fun outfits could your talent wear in photo shoots?  What memorable hashtags (like Liquid Death’s #DeathToPlastic) could you come up with?

Read the “About” page and check out their description of unnecessary things (“Jumping over 14 Greyhound buses on a vintage motorcycle”, “Cat videos”) and necessary things (“Breathing”, “Colonoscopies”).

This makes me want to write a promo right this second.

To be clear, your brand may be (and probably is) way less “aggressive” than Liquid Death. The lesson here isn’t to be like Liquid Death. It’s to be your brand and all the essence that goes with it. Be your brand bigger, better and stickier. And maybe, just maybe a little more fun. Couldn’t we all use a little more of that right now?

Liquid Death doesn’t have the advantage of having been around long. Liquid Death doesn’t have a 100,000 watt transmitter. You can’t tell Alexa to play Liquid Death. Liquid Death doesn’t have an app, or a roster of amazing talent that have cemented a bond with its listeners.

But you might have one or two of those things. Maybe you’re fortunate enough to have all of them.

Now brand like your life or Liquid Death depends on it.

Early Observations of Apple Music Radio

Tuesdays With Coleman

As many of you may already know, Apple Music revamped its live global radio offerings three weeks ago. Its flagship station Beats 1 was renamed Apple Music 1, and it debuted two new stations: Apple Music Hits and Apple Music Country.

Apple Music Radio

In her recent column, “Spotify and Apple Music Disagree on the Future of Radio. Who’s Right?,” Cherie Hu observes that while Spotify seems to be all-in on on-demand, Apple Music is “leaning more, not less, into linear radio experiences than ever.”

To be clear, “linear” means a shared experience for all listeners at that moment. You tune in from London at 2 PM local time, I tune in from Raleigh at 9 AM local time, and we hear the exact same thing. It’s live and there’s no skipping ahead. Just like listening to your favorite local radio station…except for the “local” part…and a few other things…

Traditional Format Lanes

For the most part, Apple Music has positioned its three live radio stations in traditional format lanes:

  • Apple Music 1 (“The new music that matters”) is their Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) station.
  • Apple Music Hits (“Songs you know and love”) is their 80s/90s/2000s Classic Hits station.
  • Apple Music Country (“Where it sounds like home”) is their Country station.

Aside from 80s/90s/2000s being a more modern era focus than is heard on most Anytown, USA Classic Hits stations at the moment, these are three formats that will feel pretty recognizable and comfortable to programmers and listeners alike. In this regard, Apple Music does not seem to be trying to reinvent the wheel.

One thing I wonder about is whether there might be some initial listener confusion related to the branding of Apple Music Hits. I’m not arguing whether or not the songs they play from the 80s, 90s and 2000s are technically “hits.” But, in many markets, consumers may have been taught that the word “hits” in radio means contemporary hits (e.g., Z100 – New York’s #1 Hit Music Station). So do some listeners tune in expecting new music hits from Apple Music Hits instead of Apple Music 1? And are some fans of 80s/90s/2000s music left on the table because they do not realize that Apple Music Hits is where they should go to hear such music?

Collections of Distinct Shows

The three Apple Music radio stations have highly structured schedules, consisting primarily of one- and two-hour-long shows. And while each station sits in a general format lane, there is quite a bit of diversity from show to show. These shows are distinctly branded and programmed, with prominent hosts (e.g., Zane Lowe, Strombo, Ty Bentli) and unique content elements (e.g., artist interviews, special music features, countdowns).

Zane Lowe is a prominent host on Apple Music Radio, as well as Apple Music’s Global Creative Director.

As a listener accustomed to music radio stations that, by and large, are consistent in programming outside of perhaps a high-profile morning show and an occasional music feature, the structure of Apple Music’s radio stations can at times be jarring. For example, one hour of Apple Music Hits may give you Easy Hits Radio, in another you may hear Rock Classics Radio, and later you may come across Hip-Hop/R&B Throwback Radio.

Speaking personally, The Apple Music 1 List (“hear our current obsessions and new discoveries making waves”) and The Chart Show (“Brooke Reese hosts chart countdowns from around the world along with the biggest guests in pop music”) feel very much “on brand” and consistent with my expectations of Apple Music 1 (“The new music that matters”). But the string of throwbacks I heard earlier on The Rebecca Judd Show and the in-depth interview Zane Lowe had with Metallica’s Lars Ulrich were not what I was expecting when I turned to Apple Music 1.

This is not to say that any of these things are examples of unappealing content. It’s really a question of brands and expectations. What happens when you go to McDonald’s and there are no hamburgers on the menu for an hour? I may love the alternative, or I may go across the street to the other burger joint.

One more thing: maybe it’s my expectations that need to change. It’ll be interesting to see how I feel after spending more time getting accustomed to this structure.

The Human Touch

With these three radio stations, Apple Music has put the human touch front and center. As noted in their launch announcement, “Throughout its evolution, Beats 1 [now Apple Music 1] has established an inherent camaraderie with the artist community and championed human curation and discovery — an approach that will continue across the three stations.”

Both hosts and artists are prominently featured, with the latter sometimes playing the role of the former. Zane Lowe, who also wears the hat of Global Creative Director for Apple Music, has a deep passion for the music that comes through in his interviews with the artists who make it. Ebro Darden, who in addition to his Apple Music duties is the morning show host of Hot 97 in New York, brings the global audience to the streets of the city; you may hear him highlight influential Hip Hop classics or you may hear him trash the local police department for endorsing President Trump. These are not easy-to-miss background voices. And that’s the point, right? Give interesting, entertaining people a chance to shine, promote them accordingly, and hope it attracts an audience.

I’m not sure how this will eventually play out for Apple Music 1, Apple Music Hits and Apple Music Country—but it’s fun to see both some old things and some new things being tried.