Brands around the world have been feverishly trying to figure out how to pivot during the age of COVID-19. How should we change our offerings? What tone of voice should we use? How should it look?
Enter the master of the moment, Taylor Swift.
Swift’s transition from Country darling to Pop superstar is well documented. From 2006-2010, she sold millions of albums and won countless awards with her sweet, melodic Pop Country sound. 2012’s Red was the transition album that led to 1989 two years later, her straight-ahead Pop album.
The releases of the three monster Pop albums in a five-year span–1989, Reputation and Lover–were lessons in large-scale, bombastic (and effective) marketing. Swift teased 1989 on social media in August 2014. She did a live stream. She teased the artwork. There were “secret” listening sessions in hotel rooms. Songs were “leaked” early.
A few fortunate fans got to join Taylor Swift at secret listening sessions around album releases.
There was no marketing let-up on Reputation or Lover, including more secret sessions, partnerships with UPS and Amazon, an exclusive playlist on Spotify, a new line of clothing and her own music festival, Lover Fest, which, until the pandemic derailed plans, was to play stadiums this summer.
Now, Taylor Swift has delivered a master class on how to pivot your brand in a crisis. In a world filled with marketing extremes–either brands running over-cliched ad campaigns or ignoring the pandemic altogether–Taylor Swift did something so smart, you’d almost think it was done by accident.
She released her new album, Folklore with no fanfare at all.
The album was announced 16 hours prior to its availability. There were no singles released early to promote it. According to Swift, “My gut is telling me that if you make something you love, you should just put it out into the world.”
Taylor Swift mastered the moment because she recognized and mirrored the mood of her audience. So much content we’re currently seeing and hearing was, of course, recorded long ago–they couldn’t have predicted where we’d be today. Folklore feels in the moment because it was recorded during the pandemic.
What techniques can your brand adopt from the “Folklore” launch?
Do something surprising. No one saw this album coming, so it felt like a gift, which made it feel more special.
Dial down the hype. Be wary of overloading with information because we have so much coming at us from every angle.
Be an Outside Thinker. When you put yourself in your consumer’s shoes, you win. From the stripped down music to the lessened hype to the somber black and white photo shoot, everything about the Folklore release feels like a recognition of where the listener is emotionally.
From Taylor Swift’s black and white Folklore photo shoot Credit: Beth Garrabrant
When will it be time to get back to normal and flip the old hype machine switch back on?
We can’t be sure, but you can bet Taylor Swift will know when it’s time.
Last Wednesday, our friends and frequent collaborators at Jacobs Media Strategies referenced Coleman Insights’ Image PyramidSM in an excellent blog post. The post raised questions about the role of Community imagery for radio brands and the impact the COVID-19 pandemic and the social justice movement may have on that role.
The Image Pyramid is a concept we use to help guide strategic brand-building for radio stations. Most important—as evidenced by it being the foundational layer of the Image Pyramid—is that the target audience understands your Base Music or Talk Position (for example, “the Hip Hop station” or “the Sports station”). From there, upper layers of the Image Pyramid can be thought of as brand depth, with Personality—having known and appreciated personalities who attract listening above and beyond what your Base Position alone would attract—being particularly important for many stations. At the top of the Image Pyramid is Community—being known for community involvement activities, such as raising money for a local charity or supporting local causes in other ways—and this is the layer discussed in Fred Jacobs’ blog last week.
The Coleman Insights Image Pyramid
One of the many reasons why I feel fortunate for knowing Fred Jacobs for more than 25 years is that he and his colleagues are always questioning conventional wisdom and the status quo. That’s why we welcome this questioning of the current configuration of the Image Pyramid; our goal is to make sure it continues to be a tool for building the strongest brands possible. In fact, this isn’t the first time we have been down this road; in 2015, Fred and I collaborated on a blog on the evolution of the Image Pyramid for the age of increased digital media consumption.
Before I address the specifics of Jacobs’ most recent blog, I think it’s important for everyone reading this to understand the purpose of the Image Pyramid. It’s not designed to represent a ranking of what listeners find most and least important in a radio station. Instead, it’s based on what we learn from research regarding which areas of image development contribute the most to building strong brands, which—when coupled with strong content execution—is the biggest factor in attracting listeners and generating long-term ratings success for radio stations. Community has been the smallest layer of the Image Pyramid not because it is unimportant, but because our experience has shown it to be less important than other dimensions in terms of driving listenership. Sure, listeners like that a radio station is a good steward in the community, but they don’t choose radio stations based on that criteria alone.
Conversely, Contests is prominent on the pyramid even though listeners often tell us that contests are not very important to them. We repeatedly see in strategic research that stations with strong imagery for Contests that complements their stronger images for their Base Music or Talk Position, Personality and Specialty Programming tend to enjoy greater ratings success than those without Contest imagery.
The Image Pyramid as it currently stands represents our best thinking based on what we have observed about recent research results and radio station ratings. We have never shied away from updating it and it has changed since Jon Coleman initially developed it decades ago. For example, Specialty Programming has a more prominent role than it used to, and the Marketing layer did not exist in early incarnations of the pyramid.
So, do we have Community in the right place? We’re certainly giving that a lot of thought, as demonstrated by a blog we published right as we began feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In “How to Connect with Your Audience in a Crisis,” published on March 19th, we stated explicitly, “In times of crisis, Community surges to a higher level of importance on the Image Pyramid.”
Community has played an important role for many radio stations over the past few months through outreach initiatives. (Pictured: The KSHE/St. Louis Summer Blood Drive)
The big question, of course, is what happens when the crisis subsides, which we all hope will happen sooner rather than later. Will the pandemic, the social justice movement and—as Jacobs rightly pointed out in their blog post—the seemingly increased attention consumers are paying to where the brands they consume stand on important issues result in a permanent change on how much Community imagery has on the ratings performance of radio stations? Will stations that have increased their Community imagery during this crisis enjoy long-term increases in their ratings success or will those strengthened images have minimal impact after the pandemic is over?
The answer is that we don’t know yet. David Leonhardt of the New York Times wrote a great Opinion piece this past Sunday in which he predicted—while admitting that he did not have the utmost confidence in his position—that the pandemic will be the most impactful event on our society since World War II and The Great Depression. At the same time, Leonhardt pointed out that, “The financial crisis of 2007-9 didn’t cause Americans to sour on stocks, and it didn’t lead to an overhaul of Wall Street. The election of the first Black president didn’t usher in an era of racial conciliation. The 9/11 attacks didn’t make Americans unwilling to fly. The Vietnam War didn’t bring an end to extended foreign wars without a clear mission.”
You have my assurance that Coleman Insights—working in concert with our clients, consultants like Fred Jacobs and other industry colleagues—will continue to track the changing factors in the ratings performances of radio stations, as we are continuously thinking about the way to help our radio clients build the very strongest brands. If Community’s place should be moved or if any other evolution of the Image Pyramid is warranted, we will make sure you are among the first to know.
DoubleTree by Hilton shared its chocolate chip cookie recipe on April 9th to “bring a moment of comfort and happiness”.
Your brand may not have a recipe to share, but it (hopefully) does have something that makes it special and different. Now, as the country attempts to get back to some semblance of normality (I’m not going to say the “New Normal”), is the time to let people know about it.
There are so many amazing examples of radio stations utilizing the medium for good over the past couple of months. Before your listeners go back to their commutes, the office and back to school, tell them what you did. Getting brand credit for community is no different than getting credit for being #1 for Hip Hop or playing the most New Country. You can’t just break more new hits than the competition or play twenty percent more songs than the station across the street–you have to do it and take credit to get credit.
When it comes to reminding listeners about your community connection during the pandemic, you have to be careful of tone and not be boastful.
ACE Metrix measures the performance of TV and video commercials. Watch the strong-testing COVID ad, Frito-Lay’s “All About People”:
On the surface, it sounds and feels like the cliché ads referred to in the beginning of this blog, but the messaging within it does not. Frito-Lay takes credit for the good work they’ve done during the pandemic, but makes it about the people they did it for.
As we pointed out in “How to Connect With Your Audience in a Crisis”, “If you make a concerted effort to think about what you can really do for your community and your audience, your efforts will create a halo over your brand when things settle down.” But you have to take credit.
I grew up in Island Park, New York, a very small island town in one of the bays off Long Island’s south shore. When Superstorm Sandy struck the Northeast in the fall of 2012, my little hometown—where my parents still live in the home they raised my sister and I in—was devastated.
Looking back, I can classify each of the roughly 3,000 homes in my hometown into four different groups. The first group was the small number of homes that suffered little damage. Group two included my parents’ house, which suffered considerable damage, but which was covered by flood insurance and eventually repaired. A third group consisted of severely damaged homes that required significant reinvestments by their owners to not only be habitable once again, but which required improvements to reduce the risk of being damaged again in future storms. The fourth group was the most upsetting; it included severely damaged homes owned by people who had insufficient insurance coverage and lacked the means to repair them. Many homeowners in this fourth group were forced to sell their damaged homes at steep discounts, and some of their homes remain uninhabitable today.
Here’s my dad standing in front of the flooded schoolyard where I made my Little League debut.
It struck me this week that there are clear parallels between what my hometown went through as a result of Sandy and the financial challenges so many radio stations are facing as advertisers cut spending due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are some companies whose radio stations are predominately located in areas that have been minimally impacted by the pandemic and where businesses have not been ordered to close. As with the homes in my hometown, there are very few examples of this; the impact of the pandemic on the radio business has been severe and my Coleman Insights colleagues and I feel the pain that many of our clients are suffering.
A second group of companies have some degree of insurance against current conditions, much like how my parents didn’t skimp on the coverage they had on their home. Sure, their stations’ revenues have plummeted like many of their peers, but they are poised to emerge from the current crisis stronger than most because they have spent years investing in their people, conducting research, externally marketing their stations and connecting with their local communities. These broadcasters have a stable of strong brands that listeners are most likely to return to when their listening behavior more closely resembles what consumers were doing before the pandemic.
Group three is like the second group, but their commitment to building strong brands has been less consistent, with more voice-tracked air shifts, fielding research studies only when necessary, sporadic external marketing and unpaid interns handling community outreach. These broadcasters have, however, responded to the challenge of the pandemic by recognizing the important role they can play in their listeners’ lives during this crucial time and have dedicated their stations to being sources of important information and doing things like working with advertisers to help medical personnel and those who have lost their jobs during the crisis. Besides taking their commitment to serve their communities seriously, the managers at these stations are betting on the goodwill their efforts are generating to benefit them when some sense of normalcy returns.
By now, you know where I am going with the fourth group of stations. Few of the unfortunate people who worked for them have avoided being laid off, leaving the remaining staff members to cover multiple roles. Nearly round-the-clock automation has become the norm and all investments in the future—research, marketing, etc.—have not been put on hold, they have been cancelled. For those with cash burning holes in their pockets, many of these stations should be available at bargain prices in the not-too-distant future.
I recognize these are challenging times for many of you reading this. Much as we are facing at Coleman Insights, the damage to your businesses caused by the decline in economic activity during this crisis is severe, even if we successfully “flatten the curve” and get the economy moving again by the third quarter. Massive amounts of revenue have been lost and it is likely that the revenue will not only not be made up in the second half of the year, but that the second half of the year will feature less revenue than called for in everyone’s annual budgets.
For many, the initial—and very understandable—inclination in such an environment is to make as many cuts as possible. While some cuts are unavoidable, there is ample evidence that firms that invest in their businesses during economic downturns outperform their peers during times of recovery. Some quick reads I can recommend on the subject include a great piece from Fortune last September and an outstanding blog from my friend and former colleague Pierre Bouvard of Cumulus Media/Westwood One. Much as these pieces align with the efforts that many radio salespeople are making right now to convince advertisers of the need to keep spending or be prepared to spend in advance of their businesses reopening, radio stations need to follow the same advice and be ready to invest in people, research and marketing to the greatest extent possible so that their brands can thrive when the economy recovers. In other words, radio has an opportunity to set the example for its clients.
As nearly everyone in the audio entertainment space faces tough decisions about managing their businesses during this challenging time, we urge those making those decisions to learn from what we have learned during past downturns and from what my hometown learned from Superstorm Sandy. If your business hasn’t been severely damaged or if you’ve insured it as much as possible against the challenges presented by crises like these, congratulations. If, however, you are scrambling to figure out how to get through this period of unprecedented challenge, look past the next few weeks and focus on actions you can take—and investments you can make in your people and your brands—to emerge as strongly positioned as possible and better prepared to withstand the next storm on the horizon.
Sometimes you hear about radio stations that change formats after trying one for a year or two, or even after just a few months. You may know of stations that have flipped formats multiple times in a calendar year. Maybe this time the lucky number will come up.
One thing the COVID-19 crisis should remind us of is the power of brands.
As always, listeners choose stations based on the need the brand fulfills, a choice often based on perceptions built over time. This can be even more noticeable in times like this, when many listeners are relying on radio to get them through.
You can’t expect stations that stay in one format for short periods of time to be able to build deep, lasting brand perceptions that influence behavior.
Images are like icebergs. Slow to develop, slow to erode. That also means a station that served one need for a long time but then made a programming change is subject to pre-learned interference. That’s when a brand has trouble developing new images because its existing images are so ingrained.
Images are like icebergs. Slow to develop, slow to erode.
That’s also why it is so challenging for a station to try to make significant programming shifts while keeping the same name. If you went to buy Velveeta and found the label on a block of real, authentic organic cheddar cheese, you probably wouldn’t buy it. That’s not what you expect from Velveeta.
If Velveeta decided it was strategically committed to becoming an organic product, it would need to devote a significant amount of energy and money to re-branding itself. Most of all, assuming it was a good product, it would need to give customers time to get used to associating Velveeta with organic cheese. So radio stations, just like the hypothetical Velveeta, have to think carefully about: a) how critical and potentially beneficial the change is; b) if it can be effectively done without a name change, even with large resources; and c) whether it is worth the return on investment.
Remember how precious your brand is. You see it in this moment as listeners choose “the most trusted” news station or the “most relaxing” Adult Contemporary station or the Hip Hop station “most connected to the community.” They don’t choose fleeting brands, they choose brands that mean something to them. As we outlined in How to Connect With Your Audience in a Crisis, you absolutely should be modifying your programming during this time. But, it is important to consider the role of your brand in those modifications.
This crisis will pass, but the need for strong brands will not. Always make informed decisions about your format and brand carefully, with the understanding that being flippant about formats is never the road to long-lasting success.
A logical approach to programming strategy during just about any time other than the present would likely suggest that playing Christmas music in March would be a pretty dopey idea. But if one were to adopt an Outside Thinking philosophy–considering your brand from the viewpoint of your consumer–it may not be quite as nutty as it seems.
It’s not right for most brands, but for some that are already utilized for comfort and escape, maybe it’s not the craziest idea.
Inside Thinkers do things the way they’ve always been done, the way they know how.
Outside Thinkers think like their consumers, recognizing that whether they like it or not, Coronavirus is dominating their lives.
When you have a deep understanding of your brand and the need it fulfills, and you adapt that to the current lifestyle of the consumer, amazing things can happen. Even in the most uncertain of times. Maybe it’s time for your stations to spread some cheer!
As the world has turned upside down for the foreseeable future, the team at Coleman Insights has been engaged in conversations with our clients about how to navigate the new landscape. We recognize the ability of radio stations and other audio-based media to shine in moments of crisis, and there are already numerous examples of this occurring. On the other hand, we also recognize the lack of an “adversity road map.” There is no playbook that dictates how each brand should respond. Should you continue to deliver your format without any significant modifications? Is this a moment to break format completely and provide relevant crisis information instead? These are difficult strategic decisions. The specific choices are also hard.
Our consultant team has been having ongoing internal discussions about strategies for the audio entertainment industry. The result is the following special Thursday edition of Tuesdays With Coleman, a compilation of thoughts and ideas our team would like to share with you, with the understanding that there is no single solution for everyone.
Recognize unusual times call for unusual measures.
Everyone has something to contribute during a global emergency. Regardless of what your brand regularly delivers, your listeners are affected by the COVID-19 outbreak and your response should reflect this. Your brand has a voice and a platform to be heard when listeners need it the most. Known, trusted personalities should play a major role and leverage the intimate connections they have with their listeners.
Consider the role of your brand in COVID-19 coverage.
Understand the need your brand fulfills.
News brands have a responsibility to provide comprehensive, relevant coverage. These brands might consider whether there are opportunities to go outside the typical format. For example, does more long-form programming or an increased number of updates make sense? These decisions should be determined by the role of the brand–in this case, being a provider of constant, reliable and trustworthy information during the crisis.
Listeners may be visiting your music station to get away from news coverage, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to stay connected. Does it make sense to employ a “We’re following the news so you don’t have to” approach? This allows talent to play a reassuring role; listeners can count on enjoying content on a music station without feeling like the world will pass by if they aren’t watching CNN or Fox News at that moment.
A full-service Adult Contemporary station may play a more personality-forward role of providing news and information. On the other hand, if your brand primarily provides comfort and escape, like a Soft Adult Contemporary radio station, constant news updates may be a harrowing intrusion and contrary to your brand. In fact, brands built on comfort and escape should lean in to that image, as it is particularly valuable when the real world is more chaotic.
Recognize that listening patterns are likely in significant flux.
If many people aren’t going to work or school, typical in-car commute listening levels no longer apply. What about everyone who is temporarily working from home? Or businesses that have been forced to close, like bars and restaurants? Will radio listening increase or decrease?
Reduced commuting will have a significant effect on listening patterns
With that in mind, consider the impact on how people may be consuming your station, podcast or streaming service and the programming options you may have.
With entire families now at home throughout the day, what about specialty programming geared to them during traditional at work hours? Should you do this on your main platform or would offering this through podcasts, separate streaming channels, etc. make more sense?
Aggressively promote all your listening platforms, keeping in mind that smart speaker listening is heavier at home than in the workplace and a surge of at home listening may be taking place.
Provide increased authentic and actionable listener engagement.
Listeners will find comfort in others going through the same issues. You may find yourself broadcasting from your home, which may be out of your comfort zone. Rather than trying to project a sense of business as usual, embrace the change! If the dog barks, the child screams or the husband sighs in the background, that’s real life. It’s exactly what your listener is going through. Let sharing be the mantra–you could, for example, have listeners upload pictures of their home offices to your social pages and share yours.
Find experts to feature on your shows. You don’t have to have all the COVID-19 answers yourself, and some of the best content is being generated by personalities across multiple formats interviewing those on the front lines of the crisis.
NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) Director Anthony Fauci has been extremely media-friendly in providing crisis guidance
Consider taking more listener phone calls. Allow them to share feelings and information that may be valuable to other listeners.
Think about brand-appropriate actionable advice you can offer listeners that is applicable to the current environment (i.e., how to work at home while the kids are in online school, the best binge-able series on Netflix or which delivery services have waived their fees).
Modify your tone. Be empathetic to the new needs of an uncertain audience.
Rally your community.
In times of crisis, “Community” surges to a higher level of importance on the Image PyramidSM. As they would with aggressively promoting a Base Music or Talk position, brands should be going over the top with their community efforts. Build real community bulletins (here’s what is open, new hours for grocery stores, new restrictions, etc.). Be the voice of the community, invite listeners to participate and share as appropriate. Listeners will tell people where they can buy toilet paper (well, maybe they’ll share that information), who delivers groceries and how to find free learning resources for kids. Post the information on your website.
Don’t just think of your community as your market. Your community is your audience. A Hip Hop station and Classic Rock station will not rally the same communities, but each has the power to inspire, engage and activate their respective followers.
If you make a concerted effort now to think about what you can really do for your community and your audience, your efforts will create a halo over your brand when things settle down.
Consider reading two Tuesdays With Coleman posts in which we covered the important role of radio in a crisis: