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Oprah’s biggest branding failure and what we can learn from it

6 min read


Brand Oprah was flying high, and then she made one critical branding failure — a failure that caused her to drop in Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list from No. 6 in 2010 to No. 50 in 2012.

The measure of any brand is its intangible value or reputation, and the intangible value of Brand Oprah has declined. She seems to have lost her way. So, what is this branding failure and what can we each learn from it for our own personal brand?

Oprah was the poster child for knowing and leveraging your personal brand. Her personal story of overcoming childhood challenges, and her motto of “Live your best life” was a master brand. It sold optimism, resilience, and the ability to be the master of your own destiny. “I’m hard-pressed to think of a stronger brand than Oprah, and I’ve studied 200 years of brands,” Harvard Business School professor Nancy F. Koehn said of Brand Oprah.

At its height, her show had 12 million viewers. She stayed on message as she launched her magazine. The brand ultimately made her rich, with an estimated fortune of $2.7 billion, according to Forbes. Now, her personal brand seems to be lost. Since she ended her show in May 2011, magazine readership is down by 22%. Her cable network, OWN, has suffered low ratings and management shakeups.

What’s the critical branding error? Knowing how to evolve your brand in the face of change. This is a critical skill to master given the rapidly changing environment we face.

Here are four lessons each of us can learn from Brand Oprah’s failures.

Know what creates core value for your brand

Brand Oprah’s strength stemmed from her connection with viewers. Her presence with her audience every day forged that connection and allowed her to influence them across a wide spectrum of her products. The authenticity, transparency and empathy that makes Oprah who she is didn’t change. What did change and is a core part of value creation is her daily access to her viewer base. Do you know what the source of value creation is for your brand?

Don’t take something away that your most loyal consumers love

Coca-Cola learned this lesson the hard way when the company replaced Coca Cola with New Coke in 1985 — a new and improved flavor that won in blind taste tests. They learned that a brand is not just a product with its product benefits. It is a bundle of emotions that people associate with it.

At Procter & Gamble, before we changed an existing product, we would always test with our most loyal consumers first. Oprah made the mistake of taking away what endeared her to her consumers — their daily access to her through her show. Instead, she tried to take the next “logical” step of owning a network.

As we think about career planning for ourselves, how often do most of us blindly follow the “logical” next step in the hierarchy? Instead how about we understand where will “Brand YOU” thrives the best and create a more authentic path for ourselves.

To reach new audiences, start with your core brand promise

To stay relevant, brands must evolve to fit the goals they have or adapt to changing market conditions. At P&G, as we extended our brands to new audiences, we knew we had to find the balance between stretching what the brand stood for and appealing to the audience’s needs.

Oprah’s been trying to court younger audiences for her magazine (women in their 30s instead of the current 40s and 50s). She even went on Comedy Central with Jon Stewart to extend her reach. To appeal to younger audiences, should she go to Cosmo-type headlines (“90 Sex Positions to Try before you Die” comes to mind)? No. She’s got to find what within the Oprah brand would appeal to younger women as she evolves that brand.

As I navigated the change from being a chief marketing officer in a corporate environment to being an entrepreneur, I had to start with my core — what motivated me and made me successful. I had to match it up against the requirements of what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. In the last two years as an entrepreneur, I have found that drive, resilience, passion, empathy are transferable skills. I needed to figure out how to apply these skills in a way that created value for the new audience.

Failure helps you learn and come back stronger

Failure is a wonderful learning opportunity. The one thing we know about great brands is that they endure in the face of failure. Tylenol came back stronger from its tampering crisis. The scandal led Tylenol back to its core — safety above all, including the hard decision to spend millions of dollars to take Tylenol off of shelves. And the brand used the opportunity to connect more powerfully and authentically with consumers, creating tremendous long-term value.

I believe Brand Oprah is resilient. True to herself, she is being transparent about her mistakes. She is going back to the core of what created value — her ability to connect with audiences. In November, she partnered with Huffington Post to create Huff Post OWN to provide on a popular platform the kind of “Live Your Best Life” advice for which she’s known. Her OWN ratings have gone up since she brought back the things her fans love: the book club, celebrity interviews, etc. Oprah’s lesson was to realize the source of value for her brand. Her fans wanted her.

Bottom line: Know your brand. Your authenticity is what creates connection — and authenticity and connection never go out of style — even if the world around us changes.

Henna Inam is CEO of Transformational Leadership, a company focused on helping women achieve their potential to be transformational leaders. As a former C-suite executive with Fortune 500 companies, her passion is to help leaders be successful and deeply engaged and create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth and engagement. Connect @hennainam on Twitter and at her blog.