Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Lesson #158: Understand Your Brand Positioning (An Al Jazeera Case Study)

Posted By: George Deeb - 10/15/2013


& Comment

Back in January 2013, Al Jazeera, the Qatar based news agency, announced the launch of Al Jazeera America, a new U.S. based news agency covering news in the U.S.  They went on to recruit and hire a bunch of brand name U.S. newspeople (e.g., Ali Velshi, Soledad O'Brien, David Shuster) from the other big U.S. news desks (e.g., CNN, MSNBC).  The new channel launched in August 2013.
I thought that was a strange move by a brand most-known in the U.S. as the leader in news from the Middle East, with its "boots on the ground" coverage of events like the Afghanistan war and the political unrest in Egypt.  Did the U.S. really need another U.S. news desk, to compete with CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and others, in exactly the same format?? 

Or, would it have been better for Al Jazeera to stay focused on its English-speaking channel, Al Jazeera English, working through the regulatory hurdles it has been met with in the U.S. to date, to provide an alternative perspective on all the happenings in the Middle East??  Apparently, I must not be alone in my thoughts, as the top three trending news items on the Al Jazeera America website, were all directly related to the Middle East on the day I researched this post (e.g., Egypt turmoil, Syria civil war, Al Qaeda capture).

Compare that to the BBC News here in the U.S.  They largely offer the same content in the U.S., that they offer in Europe, on their websites and on television.  Bringing a fresh European perspective to its U.S. viewers, as an alternative to most of the U.S. perspectives we are provided from the U.S. news desks.  They didn't try to enter the U.S. market as a direct competitor in the U.S. news business, which is what Al Jazeera America is doing.

I can understand why Al Jazeera did this.  The amount of Americans who consume U.S. news, is materially higher than the amount of Americans who consume Middle Eastern news.  But, the U.S. news brands have been built up over decades, on the shoulders of newsmen like Walter Cronkite (CBS), Peter Jennings (ABC), David Brinkley (NBC) and Wolf Blitzer (CNN).  The amount of marketing dollars it is going to take to get U.S. viewers to think Al Jazeera for U.S. news is going to end up an enormous sum.  And, even if the marketing and journalism efforts are top notch, will Americans really want to consume U.S. news from a company with a Middle Eastern brand positioning and name??  Time will tell.
Frankly, Al Jazeera America entered the U.S. market with the acquistion of Current TV, the failed viewer-generated news channel backed by Al Gore, Joel Hyatt, Ronald Burkle, Comcast, DirectTV and others, with distribution into 40MM cable households via Comcast and others.  Wouldn't it have been better to keep that name for their U.S. news efforts??  Or, if the brand was negatively tainted by its history, come up with a new name that would better resonate with the U.S. market??

Anyway, the point is, once your brand is set in the minds of consumers, it is very difficult to change that mindset.  As examples, imagine buying hamburgers from Pizza Hut, or bed linens from Barnes & Noble.  That is why Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dairy Queen and International House of Pancakes rebranded themselves to KFC, DQ and IHOP, respectively, to allow for a more flexible menu and to get over their historical brand positioning hurdles.  Furthermore, when picking a name, pick a name that will best resonate with your target audience . . . and, preferably, in their native language!!

Or, if you have a current brand positioning hurdle, and are looking to make a dramatic shift without changing your name, your efforts need to be dramatic to create a major buzz.  As an example, if Al Jazeera had stolen away one of the most respected U.S. news anchors of the major networks, like Brian Williams at NBC, at whatever price that would have cost them, those viewers that are loyal watchers of Brian Williams, would have helped them to more quickly build their audience and reposition their brand over a faster timeline.  Can you imagine the press that would have received, "Al Jazeera America Steals Brian Williams from NBC".  Not to mention, hurting their big competitor in the process.
I am sure that was their intent with their current roster of talent.  But, in my opinion, they either didn't aim high enough, or the biggest names in the industry turned them down (most likely for many of the reasons in this post, and them not wanting to take the risk or hurt their own personal brands in the process). 


Al Jazeera America announced they were shutting down its operations on January 13, 2016.  As you read above, I had a feeling they were doomed right from the start.  I feel like Nostradamus having originally published this article in October 2013.

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