When Trump Isn’t The Headline

Did aliens take Elvis?

Before you get irritated or excited, this isn’t a political opinion piece. I’m using a current events story to make a point. Yes, I realize it’s like the person who says, “I’m not trying to tell you what to do…”, and then they proceed to tell you what to do.

Election Night 2020. We had the popcorn and M&Ms in our predictable living room seats. We were wearing the same sweatpants and hoodies from the moment we got out of bed that morning because it was the prime season of COVID life. At some point, I asked my wife, “You know who wants Trump to win?” It was followed by my answer, “MSNBC.” She looked at me with the familiar non-verbal response, “Whatcha talkin’ ’bout Willis?”

MSNBC was a Top 30 ratings cable network before the 2016 election. After Trump’s win, MSNBC found a lane. In 2020, it was the second-most-watched basic cable network. By the end of the 2021 season, all three major cable news networks were down at least 30%. Critics weren’t surprised. The new year was a boring news cycle compared to COVID-19, social unrest, and a presidential race the previous year. In the May 2023 Nielsen report, the ratings continue the pattern of rankings with Fox News #1, MSNBC #2, and CNN #3.

Then there was this headline from Adweek in my inbox this week:

Thursday, June 8 Scoreboard: MSNBC No. 1 Across All of TV During Breaking News Coverage of Trump Indictment.

I try to watch all the news channels to look for strategy patterns. When it was time for a break from real life last weekend, I was flipping back and forth from Fox News to MSNBC, then CNN and NewsMax. Trump was the story. I wish I had a setup like the LBJ White House so I wouldn’t have to change channels.

LBJ watching TV in the Oval Office

Tuesday morning (6/13), there was this report from Adweek: “MSNBC, for the first time since 2018, beat Fox News and CNN in primetime among adults 25-54 and total viewers.”

What happens when the Big Story attracting listeners, viewers, and customers to your brand isn’t there? Are we focused on creating a product to sustain us during the low news cycles? It’s not as exciting as Breaking News, but it trains our clients to return to us during the big stories or big sales when we give them a consistent or appealing product during the boring seasons.

Work the problem backward. The Big Story is needed to gain interest or get noticed. However, if it’s a boring news/culture cycle, we’re wasting time waiting for the big one. Strengthen our brands during the off-season to win during the Big Story seasons.

Walmart logo

Walmart has built its gargantuan brand on Low Prices. Walmart doesn’t abandon the Low Prices theme when the economy is on fire. They embrace the image and slogan with more frequency because they know Walmart will benefit when the Big Story, a.k.a., inflation, returns. Last month, Walmart reported annual sales increased 7.4% and quarterly operating income advanced 17.3%. A brand like this doesn’t win by waiting for the economy to change. It stays on message during the leaner times to celebrate the benefits of the Big Story.

MSNBC took advantage of the 2016 election and shifted its editorial focus. It stayed on message in 2021 and 2022 when the news wasn’t as exciting. Last week it enjoyed a viewership victory. When this week’s results including Tuesday’s arraignment are published, I predict more big wins. Fox has its lane, and MSNBC has its mission statement. The latest results as of this writing, have Fox News and MSNBC tied for first place on June 14th in Primetime. Where does this leave CNN? That’s not a question we’re analyzing in this piece, but it’s where our strategy eyes should be looking between now and Election Night 2024.

Analyze your brand to see what matters. Our competitive instinct is to add more. More is more works when more is better. How often does that happen? Maybe a seismic event like Donald Trump becoming president of the United States provides an on-ramp to move into a competitive position.

However, how will you find a branding difference if the news or culture cycle isn’t creating it for you? The challenging and analytical response is to start removing the noise. Less is more. It doesn’t mean the images or branding we remove is bad. It means those images, words or noise don’t improve the brand’s overall mission. The brand becomes cleaner and more noticeable when we focus on the benefits to the audience and the expectations of the audience.

The difference isn’t always about slogans. Some brands need those identifying slogans and logos. I don’t think MSNBC has a slogan, but they have an image: Center-Left hosts and programming. Fox News would be Center-Right.

This brings us back to CNN. Will Center-Center be enough? Stay tuned. https://www.npr.org/2023/05/26/1178496373/carlsons-ouster-from-the-fox-news-channel-resounds-in-unexpected-ways

How do you find the special lane when those lanes are taken? Check out this quote:

“You can say a provocative thing on “The Situation Room” as a senator or other newsmaker, and suddenly it can be flying across Twitter in an instant or your favorite news app, and suddenly everybody’s seen it. Right now they’re just creating content that can live anywhere else.”

That’s former CNN president, Jonathan Klein, talking to NPR’s David Folkenfield about the Nielsen ratings impact after Tucker Carlson’s dismissal from Fox News. His analysis of his former employer is a branding reality for media outlets, grocery stores, social media influencers, and brick-and-mortar shopping centers. Are we simply creating content and an experience that can live anywhere else?

It works when there’s enough consumer demand to sustain product commonalities. However, the need to address our branding differences is at an all-time high in an increasingly noisy world of images and choices.

This brings us back to the original question of this piece. What do you do when you’re in the low cycles, or as Guy Zapolean, Media and Music Industry Expert, writes about, “the music doldrums”? What does your brand do when Trump isn’t the headline?

USA v Trump and Nauta

You start looking for the differences. Maybe the Big Story or a cultural pivot provides the difference. Then you start the long and grinding process of defining that difference so you can capitalize on the benefits the next time the Big Story hits the headlines.

(This post originally appeared on LinkedIn on June 16, 2023. https://bit.ly/3wGBZqL )


Ron Harrell is a contemporary media consultant specializing in brand analysis, strategy, execution, and talent coaching for radio and audio mediums. Connect with him for a No Cut & Paste review at www.harrellmediagroup.com

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