By: Katherine Matz and Ellen Leto
Through the use of media and an uncanny honesty, Oprah Winfrey has created a powerful brand for herself. Winfrey has been connecting with people around the world for the past two decades as supervising producer and host of the award-winning The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her accomplishments as a global media leader and philanthropist have established her as one of the most respected and admired public figures today (Oprah Winfrey’s Biography). Winfrey does not simply befriend her viewers, according to Jennifer Harris and Elwood Watson; she “transforms them into loyal consumers.”
Influenced by Barbara Walters on the Today Show, Winfrey began her media career in high school, when she worked at WVOL radio in Nashville. At the age of 19, she became the youngest person and the first African-American woman to anchor the news at Nashville's WTVF-TV (Oprah Winfrey’s Biography). At times, Winfrey struggled with the detached nature of news reporting and was criticized by her colleagues for being too emotional (Famous Entrepreneurs). Next, she moved to Baltimore to co-anchor the six o’clock newscast on WJZ-TV and was later appointed co-host of the station’s People Are Talking morning show. This program helped Oprah to find her niche. She said, “I felt comfortable. I felt like I could be myself. All of those years I was on the news, I was always acting” (Koehn and Helms). Unfortunately, her bosses at WJZ-TV wanted her to change everything about her appearance, which was traumatic for her.
In 1984, Winfrey’s charismatic broadcasting style attracted the attention of Chicago’s ABC affiliate station, WLS-TV, and she was invited to host its half-hour morning show that had been struggling to maintain viewership against The Phil Donahue Show, an extremely popular, nationally syndicated program. (Koehn and Helms). Dennis Swanson, vice president and general manager of the station was not concerned with her appearance—he let Oprah be Oprah. With Winfrey as the host, AM Chicago became the number one local talk show just one month after she began. Due to the positive and progressive results of having Winfrey, the show expanded to one hour and was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. In 1986 it became the highest-rated talk show in television history and entered national syndication (Oprah Winfrey’s Biography).
Her success, as a woman and a minority, is a testimony to her innovative hosting style. At the time, the roughly 30-year-old talk show industry was dominated by The Phil Donahue Show. Donahue established the “sympathetic model” of talk shows: rather than entertain, the host consoled and educated guests about previously private issues. However, Donahue did not possess the relatable nature that Winfrey exudes. Winfrey opened herself up to her viewers, and, in turn, her viewers followed suit (Harris and Watson). Though Winfrey was never expected to out-perform Donahue (she was hired only to marginally improve the ratings numbers for AM Chicago), her viewership exceeded Donahue’s by nearly 2-to-1 within two months of her arrival (Koehn and Helms).
Winfrey realized early that because of her swiftly mounting success she would need an agent to manage contracts and offers and hired Chicago entertainment lawyer Jeffrey Jacobs to represent her (Koehn and Helms). According to Patricia Sellers, while Dennis Swanson, WLS-TV, taught Winfrey to be herself, Jacobs convinced her that she could run an empire. An important part of this empire was the eventual ownership of her company.
Due to Federal Communications Commission regulations, WLS-TV, an affiliate of ABC, could not distribute the program to non-affiliates. So by July 1985, after The Oprah Winfrey Show received offers from several national syndicators, King World was finally chosen for distribution. Jacobs negotiated a deal in which King World was required to obtain distribution rights from both WLS and Winfrey. By the first day of syndicated distribution, an unprecedented 138 local stations had purchased rights to her show (Koehn and Helms).
That same year, Winfrey played the role of Sofia in the motion picture The Color Purple, sparking an interest in production. In May 1986, she established Harpo, Inc. The company was established to oversee publicity for her show, answer fan mail, and manage developing projects, including purchasing the rights to Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved (Koehn and Helms). Jacobs was given a 5 percent share of the company. Three years later, when he was named president of Harpo, Inc., he was given 5 percent more (Sellers).
With the help of Jacobs, Winfrey negotiated effective deals with King World and ABC, and Harpo, Inc. was able to claim a substantial portion of the shows profits. WLS-TV gave up its ownership after a short time, and with each renewal of King World’s distribution agreement, its share decreased (Koehn and Helms). By late 1988, an estimated 11 million viewers in the United States watched The Oprah Winfrey Show each day, and licensing fees for local stations brought Harpo, Inc. around $100 million. Harpo’s current president, Tim Bennentt, says that this period “was a seminal moment when Oprah took control of herself. And by taking control, she opened up the door to getting the lion’s share of the profits for the show” (Koehn and Helms).
King World and Harpo, Inc. continued to negotiate distribution deals for The Oprah Winfrey Show for about a decade. With each contract, King World’s share of the program’s revenues decrease and Winfrey’s share of King World and licensing fees increased. In 2002, King World relinquished its remaining portion of the show and full ownership was given to Harpo, Inc. At this point, annual revenues from The Oprah Winfrey Show were nearly $300 million, and Winfrey’s net worth exceeded $1 billion (Koehn and Helms).
Winfrey is a multimedia mogul who has produced film and television programs and launched the most successful magazine start-up in history. Everything flows from her talk show, which she has used as a platform for sharing her struggles. She also uses her show to build a deep, personal connection with her audience, most of whom feel her values and aspirations reflect theirs. Winfrey has built her brand around her desire to build, produce and promote worthwhile projects. Her book club has become a key marketing force in the publishing industry, and it promotes undiscovered authors. In building an empire, she has become admired as an example of what a woman can do if she sets her mind to it (Montoya, 91).
Winfrey uses personal experiences, candidly revealing her vulnerabilities, to reach her viewers on an emotional level. Called rapport talk by Time magazine, this uniquely intimate approach of “personal dialogue, confession and compassion” was ground-breaking and her viewers connected with Oprah as they would with the closest of friends. The trust that developed between Winfrey and her viewers set a solid foundation for brand development.
Beginning in the 1992-1993 television seasons, Oprah decided that she wanted to distinguish her program from other daytime talk shows by moving away from sensational topics. She wanted to be known to have a talk show that is more responsible, and would be a benefit and not belittle people. Oprah’s mission became to help her viewers live better lives through self-improvement and self-awareness. Although the show still had episodes where Oprah interviewed celebrities, it focused more on issues of personal importance. According to its official mission statement, Harpo’s goal was “to be a catalyst for transformation in people’s lives, to help them see themselves more clearly and to make the best choices they can using stories, real people’s experiences, information and ideas. Our intention is to create moments in which people can connect to the truest sense of themselves and build from there.”
Self-help books were popular for decades before reaching a peak in the late 20th century. For consumers seeking guidance or inspiration, these books were an easily accessible, affordable and anonymous way to seek personal advice. In the 1980s, Oprah recognized self-help material as a theme for daytime television. Oprah was an active participant on her show and sometimes referred to her own experiences with sexual abuse and food addiction.
In the mid 1990s, as many talk shows focused on self-help topics, The Oprah Winfrey Show introduced a personal growth theme known as “Live Your Best Life.” Winfrey inspired her viewers into action by focusing on physical and mental health, spirituality and self-fulfillment. Her audience was encouraged to exercise, meditate, read and volunteer, and Oprah persuaded them to take control of their lives and appreciate themselves. Her viewers came to associate personal growth less with the self-help authors who appeared on the show and more with Oprah herself. She added a segment called “Remembering Your Spirit,” which featured real life inspirational stories. All of this aided in the creation of a base for Oprah’s unique brand of self-help thinking.
Harpo, Inc., responsible for the production of Winfrey’s program after its separation from WLS-TV, bought a $15 million space to convert into a studio in 1988 (Famous Entrepreneurs). Harpo Studios was designed to accommodate both The Oprah Winfrey Show and other large-scale projects. There, Harpo Fims, Inc. has produced made-for-TV film projects based on classic and contemporary literature, including Tuesdays with Morrie, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and For One More Day. Many of her productions are award-winning. Harpo Studios has also created theater-released films like Beloved and The Great Debaters, which received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture (Oprah Winfrey’s Biography).
The show is seen by an estimated 44 million viewers a week in the United States and is broadcast internationally in 144 countries (Oprah Winfrey’s Biography). Besides The Oprah Winfrey Show, Harpo Productions Inc. has created Dr. Phil, a syndicated daytime talk show, partnered with Rachael Ray in hosting a daily talk-show and created its first primetime series, Oprah's Big Give.
Beside TV producer, Winfrey is a magazine founder and editorial director. Winfrey, along with the help of Hearst Magazines, introduced O, The Oprah Magazine, in April 2000. O is a monthly women's lifestyle publication. It is credited as being the most successful magazine launch in recent history and currently has a circulation of 2.3 million readers each month (Oprah Winfrey’s Biography). Winfrey has also launched international editions of O in South Africa, extending her message to a broader audience. Today, Winfrey uses her Web site, Oprah.com, to provide resources related to The Oprah Winfrey Show and O, The Oprah Magazine. Her site offers advice to Women on everything from the mind, body and spirit to food, home and relationships. Oprah.com averages more than 6.7 million users per month (Oprah Winfrey’s Biography).
The website also includes Oprah's Book Club, which began in 1996. Every year Winfrey chooses works of fiction that she finds interesting and invites the authors on her show. Viewers have the opportunity to join Oprah's Book Club online. There are approximately 1 million members who are offered in-depth study guides, and expert Q & As (Oprah Winfrey’s Biography).
Winfrey also launched a satellite radio channel in 2006. The channel features original daily programming from Harpo Radio, Inc., which includes segments hosted by people from The Oprah Winfrey Show and O, The Oprah Magazine. She also has a 30-minute weekly radio show, Oprah's Soul Series (Oprah Winfrey’s Biography).
Winfrey has used the media to turn herself into a global brand; however, one of the key aspects that has developed her brand is her role as philanthropist. She is a big believer in education, and through her charity, The Oprah Winfrey Foundation, she has supported the education and empowerment of women, children and families from around the world, especially those who have no means (Oprah Winfrey’s Biography.) On The Oprah Winfrey Show, Winfrey encouraged viewers to use their lives to make a difference in the lives of others. One specific show led to the creation of the public charity Oprah's Angel Network in 1998. Oprah's Angel Network has raised more than $80 million, with 100 percent of audience donations going to nonprofit organizations across the globe (Oprah Winfrey’s Biography).
All of Winfrey’s projects have been deemed credible due to her brand. The Oprah brand has been developed over many years, and she has taken careful steps to maintain her brand.
Winfrey went from talk show host to the most powerful woman in America. This evolution occurred as she slowly transformed from Oprah the person to Oprah the brand. Personal Branding is the art of attracting and keeping followers by actively shaping public perception (petermontoya.com). It is possible for public figures to control the way they are perceived. Winfrey realized early that talent alone would not take her to the top of her field, so she created and promoted her unique personal brand (petermontoya.com).
Three components make up the heart of every personal brand: 1) Emotional impact, 2) Repetition and 3)Time (Montoya, 44). Emotional impact determines how someone feels about a person causing them to make a decision about their opinion on that person. A good personal brand triggers strong, positive responses in the people in its domain: confidence, admiration, fondness, trust and fascination (Montoya, 45). Winfrey triggered these emotions in her audience by sharing honest and true personal stories and struggles. A brand also must remain consistent to create an image in the minds of the audience. The best way to accomplish this is repeated exposure to the same brand message. Winfrey used multiple channels to get her message across including television, radio and magazine. Personal branding also takes time. You can’t create strong perceptions overnight. Winfrey’s show has had 23 seasons.
When in the spotlight, everything affects your personal brand including the way you talk and dress, your education, where you’re from, your spouse, car, friends, presentation skills and how well you follow through on your promises (Montoya, 36).
The key to personal branding success is defining yourself instead of letting others define you (petermontoya.com). Winfrey struggled in the beginning of her television career with negative perceptions of her image. She was seen as an overweight woman minority, which was unlike most typical television personalities. Her bosses at her first major television job in Baltimore wanted her to change her hair, lips, nose and other aspects of her appearance. She was quick to turn these potential flaws into the basis of her brand by sharing her personal struggles with the public.
It is possible to shape the public’s perception by defining strengths, values, goals and personality and presenting yourself in a compelling, persuasive manner (petermontoya.com). Winfrey constantly and consistently expressed herself and what she stood for to everyone she met. Winfrey’s ability to relate to her guests, passion for her subject matter, and willingness to be emotionally open on camera quickly made her known as a distinct persona in the talk show genre. In the image-driven world of television, Winfrey was candid about her flaws and vulnerabilities, one being her lifelong struggle to lose weight.
According to marketing and branding specialist, Peter Montoya, there are eight laws of personal branding: the laws of specialization, leadership, personality, distinctiveness, visibility, unity, persistence and goodwill. When Winfrey was developing her brand it seems that she was aware of these branding principles. Winfrey’s brand coincides with all of the Eight Laws of Personal Branding.
The Law of Specialization has to do with a brand being precise and concentrating on a single strength, talent or achievement. The concentration can focus in on many different areas including ability, behavior, lifestyle, mission, product, profession or service (petermontoya.com). Winfrey applied the Law of Specialization by differentiating herself from other talk-show hosts with positivism, ambition and an honest desire to create meaningful projects (Montoya, 92).
The Law of Leadership states that in order for a brand to have authority and credibility, the source must be perceived as a leader by their audience. Leadership stems from excellence, position or recognition (petermontoya.com). Winfrey used The Law of Leadership to make herself a mogul through hard work and a strong vision. She has become a voice of power and control in entertainment, media and publishing (Montoya, 92).
A great personal brand must be built upon the source's true personality including their flaws, according to the Law of Personality (petermontoya.com). Winfrey applied the Law of Personality by openly sharing her struggles, hopes and emotions with her audience (Montoya, 92).
The Law of Distinctiveness states that a personal brand must stand out against its competition (petermontoya.com). With the Law of Distinctiveness, Winfrey set herself apart from the dramatic and extreme talk show hosts. She chose to be a positive force, a promoter of unknown talent and an advocate for women (Montoya, 92).
In order to be successful, a brand also must be seen again and again, until it is imprinted in the minds of the audience. This is the Law of Visibility. This continual visibility leads to an assumption of quality because people assume if they see something all the time it must be better than other offers (petermontoya.com). Winfrey’s brand applies to the Law of Visibility by having a daily talk show, a magazine, movies, a radio station, national tours and philanthropic work.
The Law of Unity has to do with the private person behind the brand compared to the public brand. The two identities must be one in the same with regards to morals and behavioral code. Private conduct must coincide with the public brand (petermontoya.com). It is clear that Winfrey has applied the Law of Unity to her brand due to the lack of personal scandals that have emerged (Montoya, 92).
The Law of Persistence states that a personal brand takes time to develop. The process can be accelerated but never replaced by advertising and public relations (petermontoya.com). The Law of Persistence is exhibited by Winfrey’s consistent message to “live your best life.”
Finally, a personal brand will be more productive and last longer if the private person is perceived positively according to the Law of Goodwill (petermontoya.com). Winfrey’s adherence to the Law of Goodwill can be seen in the amount she has given back to society through her charity organizations.
Beyond the eight principles, another key aspect of branding is control. In the unique case of her brand, Winfrey is the actual content herself not just the content creator. Given that Winfrey’s life is the essence of her brand, it is not surprising that she has been reluctant to cede control of her brand. Winfrey has not licensed her name for the use on products or taken her company public. She also keeps tight control over her employees, who could essentially affect her brand. Everyone who works at Harpo must sign a lifelong confidentiality agreement.
Winfrey’s strategy in building her brand was clearly a success. The Oprah Winfrey Show has remained the number one talk show for 22 consecutive seasons. It is seen by an estimated 44 million viewers a week in the United States and is broadcast internationally in 144 countries. Winfrey and The Oprah Winfrey Show have received more than 40 Daytime Emmy Awards. Her magazine currently has a circulation of 2.3 million readers each month and has international editions. Winfrey is considered one of the most influential women in the world. She has won numerous awards for her business and humanitarian accomplishments. Due to her tight control of her brand and message content, Winfrey’s message to “Live Your Best Life” has remained consistent with her ideals. A list of honors includes:
· Time Magazine—100 Most Influential People in the World
· The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity—2007 Humanitarian Award
· Time Magazine—100 Most Influential People in the World
· The New York Public Library—Library Lion 2006
· National Civil Rights Museum—2005 National Freedom Award
· National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—Hall of Fame
· Time Magazine—100 Most Influential People in the World
· International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences—2005 International Emmy Founders Award
· United Nations Association of the United States of America—Global Humanitarian Action Award
· National Association of Broadcasters—Distinguished Service Award
· Time Magazine —100 Most Influential People in the World
· Association of American Publishers—AAP Honors Award
· 54th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards—Bob Hope Humanitarian Award
· Broadcasting & Cable—Hall of Fame
· National Book Foundation—50th Anniversary Gold Medal
· National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences—Lifetime Achievement Award
· Time Magazine —100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century
· Newsweek—Most Important Person in Books and Media
· TV Guide —Television Performer of the Year
· International Radio & Television Society Foundation—Gold Medal Award
· George Foster Peabody Awards—1995 Individual Achievement Award