Oprah’s strategy is simple. “Total authenticity is her byword,” says PR commentator Mark Borkowski. “She’s never abused her audience’s trust and she’s totally aware of them. Very few brands have managed it in that way.”
She is also not afraid to take short-term losses for long-term brand gain. O magazine’s editor-in-chief, Susan Casey, recalls once making suggestions to Oprah based on newsstand numbers. “She said [that] just coming up with covers based on what we thought would sell was the wrong way to go about things. We need to find ideas that really resonate from within ourselves, not from looking at a spreadsheet of numbers. That kind of insight is why she is so beloved by her viewers and readers. She’s thinking about them first, results second.”
Similarly when the show’s producers voiced worries about her book club segment not being on-brand, Oprah proved them wrong – a single mention of a book saw sales soar. Time Magazine describes it as, “Not so much a club [but] an influential marketing vehicle, with the power to alter bestseller lists, Amazon rankings and royalty payments.”
Oprah’s Angel Network is also a force to be reckoned with. Having established 60 schools in 13 countries, created scholarships, supported women’s shelters, and built youth centres and homes. In the January 2003 edition of O, notes Koehn and Helms, Oprah challenged readers to commit to a year of healthy eating and exercise. More than 10,000 readers signed up.
And every success helped secure her as a genuine, trustworthy brand. But it’s just as important, says David Carr in the New York Times, to look at what brand Oprah hasn’t done. Unlike many of her contemporaries she’s retained complete control. “She never took her company public, which meant that she remained in control of both her operation and her destiny. She never christened her own book imprint even though she created bestsellers with a flick of her wrist. She never stuck her name, a very powerful brand, on any merchandise. She did not license her name to a magazine, she built one in her own image and tweaked it until it became a big publishing success. She never engaged in behaviour that tarnished the lustre of her name.” The result? Unlike Martha Stewart, Oprah’s brand remains unblemished.
Her legendary control is required, says Fortune, because “Oprah’s business is Oprah. If she does something as Oprah the person that undermines the trust her customers have in Oprah the persona, her brand could quickly fizzle.”
Which means she is the queen of brand protection. She now keeps her private life under wraps, reluctant to appear in public with Graham and was forced to fight back at persistent rumours of a gay relationship with Gayle. “I understand why people think we’re gay,” she wrote recently in O magazine. “There isn’t a definition in our culture for this kind of bond between women. So I get why people have to label it – how can you be this close without it being sexual? How else can you explain a level of intimacy where someone always loves you, always respects you, admires you?” She also admitted to Piers Morgan that she only has five people in her life that she absolutely trusts. Hers is a very private life.
So when Kitty Kelley published the unauthorised Oprah: A Biography last year, she felt the full force of the Oprah brand protection machine. “You can’t imagine the difficulty of even getting a book like this published,” she said, and when it came time to promote it she claims that Barbara Walters, Larry King and David Letterman all turned her down. None of them, she suggests, dared lose Oprah’s favour.
“I thought I was writing about great power when I wrote about the Bush dynasty,” Kelley says. “But this is a different kind of power, it’s not elected power, it’s almost evangelical, with the same kind of fervour that you see with a religious movement.” Oprah dismissed the book’s publication via her spokeswoman, Lisa Halliday who said, “Oprah hasn’t read Kitty Kelley’s book, so is unable to comment.”
But even Oprah can’t control everything. In 1996 Howard Lyman, a cattle-rancher-turned vegetarian, was invited on the show during the mad cow disease scare to talk about farming practices. Winfrey exclaimed that his descriptions “stopped me cold from eating another hamburger” and the subsequent plunge in beef prices prompted a group of Texan ranchers to file a £6.5 million lawsuit against Oprah, claiming that she had defamed the industry. They lost.
In 2005, she featured A Million Little Pieces, James Frey’s drug addiction and rehab memoir in her book club, but the following year it was revealed by The Smoking Gun website that much of this “true story” was fiction. Audiences felt betrayed and the revelation risked denting Oprah’s credibility. Instead, she turned it into a triumph, by inviting him back on her show in 2006. After confronting him she asked him to apologise to her audience.
Oprah justice was delivered, and the brand emerged unscathed. And after allegations emerged of sexual assault at The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy, her school for girls in South Africa, criticism of her leadership began to swirl. Oprah swiftly fired the teacher (who was later acquitted) and handed out mobile phones that had her number on speed dial to the pupils.
OPRAH AND BEYOND
As for Oprah’s future, she told Piers that it won’t include marriage. “I’m not the marrying type. I am a different kind of woman in that I am pretty assured that had I been married I wouldn’t have stayed married because it takes a different kind of person to put up with all of this.”
But change is coming. On 6 September 2011, after 25 years on the air, the final episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show will air. Whether she is showing her usual savvy in getting out before the show’s success seriously diminishes (there has been a 7% slip in ratings) or whether she intends to put all of her energies into the OWN network, all eyes are on Oprah. Where this brand leads, the rest of us are sure to follow.
Words: Hermione Hoby