3 Things I Learned About Branding from My Meeting with Oprah.

Apr 17, 2018

The year was 2002. It was a pretty sweet year for certain authors. Despite the terror of the book industry in the early rumblings of the Ebook, and people’s annoying tendency to read “the internet” instead of books, there was also a magical, golden cash-cow called Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club.

If your book was selected, your shit was about to get off the chain. People who had literally never entered a book store voluntarily in their lives would storm Borders (Yes! Borders!) to pick up a copy. Tops of bestseller lists fell into your lap like gentle spring blossoms. Oh, and now you’re also set up to get that movie deal with Sir Ben F*cking Kingsley playing your main character: House of Sand and Fog, anyone?

Yeah, it was a heady time. And it was a heady time for me and my first business partner, a couple of English PhD students who had invented a “book group consulting company” out of a quest to find an audience (other than the parents of college students) who would pay for us to read and talk about books.

Turns out we were filling a specific niche that was about to explode (this is when I first learned the power of a highly specialized, supertight brand). As literally the ONLY book group consulting company in the world, we got asked to do local TV, national TV, radio, featured on the cover of the LIfestyle section of The Denver Post. This led to a, wait for it, invitation to Chicago to consult with Oprah Winfrey and her Book Club Director to help them choose books for the behemoth they had birthed, somewhat to their surprise.

So, I mean, pretty much, we had just Won Life, already, in our very early 30’s.

We had a great, compelling, specialized, supertight brand, tight enough that we’re sitting in Oprah’s office with Oprah, Gail, and Oprah’s matching black cocker spaniels. What’s more: this meeting could turn into more, like an appearance on The Show. What show, you ask? You know. The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Looking back on that day we entered the inner sanctum of Harpo Studios in Chicago, I think about the things I know now as the creator of Supertight Brand, and how I wish could go back in time and share that wisdom with my younger self on what it truly means to be – and get results from – a highly specialized and valuable offer. Since the DeLorean still sadly missing from my life, I’ll share with you, dear reader, Three Little Things I Learned Meeting with Oprah:

1. Know Your Brand Weakness and Have a Strategy to Deal With It.

One of the core lessons I teach my clients is this: the easiest way to think of brand is “your reputation,” or “what they say about you when you’re not in the room.” Pretty easy lesson, right? It is once you learn it. It’s also a vital truth that stands at the core of a Supertight Brand.

My partner and I had gotten ourselves in the room. We had the beginnings of a SuperTight Brand for sure. The thing is, I hadn’t yet written the book defining the Supertight Brand (see what I did there?), so I certainly didn’t have all this clear in my mind. In this moment I wasn’t thinking about how to extend and preserve the value of the knowledge we had worked so hard to get, but rather about Winning Friends and Influencing People. This is almost never a good agenda for me – and certainly not when I am already almost Riverdancing from surplus of adrenaline.

See, when I get nervous I am not one to clam up. I am one to talk more, also one to rev up the zany goofball factor so I will occur as “unique and clever and fun.” It’s safe to say that in this instance I was pretty nervous. So nervous that I started talking about how we brought her reading glasses as a gift (thoughtful, AND on brand) and how “they’re very large glasses because it looked on TV like you have a really large head and I think that’s great because I love big-headed people, and my husband also has a really big head, and when I was little I always I made my older sister draw me disproportionately-big-headed cartoon animals, and. . . “

Well, you get the idea. I really don’t have the heart to go on.

Looking back, this is more than a funny/embarrassing anecdote – it’s a lesson in how not to present a brand, let alone a Supertight Brand. In this very crucial moment, I’m wasting valuable moments when we could have been learning more about the Oprah, or the Oprah Book Club Director, or the typical OBC reader – what was missing or needed for each of them. Instead I made the focus my nonsensical yammering to indicate how delightful and amusing I am, which then reflected on our brand as one that was more focused on itself than its clients (see Tip #2)

They were very gracious, but not, I’m guessing, charmed. Gail looked sort of sorry for me. She was probably even more sorry for my business partner.

2. Focus on the World of Your Client, Not the World of You.

When you’re with your client, her world comes first – always. Remember: she is the hero of the story, you are the guide. This means the story is never about you. If I had been focused on Oprah, on her Book Club Director, and the OBC readers and members, I wouldn’t have been so nervous because I wouldn’t have been thinking about myself. Also, we would have demonstrated that we had put some serious thought into how to help these women have a better time enjoying their experience of their unexpectedly crazy popular book club. A lot of that didn’t happen because I was focused on “my” brand, my world, rather than truly imagining the breakdowns each woman was experiencing in her personal world, and then offering solution to ease that pain. Our job in that room was to build their brand, not mine – recognition of our UVP had already gotten us in the door.

3. Plan Your Important Transactions Ahead of Time Rather Than Let Others Plan For You.

There’s a reason that “Getting Your Client’s World” is a central tenet of Supertight Brand: failing to do so can open you to some messy relationship dynamics you weren’t expecting. I believe we shared some expertise in that Chicago office, and that we brought some value. Let’s just say there are some Oprah Book Club authors in the world whose names may have first appeared on our recommended short list. We definitely hit a single, but we didn’t knock it out of the park. Baseball metaphors aside, the short story is, that – despite having a corner on the market – we were not invited back for another consult,, nor were we asked to be on the show.

The source of that failure could very well have been my “Big Giant Head” rambling; I could really see how that would be. But it also could have been exacerbated by the feelings of the overworked woman who was now “Director” of the world’s most popular (ever) book club. Like many new entrepreneurs, we couldn’t see the jar from the inside – in other words, it’s almost impossible to assess a situation when you’re in a completely new context for the first time.

One thing I do know is this: we failed to plan ahead in terms of strategy for how we would deliver what we knew. In other words, we gave her everything she asked us for in terms of recommendations, all at once, before we even showed up. From the perspective of the woman now thrust into this role of Book Club Director for arguably one of the world’s most recognizable and influential brands, there was probably not too much incentive to have these two younger, more knowledgeable (in this arena) experts hanging around who might seriously disrupt her own position with all their big-headed (Ha) ideas. If we had planned our own slow leak better, we might have become truly valuable to this woman over time, and thus become a valuable brand in her world. And Oprah’s world.

If I had been Ellen “As seen on Oprah” Melko Moore would I have created SuperTight Brand? I honestly don’t know – I might not have had time. What I do know is if I had created the model before I’d gone into that meeting, there would have been more meetings. May even an “As seen on Oprah” tagline, and that would have changed the brand of our whole lives. Just Sayin.

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