The 24-Hour News Network as a Lifestyle Brand: How Fox News Succeeds Where CNN Fails
(Also published in Poindexter)
During the 2005 holiday season, I was watching a Fox News special on Jesus (essentially an hour-long puff piece) when I realized that, compared to CNN, Fox has much more brand equity—“the distinguishing qualities of a commercial brand that results in personal commitment to and demand for the brand” (Webster's New Millennium Dictionary)—for a very good reason. By now, everyone knows that even though it may maintain that its presentation of the news is “Fair and Balanced,” Fox News is anything but. However, Fox’s bias is the key to what makes it so successful. By presenting news with a clear agenda, it allows viewers to feel more strongly about viewing Fox News than viewers who watch CNN. Fox’s strategy corresponds to the basic rules of branding: A brand must be targeted (i.e., directed at an audience) and positioned (presented to that audience) in a specific way in order to gain brand equity. To put it another way, imagine the typical CNN viewer. Now imagine the typical Fox News viewer. Which one was harder to imagine? Fox News succeeds where CNN fails because Fox is a lifestyle brand—a brand that is not only consumed by its target audience on a regular basis (as by watching it), but also one that its target audience wants to be associated with. (BusinessWeek’s David Kiley provides a good discussion of what a lifestyle brand is in the July 5, 2005 entry of his Brand New Day blog.
News sources will always have their biases. The crucial difference is that Fox intentionally plays up its biases. For example, in about an hour of watching Fox News during late December, I witnessed every anchor emphatically wish his or her counterpart a merry Christmas (never using the supposedly anathema expression “happy holidays”), almost as if repetition of the phrase was the network’s way of fighting the (nonexistent) “War on Christmas, ” a silly contrivance that allows Fox to connect with viewers by furthering a persecution complex with practically no basis in reality; additionally, a pro-war scroll ran at the bottom of the screen saluting the troops in language so grandiose that it was, given the context of its appearance in a news ticker, frankly ridiculous. Fox News does not simply give its viewers a wink and a nod regarding where it stands; it purposely lets it all hang out—and for a lifestyle brand this is absolutely necessary.
What it comes down to is that a strong brand engenders strong feelings. This is especially true for lifestyle brands. A typical Fox News viewer feels better about watching Fox News than a CNN viewer does about watching CNN. The ratings that the two channels receive seem to reflect this: while CNN has greater reach (that is, the total number of people in a week who will watch), Fox garners higher ratings points. To put it another way, if the TV-watching universe consisted of 13 people, in one week ten might at some point watch a few minutes of CNN apiece while the other 3 might each view a full hour of Fox. So while CNN is viewed by more unique viewers, Fox News has a core audience that watches more hours of programming overall. Furthermore, the attachment that many Fox News viewers feel for the channel—especially when compared to CNN—is easily demonstrated by the disparity between Fox and CNN’s online stores. On the CNN.com front page there is no discernible link to the CNN store, which I could only find by googling for it. On the other hand, the Foxnews.com front page has links to its store within the top and bottom navigation panels, as well as the following banner ad:
(During the holiday season multiple banners appear on the front page.) The Fox News store offers a much wider selection than CNN’s store, with items available for purchase including pet accessories, an umbrella, a leather tote bag, even a $200 Fox News varsity jacket. For comparable Fox News and CNN items, the Fox version is always priced higher; even though the products are the same except for the logos displayed, Fox can charge a higher price, because their gear is in higher demand. The obvious implication of higher demand for Fox News merchandise is that Fox viewers are much more likely to practice conspicuous consumption (using a brand or advertising one’s preference for a brand in public) of Fox News–branded items, meaning that Fox viewers are more strongly anchored to the brand and wish to be seen as such—the hallmark of a lifestyle brand.
The Fox News strategy of unambiguously tailoring its presentation to a specific audience is part of its overall branding strategy; in most cases a brand cannot be one size fits all (unless it’s something like Tylenol, and no-one walks around with a shirt bearing that logo). As such, any semblance of fairness or balance gets tossed out the window. However, by pandering to a specific target audience, Fox was able to find its niche and boost its brand equity well above that of CNN's. And as with any lifestyle brand, those target audience members (or “Fox Fans,” as the network calls them) value their consumption of Fox News as an aspect of their personality.