We all know what “brands” are: They are, as the ubiquitous source Wikipedia writes, “a collection of images and ideas representing an economic producer … the concrete symbols such as a name, logo, slogan, and design scheme … a symbolic embodiment of all the information connected to a company, product or service.”[1] The definition continues, “A brand serves to create associations and expectations among products made by a producer. A brand often includes an explicit logo, fonts, color schemes, symbols, sound which may be developed to represent implicit values, ideas, and even personality.”

A pretty good description when it comes to laundry detergents or potato chips, but what is “branding” when it comes to radio and TV programs? Beyond the obvious – the title, theme music, the show opening … why do we need branding and how does a producer accomplish it

“Marketers like to talk about something called brand ‘equity,’ a combination of familiarity and positive associations that clearly has some sort of value … Psychologists use the word ‘heuristics’ to refer to the mental shortcuts and rules of thumb that allow us to resolve the various routine problems of everyday life without having to make a spreadsheet for every trivial decision. Brand owners want a way into your purchase heuristics.”[2]

Branding of and in a radio or TV program is a way of ensuring the audience remembers:

  • What program it is viewing or listening to and
  • What particular favorite segments or features it associates with the program.

Therefore, branding creates and maintains a clear sense of differentiation between your program and everyone else’s. It is the secret code language that the producer and the audience share, making them part of the same insiders’ club.

Twenty years ago, a branding expert identified three stages need to build strong brands: introduction, elaboration, and fortification. After the introductory stage, Elaboration makes the brand easy to remember, through repeated use. Fortification creates a consistent image.[3]

Especially in radio and television, “packaging is branding” as a leading brand expert said[4]. Not properly branding a segment of a radio or TV show makes is like putting generic yellow-and-black labeled products on the grocery store shelves. It makes it likely that you won’t get credit, with the audience, for doing something great. “Your success is really dependent on how skillful you are in managing the brand’s story so that it resonates with meaning that customers like,” said Notre Dame’s Professor John F. Sherry Jr. Clearly, one hamburger brand has been very successful. In 2007, young low-income children were offered identical McDonald’s food in name-branded wrappers and in unmarked wrappers … The food in the unmarked packaging was always pronounced less tasty than the food in McDonald’s branded packaging, even thought the two foods were identical.[5]

Creating Program Branding:

A producer must start by identifying the overall brand and packaging of the program. This is an outgrowth of defining the whole program’s mission and its unique differentiators from other programs – its intended audience, its point of view, its attitude, its style of presentation, etc. This results in the creation of a show “Bible” that tells staff what the principal characteristics of show elements are supposed to be – how to build each program so it is consistent with the brand.

The selection of theme music and, in the case of television, graphics too are critically important. All too often, producers wind up using a piece of music they like without any regard for the target audience’s tastes or the messages conveyed by the music. Music has a very powerful, often-subliminal influence on the listeners and almost always conveys a message – intended or not. For these reasons, I strongly recommend that music selection not be approached casually or accidentally, based upon personal taste. Rather, once the show’s mission, differentiators and Bible are articulated –the producer should meet with musicians and composers. Their role is to suggest how music can be selected or, ideally, created to support the mission. It doesn’t have to be exorbitantly expensive to commission original music, and the benefits include your ability to commission variations on a main theme so that the program gets not only an introduction and closing theme, but also interstitial “buttons” or “bumpers” to use as dividers within the program. This, of course, helps extend the program’s brand.

Once the mission, differentiators and Bible are clearly articulated, the producer needs to develop recurring regular segments – segments that become part of the “signature” of the program. This is where consistency comes in, and where the right packaging makes the pieces (a) stand out within the program as signatures of the show, and (b) make the pieces themselves enjoyable and memorable.

The first obligation of a producer who is creating segments of a show is to make sure that these elements fit the overall program … its idea or concept, but also its style and relationship to the show itself. For example, if a program is a strong host-driven production, it is not a good idea to have guest appearances by talent who don’t project the same feeling and have a relationship with the host. Thus, switching to a standup report by an individual who seems disembodied from the overall show and off on her own cloud is not nearly as desirable as doing a guest appearance with the host. If the host does turn the show over, temporarily, to another individual – that person must be a regular cast member, part of the host’s “family” on the air. This relationship can be underscored by a lead in or back announce in which the two interact.

Writing and on-air presentation are excellent branding tools. Clever, even cute writing with attitude can breathe life into a segment and show. Participants in the show should not try to sound as neutral and unengaged as news reporters. Rather, they should have and feel free to exude some personality.

Graphics and/or audio intro’s created especially for a segment  – both tied to the overall show’s look and feel — can give it a memorable standout quality. A short slogan that explains the piece, such as “Our weekly look through the news trash bin” can quickly brand the segment. During the 90’s S&L crisis, the sound of a squeaky file cabinet being opened … was used by Marketplace for a segment called From the S&L File. Television offers the opportunity to frame a segment with clever graphics; radio requires even more clever “audio framing” such as music, sound effects, audio clips, montages and the like. Either way, in a few seconds of sound and/or video, the producer has an opportunity to wave at the audience and say “Here’s something special – here’s something cool.” The ultimate positive result is a member of the audience describing your show as “that great show that does that segment on _____.” These days, well-known special signature segments include David Letterman’s Top 10 List, Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” and, in the past, Johnny Carson playing the Swami and reading minds, Laugh-In’s pie-in-the-face shtick, etc.

Another way to think about branding is as a deliberately chosen language of presentation of material. Many people think that programs distinguish themselves by the subjects they choose to address. But, I think it is hardly ever the subject; rather, it is almost always the treatment of the subject. When I was the Executive Producer of All Things Considered, I used to get letters from freelancers, asking if I were interested in this subject or that one. I would respond by saying “The name of the show is All Things Considered. We’re interested in every subject, depending on how you present it. Branding is a particular, unique approach to content … and a way of addressing the audience … a style of writing and speaking that is unmistakably yours. You’ll know you’re on the right track when you are able to say about a proposed segment, “well, there’s nothing wrong with the topic, but it isn’t in our style.”

In the end, branding is about organizing and packaging. It is about attracting and holding the audience’s attention, and reminding listeners and viewers that “yes, this is a program I liked before” and “this is the segment I like.” It is about a ticking clock on 60 Minutes and on that show, Andy Rooney’s curmudgeonly commentaries. It is about the CBS eye in the company’s network logo or NBC’s peacock. Advertising is all about branding. Indeed, a fascinating recent New York Times magazine article (“Do You Remember,” 5/18/08) discussed many instances where the product has died but the brand was so strong that it lived on, and is now being applied to a new product. Remember “Fill it to the rim, with Brim?”


We all start with the same physical world and all of the knowledge that fills the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Internet. We all have access to it all. But, like art galleries and museums, some of us know what to do with the pieces. Some of us have the smarts and the esthetic talent to curate the collection beautifully and coherently — so that it comes together and adds up to way more than merely the sum of the parts. Others take the same ingredients and end up with a junkyard. The difference is the mind – the intellect and the art – that go into organizing and presenting the work. Making it stand out. Making it pop. Making it memorable and impactful. This is the exciting challenge that branding presents the producer.

[1] Wikipedia

[2] Rob Walker, “Can a Dead Brand Live Again,” New York Times, May 18, 2008

[3] Peter H. Farquhar, Managing Brand Equity

[4] Richard Gerstman, The Visionary Package


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