HGTV took a big idea — a cable television network devoted to all things home — into a marketplace dominated by media giants and emerged the leader. Now launched in more than 98 million homes, HGTV changed how we envision our homes and, in the process, established a new model for business innovation and success. Chief Learning Officer’s associate editorial director Kellye Whitney caught up with HGTV’s former CEO, Susan Packard, to discuss what role a brand plays in an organization's success.
Chief Learning Officer: How did you enter the TV business? What lessons do your career path and the evolution of cable television hold for the broader business community?
Susan Packard: I didn’t enter in any planned way. I was working at a consumer research company out of school because I was curious about why people bought products, and why they were loyal to them. A girlfriend from grad school working at HBO called me and asked me if I wanted to consider coming to work there; they were building this new business and needed help. Since it sounded like a lot more fun than writing questionnaires and analyzing data dumps, I said sure!
There are a couple of big lessons from my career experience. One is that some of your rise in career is about luck and timing. I loved this newly emerging business called cable programming and was lucky enough to be on the ground floor of some great brands. The other is: start and end with the consumer. I made some mistakes because I wasn’t as respectful of the consumer as I needed to be, and those will always come back to bite you. By the time I joined HGTV, at 39 years of age, I knew this important lesson and we — the startup team and me — were not just respectful, but reverential, of our viewers.
CLO: Who and what creates and sustains a brand?
Packard: Any person whose function is close to the consumer can help with brand creation, as long as they stay vigilant about what drives their consumers — not just to purchase their products, but also what other tastes and habits their consumers have. This helps you to really know them, and to build benefits that keep your products from becoming commodities. For example, when we created Home & Garden Television, we knew we’d be offering information in the home and the garden categories, but we also decided that every show would provide inspiration too. How we did that varied from one series to another, but we stayed away from “commoditizing” HGTV because we provided inspiration too. If you can find emotive qualities in your brand definition, you’re in a great place.
CLO: What’s the role of brand in success, and how can it be translated to inward-facing departments?
Packard: At HGTV every single member of the company knew that our brand formula was ideas, information and inspiration. It helps to make your formula, or mantra, as simple as possible so everyone can know it, and live it if possible. We set up our company in a small, southeastern city where many of our folks could buy a home, and use HGTV’s brand information and inspiration if they so chose. If we’d set up in a big urban city, where most media companies reside, it would’ve been much harder to do. Not every employee will use your products or services, but you want to make it as easy as possible for them to do so. Maybe that means offering employee discounts to them, or complimentary offerings.
As far as the role of a strong brand in success, I can’t say enough about it. In the first year of building CNBC, my management role before HGTV, we purchased the assets of a weak existing service called Financial News Network and converted their base of distribution to CNBC. But we were arrogant, and thought we should create an entirely new brand experience without first asking FNN consumers what they liked about FNN. Turns out there was fierce brand loyalty to the FNN ticker. Over time we disbanded the CNBC ticker and just used FNN’s. If you purchase assets of something, be sure you know what those customers like about the old product and service. You don’t always have to re-invent the wheel.
CLO: How do you respond to rapid changes in the business environment and the competitive landscape?
Packard: Recruit some consumers, and make them your external focus groups to tell you their objective truth about how your product stacks up against the competition.
Your brand people should also know more about your consumers than just what they’re buying, or in our case, watching. For HGTV we learned that our viewers also enjoyed cooking, not just home design, real estate and gardening. So when the Food Network came up for sale we bought it and fixed it up operationally based on the systems that were working well for HGTV, but the Food folks we kept on retained Food’s brand personality for the network. If you watch them both, they each stand up as their own brands, and both have been incredibly successful for us. The reason we even thought to purchase Food Network was because of the fuller knowledge we had about our HGTV viewers. Regarding responding to change, that’s all opportunity, isn’t it? If there are new ways to use a product, new platforms, that’s another pipeline open to you to fill with your brand offering.
CLO: What are the risks to a brand, and how do you protect against them?
Packard: Fundamentally, your brand has to be useful, and it has to stay that way. With ongoing consumer knowledge you may tweak how you offer it, or the packaging, etc., but it needs to fulfill some need, whether that’s a functional need or an emotive need. Cosmetics, for example, do both. I believe the biggest risk is that it somehow loses its unique usefulness and becomes one of many in the category, which is why you need to be living with your consumers day in and day out to be sure you’re satisfying them.
The second biggest risk is that it doesn’t remain contemporary. If you asked our president, Kathleen Finch, about Adele or Jonathan Franzen or Quentin Tarantino she’d know all about them. She’s a voracious reader and user of all media. You need to have some of those folks work on your brands so they can inform your decisions in the broadest way possible.
This interview will be published in the April issue of Chief Learning Officer magazine. Susan Packard will be speaking at CLO Symposiuim17 on April 25 at 8:30 a.m. with her talk, “Move Fast, Think Big: Building a Brand Leader".