Branding in a bifurcated marketplace – In today’s bifurcated marketplace the “sensible middle” is the no man’s land of branding.

(5 min. read)

Over the last couple of days pundits have issued hot takes regarding why CNN chairman and CEO Chris Licht was fired after just one year on the job.

From the universally panned Donald Trump Town Hall to the firing of Don Lemon, Licht’s attempts to “move CNN back to the middle of the political debate” further eroded already weak ratings.

Many attributes Licht’s failure to a poor managerial style, while others whisper that his attempts to migrate the network to a more Republican friendly space was to appease his Warner Bros./Discovery boss or. more worryingly, a Conservative activist and board member.  

 These takes miss a more fundamental reason for Licht’s failure: In today’s bifurcated marketplace, occupying the “middle” is a losing value proposition.

A decade ago, I had the opportunity to host futurist Bob Johansen, Distinguished Fellow, The Institute for the Future (IFTF) at The Ohio State University’s Fisher Business School where he discussed trends impacting the U.S. One trend put to rest a popular belief at the time that the unlimited amount of information made possible by the Internet would empower consumers to absorb diverse opinions and information. The truth, we were promised, would be obvious, and obviously embraced.

 Instead, consumers were increasingly overwhelmed by it. To make sense of the tsunami of information raining down upon them, Johansen predicted that consumers would increasingly reject content that was incongruent their worldview and would instead gravitate toward, and marinate in, information that most closely aligned with their beliefs.

A quick perusal of our current, highly polarized marketplace underscores just how prescient his prediction was. Polarization is no longer merely political or economic, but also social, technological, and environmental, impacting every aspect of our lives including how we interact with brands. A reality that no business – a food brand like Marzetti’s, an apparel retailer like Victoria’s Secret, or a 24hr. news operation should forget.

Consumers with differing views don’t just vote differently than one another, they also shop different stores, eat different foods, and watch different television shows. As the most recent boycott of Anheuser Busch demonstrates, they don’t even drink the same beers and they punish brands whose values don’t align. News no exception. It’s the rule.

There is little evidence that this trend will subside any time soon, let alone reverse course. In a landscape where MSNBC has targeted the Progressive Left and Fox News and “baby Conservative outlets” OAN and News Max, the Right and Far Right, Licht claimed the middle was where CNN’s future lie. To hear him tell it the middle was comprised of diverse viewers happy to be subtly and respectfully challenged.

It’s not that Licht’s desire isn’t admirable. Nor is his opinion that CNN had become overly strident and that seemingly every story was “amped up to 11” altogether wrong. Even if it’s equally fair to ask how exactly the outlet was to respond to a daily barrage of unprecedented behavior by the Trump Administration. And Licht’s comments bordered on false equivalency when compared to the conspiracies given oxygen over at Fox or the 24-hour outrage machine that has become MSNBC. Many, if not most viewers might indeed welcome a U.S. News market comprised of more “down the middle coverage” like that of the news bureau’s of three broadcast networks through the 1980’s.

The problem is that ALL news outlets would need to be neutral for this reality to take hold. And it’s important to recall that these outlets were never balanced by choice. They were instead mandated by the Fairness Doctrine – a policy put in place by the FCC at the advent of broadcast television, requiring, “…holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that fairly reflected differing viewpoints.” Failure to comply could result in loss of a broadcasting license. But the Reagan Administration’s FCC abolished the requirement in 1987, and in the process swung the door wide open to hyper partisan news coverage.

Short of the FCC re-establishing the Doctrine, the owners of these outlets are not just unlikely to re-establish their bureaus as “public service” entities, but they would be committing shareholder negligence if they did. Simply hoping consumers will eat their moderate news “vegetables” while an “all you can eat” dessert smorgasbord of outrage and worldview-confirming partisanship permeates their streaming menu is unrealistic to put it mildly.

Licht’s diagnosis of what ailed CNN wasn’t just incorrect, his prescription was wrong too.  

The problems that Licht’s was charged with fixing for the most part did not emanate from viewers tiring of the network’s left-of-center stance as he claimed, but instead from post-election fatigue and a sense on the part of many CNN viewers that they could finally relax and take a break from vigilantly monitoring Trump’s every move, every hour of every day. Add the abrupt shift in tone and the absence of two prime anchors from the lineup with no replacements in sight, and things went from bad to worse. Other self-inflicted wounds like Chris Cuomo’s exit, and Don Lemon’s repeated boneheaded, on-air comments made a downturn in ratings appears inevitable.

So, what’s CNN to do? For starters segment viewership and select one upon which to focus. If they had done so earlier, CNN would have discovered that an insufficient number of self-identified Republicans and Conservatives are likely to shift allegiance away from Fox. If anything, a meaningful minority of this segment is more likely to veer even further to the Right. Similarly, Licht would have discovered that the Progressive segment which feasts on an equally large diet of outrage at MSNBC would find any moderation, not just boring but irresponsible.

 This leaves the “Liberal” cohort. At first glance this segment may appear suspiciously similar to either the “Progressive” segment or the “Moderate Middle”. But there few viewers who hold moderate opinions in the culture wars. They are either for or against reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and other wedge issues. And they rarely hold differing views across issues. Few for example are pro-life while supporting trans athlete participation. And while “Liberal” viewers share many perspectives with their more radical allies, they balk at what they view as Progressive’s stridency, love of “safe spaces”, pronoun policing and the weaponization of politically correct language. Nor are Liberals open to things like book banning or the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation popular with many Right leaning viewers.

This is where Licht erred. While he was correct that a segment sufficient in size to grow CNN’s profits exists, he was incorrect to believe it was comprised of a rainbow coalition of MAGA supporters, traditional Republicans and moderate Democrats watching in harmony. The “moderate middle” segment is also comprised largely of “low information voters” who despise news coverage and who avoid it all cost. Not exactly a cohort with which to grow.

To survive and prosper CNN must identify a real, rather than a wished for target of sufficient market size with which its message resonates. For better or worse, news in the a business. And business is comprised of brands – the most successful of which, in today’s bifurcated marketplace reside closer to the margins than to the once beloved but depleted “middle.”