Resilience in Media: How the Oprah Brand Has Used Technology to Evolve and Thrive

Written By
Daniel Gruber, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Medill IMC Department & Kellogg School of Management (Courtesy), Northwestern University;
Andrea Wishom, Chief Operating Officer, Skywalker Properties
Edited By Phallon Edmonds, Medill IMC Class Of 2015

Published on 10/21/2015


It is difficult to think of a media brand that is as powerful as Oprah Winfrey. The multi-talented mogul began her rise to ubiquity with her talk show in 1986. The show was syndicated nationally for 25 years and enjoyed unprecedented success in terms of ratings and its power to connect with viewers. Understanding that connection and how it has evolved with a focus on leveraging today’s technology is the goal of this article. Former Harpo Executive Vice President Andrea Wishom talks about five lessons of the Oprah Brand with Medill Assistant Professor Dan Gruber in this distinctive collaboration. Wishom and Gruber have been talking about these ideas for a couple of years during guest speeches in classes at Northwestern. This article takes those visits to another level to distill implications for theory and practice. Among the key ideas are: the power of a natural connection, why less is more, aging gracefully, technology as an enhancer, and brand resilience. For each of these lessons, Wishom talks about her experience and Gruber translates those thoughts with both the broader context of media and the IMC framework.

Power of a Natural Connection

It is helpful for media and brand leaders to think about the idea of a natural connection with their viewers and customers. Oftentimes, there is a great deal of strategic planning which goes into the discussion of the content of messages sent. That is surely the case with the Oprah brand, but there is also an interesting imprinting of the effortless way in which viewers initially connect to the brand, which continues to drive things decades later when there are myriad ways to communicate.

Wishom detailed, “Someone like Oprah has a natural connection with her audience that was evident from day one. She practically defined what connection really means and has become the benchmark. We were able to act as extensions of that connection in everything else we did — promos, scripts, outreach on social media, etc. The more places for that connection the stronger the brand. The global brand that Oprah represents today started with that initial connection.” “But brands don’t have to have Oprah to have that feeling of seamless communication throughout all platforms it is the ease of which decisions are made. A mindset of ease that arises from a relentless approach. It is about staying in your lane and not trying to fit a circle into a square.”

Technology as an Enhancer

The adoption of new technologies has been quite successful for Oprah as she currently has more than 29 million followers on Twitter. This number is multitudes higher than the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), which has 635,000. However, given the network’s capabilities within their social platforms Winfrey is able to spread the word on what is happening at the network.

Wishom explains, “Technology has become part of the natural extension of Oprah. Oprah took to it first, created her own rules, and has been in the driver’s seat ever since. She has replaced the audience from the TV show on social media in some ways. It also plays out in exciting new ways as somebody visits the brand for a moment on social media. She does not put a hard sell on anything via social media, which is aligned to her brand. People feel they are part of the best parts of Oprah – the conversation – and she has been able to maintain the integrity of connection and authenticity no matter where you find her. In some ways, it is as if she has a talk show on Twitter. The connection that Oprah built is playing out in so many ways.”

Why Less is More

Winfrey was on television every day for decades, and now is on approximately once a week on cable, so it is interesting to think about the idea of less being more in 2015. “Less literal Oprah (in terms of the shows), but more Oprah with platforms,” noted Wishom. “There are ambassadors now (literally and figuratively) who can take the metaphorical train of the brand and run with it at this point. Things have evolved to the point where we were able to be innovative, subtly evolve, and stay relevant.”

The opportunity to have other employees represent the brand was quite powerful. Wishom explains, “Your employees are your greatest ambassadors. You need to allow them to use their diverse interests, talents and experiences to expand the brand. The Oprah brand seems to allow some creative freedom for this – it is “open source” if you will.

Aging Gracefully

At age 61, Oprah Winfrey has shown no signs of slowing down, but Wishom believes Oprah and her brand have demonstrated how to age gracefully. “Oprah never chased the hottest, newest things as they came out. She would wait to figure out what was best for her and then, by extension the brand. You do not see Oprah on Snapchat, for example, but you do see her finding innovative ways to use technology (the Lifeclass workshops for example). The Oprah brand knows its lane and continues to move at a steady pace. We would see an innovation and wait to figure out how to use it for the sole purpose of amplifying Oprah’s connection. It was that simple.”

The idea of aging gracefully is quite relevant for IMC practitioners as they think about continually updating their messaging while staying true to their roots. Disney CEO Robert Iger has talked about the idea of heritage and innovation in discussing his company’s strategy and that is a helpful way to think about the Oprah brand. There is a strong history that links to her talk show and its success, but there is certainly a need to continually innovate today with technology changing so fast and the audience for Oprah evolving.

Resilience in Action

Looking at the Oprah Winfrey Network in 2015 it is impressive to note just how far the network has bounced back. When it launched in 2011, the network had to balance the fact that Oprah was simultaneously winding down her syndicated talk show. Wishom explained, “In a certain way the challenges of launching provided a jolt that everyone needed to innovate. Additionally most brands have a core and for us at that time much of the core was not directly involved with launching the network (because the network launched in the final year of the Oprah Show) – that ingrained the importance of thinking about talent and the caretakers of the brand to ensure they are working together.”

The experiences of the Oprah Brand and navigating the challenges of launching the Oprah Winfrey Network illuminate the importance of brand resilience in media brands. Many would argue that the strength of the network today is a result of successfully navigating the early challenges it faced. Additionally, the evolution of programming on the network would likely not have occurred if not for the initial difficulties. As Medill Adjunct Lecturer and Deloitte’s Chief Brand Officer Jonathan Copulsky notes in his book, “Brand Resilience,” brand risk is at an all-time high. Copulsky’s work highlights the importance for organizations to both proactively protect their brands as well as to develop an infrastructure to respond when things go awry.

Concluding Thoughts

Working alongside Oprah Winfrey for more than two decades has provided Andrea Wishom with a truly unique perspective on the media industry and brands. The one-of-a-kind figure of Oprah, (and her brand), provides a vibrant case study through which marketing and media leaders can think about decisions they face. Wishom reflected, “What was relevant for the Oprah brand in the beginning is still relevant today.” All marketing executives are thinking about how to make a natural connection with customers, balancing the vast media channels available to them, staying relevant as they evolve, using technology to enhance their brands, and creating resilience to bounce back from adverse events. This article aimed to share wisdom for all marketing leaders who are wrestling with these issues and leading media brands. [END]


Dan Gruber Daniel Gruber is an assistant professor in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and Kellogg School of Management (Courtesy) at Northwestern University. Dan completed his Ph.D. in management and organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. His interdisciplinary research focuses on organizational sense making, the media industry, and managing integration. Additionally, he conducts research examining the impact of social media on how organizations respond to unexpected events.
Andrea Wishom Andrea Wishom is the chief operating officer of Skywalker Properties. As the leader of this diverse organization, Wishom oversees the operations and integration of George Lucas’ companies including real estate holdings, private wealth and investments and operations of three nonprofits, including The George Lucas Education Foundation and The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Prior to joining Skywalker Properties in 2015, she had a distinguished 22-year career at Harpo Studios.  
DSC_7506 Phallon Edmonds has interned at several places, including a college radio station, law firms and Parkwood Entertainment in New York, NY. She serves as the social media director for Vitamin IMC, the Medill IMC student blog. Phallon received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she majored in urban and regional planning.

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