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How Oprah Became Oprah (And What It Should Teach You About Marketing)

IMB_OprahWinfrey In 1986, there were certain rules of television that pretty much everyone followed. You expected news anchors to be buttoned up and serious when presenting the evening news. Television programs (as they often still do) presented a distorted view of reality that only slightly resembled real life, but still allowed you to escape into other worlds. And whether you looked at television as a source of information or one of entertainment – you certainly didn't expect it to openly and honestly mirror real life.

That same year, Oprah Winfrey's talk show was nationally syndicated and on air she broke the taboos and shared openly her story of having been sexually abused at age 9 by a relative. It was an honesty that no one expected to come on television, and certainly not from a talk show host. It set the pattern for what came to become one of the most honest and open shows on television for the next 25 years as Oprah not only asked celebrity guests to share truths about themselves, but also managed to continually find and openly share her own with a live studio audience.

The atmosphere she created was one of openness because she wasn't afraid to be vulnerable and share the deepest secrets about herself. How many people do you know like that? How many brands? As Oprah airs her final episode today, the lesson any of us in marketing should take from her is the unbelievable power that comes from being open and honest about the toughest things. Brands screw up, make bad decisions or bad products, implement the wrong strategy, or treat customers unfairly.

Those aren't the things that drive brands to lose trust and fail. The failure comes from not admitting those mistakes, letting employees be human, and building a deeper connection with customers. Oprah may have been the most believable personality in the history of television. As she signs off today, consider asking yourself one simple question: how could being more honest make your brand more believable?

9 thoughts on “How Oprah Became Oprah (And What It Should Teach You About Marketing)”

  1. It seems unbelievable that the final show is airing today. There really is no doubt that she was one of the most influential shows on TV in terms of consumer purchasing. As soon as she recommended something, its sales skyrocketed. Her openness and honesty played a major role in that, people felt like she always told them everything, and they could trust her. That really set her apart, and earned her 25 successful years on air.

  2. I think it’s one of the hardest, and most unnatural, things for some people to do. Showing transparency in this environment is a necessity, but few are actually willing to make the effort to do so. And the sad part is, it’s EASIER to be transparent than it is to cover it up!

  3. Thank you so much for posting this! VERY timely. I am reading your book PNI, and I L O V E it! People become so likeable when they are just normal people. One of my best friends told me, “Dana, do you know why I act so crazy? (She meant honest & transparent)It’s because it makes other people feel normal.” Such wisdom.

  4. This is certainly the end of an era, and untold numbers of us have Oprah to thank for truly changing the media landscape. Rohit, this post inspired one we posted today at Cision Blog, We have come to think of Oprah as the ultimate influencer, and especially on your point of honesty and this kind of deeper personal or human involvement, social media marketers especially have a lot to learn from her. @ryoatcision

  5. Oprah has set the bar and given us a great example of what can be when you are open and honest.

    As an online-only company we are firm believers in being open and honest with our customers, especially since new and repeat business rely heavily on our customers’ experience and their feedback. We update our website often to reflect any company happenings, new employees that have joined the team and any new offerings or policies.

    We lean on each other as a team to get the job done. Our customer service department is not afraid to admit when we have made an error. We are human, after all, and we do our best to offer a resolution for our customer when we do make a mistake.

    Thank you, Oprah, for proving to the world that honesty and openness can be so successful.


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#1 WSJ & USA Today Bestselling Author

Rohit is the author of 9 books on trends, the future of business, building a more human brand with storytelling and how to create a more diverse and inclusive world.


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