Comedy Central’s brand strategy is no joke

Once upon a time, before the likes of Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande roamed (infested?) our airwaves, a startup television channel named MTV used to play music videos. And not just from 3 AM to 8 AM, as seems to be the case today. A look at MTV’s current programming schedule shows just how much has changed since “Video Killed the Radio Star.” While the focus on teenage viewers is abundantly clear — with shows like “When I was 17,” “16 and Pregnant,” and “That 70s Show” — there are few clues for unfamiliar viewers as to exactly what that big “M” stands for. In fact, MTV officially dropped the line “Music Television” from their logo last year.

I offer this MTV parable only as counter-example to Comedy Central, another descriptively named network with a well-defined target audience. Coming up on its 25th anniversary next April Fool’s Day (of course), Comedy Central is more popular than ever, due in no small part to recently departed stars Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, as well as Daniel Tosh and the dirty-mouthed children of South Park. But the network’s success, and in fact the mere existence of those stars, is the result of two qualities crucial to any strong brand: focus, and uncompromising consistency.

Then and now: MTV and Comedy Central visual identities and sample programming

A 2011 New York Times article explained how the network’s focus on “singular point-of-view comedy” has informed everything from a talent pipeline, which starts with stand-up acts, to Comedy Awards. The implication for corporate brands is clear: a singular, powerful brand idea can impact not only surface-level design and communications, but deeper functions like product portfolio and HR. And while focus and consistency may seem limiting (that’s the point), brands that get it right are in fact freed up to make some changes more confidently. Case in point: Comedy Central also created a new logo a few years back, and although the change in look is far more dramatic than MTV’s, it feels more consistent with the brand’s original promise. Love it or hate it, you’ve gotta admit it’s funny.

Comedy Central new design and logo, 2011

Heirloom is a brand strategy firm helping entrepreneurs and business leaders build enduring brands. To receive articles, updates, and additional content from Heirloom, sign up for the newsletter.

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