The power of identity

What Alabama Media Group can teach us about clarifying who we are

The following has been adapted from a speech I originally gave as part of a Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) course in Strategic Communication, given in the video above to JSK Fellows and other guests. The text is slightly edited for clarity.

Aaron Meadows, aka Champagne Munroe, by Tamika Moore for People of Alabama

Meet Aaron Meadows. In his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, he’s better known as Champagne Munroe, his drag-queen alter ego. I owe Champagne a debt of gratitude for helping me on my journey this academic year. That journey of exploration and discovery has involved serious questioning and considerable rethinking around issues of identity.

But don’t worry. I’m not going to get uncomfortably personal. I’m talking about corporate identity.

And wrestling with questions around identity is one of the most important things you can do as an organizational leader.

I came to Stanford to study metrics around consumer attachment to news brands. And that topic makes me a bit of an outlier among the JSK Fellows here and among journalists in general.

When I talk about news brands to journalists, I mostly get quizzical looks. Corporate branding is not something they tend to think about. In fact, if there’s anything a reporter distrusts more than a politician, it’s a marketer. (And that might help explain the industry’s current predicament.)

But the savvy journalist — or business person — might ask whether news brands even matter any more.

Haven’t Facebook and Google rendered them obsolete, irrelevant?

It’s a good question — one that I found myself repeatedly asking as I delved into my project. After all, part of what’s fueled the rise of fake news is that so many people just do not pay attention to the sources of the stories they share. Maybe asking who produced a story is becoming like asking who grew the corn on my plate. Maybe news is just another commodity, with no meaningful brand identity to differentiate various stories and their producers. Thanks, Facebook.

Michelle Holmes, VP of content for Alabama Media Group, addresses 2017–18 JSK Fellows. (Photo: Michael Bolden)

But then Champagne’s story reminded me of the true power of identity when Michelle Holmes shared it with JSK Fellows last fall. Michelle is vice president of content at Alabama Media Group, and she came to Stanford to talk about the work she’s doing there.

Five years ago, she arrived — fresh off of her Stanford fellowship — to an organization that many had written off.

Its newspapers had just gone from a daily print schedule to printing just three days a week. Newsroom morale was decimated, and readers were up in arms.

Today, Alabama Media Group is a case study in organizational transformation, one that should stand alongside the GSB and Harvard Business School cases you read in this place. Even before columnist John Archibald brought home the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in April, the group was a rare bright spot in local and regional news, sustainably producing innovative and important work.

Michelle summed up Alabama Media Group’s transformation by explaining that they focused on building brands that people love. In short, people should want to wear the T-shirt.

Her talk took me back. Back to the foundations of brand and corporate identity. Back to my time consulting Fortune 500 companies in developing digital brands. Back to my time as a magazine publisher, bootstrapping a niche music magazine to build it into the third largest in the U.S. and Great Britain. Back to my own MBA. And back to what has been my bible of organizational development and strategy, “Good to Great” — the classic from former GSB professor Jim Collins.

“Three Circles of the Hedgehog Concept,” from

Collins developed this Venn diagram as a tool to help a company hone its identity. To do so, look to your passion, to what you can truly be the best in the world at and to what drives your economic engine.

This question of corporate identity is much deeper and more powerful than a simple marketing slogan. This isn’t about brand as a mere positioning statement. It’s about who and what you are as an organization. And it’s a devilishly difficult one to answer.

In an episode of Reid Hoffman’s “Master of Scale” podcast from earlier this year, the LinkedIn founder and venture capitalist challenged leaders in Silicon Valley to build companies that last. To do that, he said, business leaders need to answer that fundamental question of identity: What are we?

The difficulty in rigorously answering that question explains why, in his words, “very few companies have managed to both scale tremendously and age gracefully.” In other words, understanding your identity is a primary determinant of how big you will grow and how long you will last.

News organizations — after thriving for well over a century in some cases — are certainly struggling to age gracefully.

But the reality is that a number of national news brands are figuring this out. When I say the New York Times, Washington Post, ProPublica, NPR or The Economist, I’d venture that almost every one of you has a sense of the identities of most of these brands, what they are about.

But what about the San Jose Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, the news team at KGO-TV or whatever local news organizations you know from your hometown? I bet that whatever comes to mind is much more muddled.

Alabama Media Group, however, is also figuring this out at the local level.

My analysis of the Hedgehog Concept at work in Alabama Media Group

They use quality storytelling that makes Alabama a better place (their passion) to clearly defined audiences in Alabama (what they can be the best at) that they deliver to advertisers with well-defined target audiences of their own (their economic engine).

They created the Facebook-native brand Reckon for hard news around issues of importance to Alabamians. That separate identity has kept discussions civil and serious. In part, because what you don’t get are fans looking for Alabama football coverage being drawn into flame wars by a piece of political coverage they happen to stumble upon.

For those sports fans, they’ve created SEC Shorts. (SEC Shorts is a comedy brand. It is not used for serious sports coverage. Nonetheless, the main point stands. Reckon’s separate social media presence attracts audiences more inclined to civil discussions.)

And for those just wanting a laugh, It’s a Southern Thing features videos that get BuzzFeed-level traffic and engagement that would make any brand envious. (In fact, It’s a Southern Thing — as well as SEC Shorts — are national brands, reaching well beyond Alabama.)

These and a dozen or so other brands have attracted new audiences and, importantly for their business model, advertisers who would never advertise on a traditional news site.

Finally, there’s People of Alabama, the Humans of New York-style project that featured Champagne Munroe. Had Alabama Media Group not been clear on the identities of its brands, it would have simply placed this profile as a human interest story on its main site and then cowered at the vitriol unleashed on this African-American drag queen from coastal Alabama.

Comment threads on news sites are notorious for that lack of civility, and I know this well. A few years ago, my wife wrote a column for our local paper about sharing food traditions with friends in our new hometown. It was a sweet, anodyne column that talked about her Persian heritage. And some of the comments were just mindless and hurtful. Comments along the lines of, “Why should we care about what towel-heads eat for dinner?”

But in Champagne’s case, Alabama Media Group had built a community, a community of readers invested in the people, stories and diversity of Alabama. That community responded with comments like, “you are an inspiration” and “Yas, queen.” One person — one, out of hundreds — wrote a disparaging comment, and the community quickly showed that person to the door.

And that is the power of identity.