Why CNN+ Failed

CNN+ met an ignominious end last week, canceled after barely a month in existence.  Since then, the industry has been awash in epitaphs and explanations for the collapse.  To me, it boils down to one simple reason. 

No, it’s not because Jeff Zucker, the architect and primary advocate for CNN+, got ousted. 

Nor is it because of the change in ownership.

And it does not have anything to do with the rapid maturity of the SVOD marketplace or changing consumer sentiment about the number of services people will pay for.

Admittedly none of the factors above helped the situation.  New ownership, changes in management and rapidly evolving market conditions certainly raised the degree of difficulty.  But all those reasons are incidental to the failure of CNN+.

The reason it failed is that no one ever articulated a clear reason why consumers needed CNN+ in the first place.

All marketing starts with the question – who is it for?  An early mentor in politics asked the same question in a different, more profane way – why should anyone give a shit about this?

Simon Sinek, the author of “Start with Why” and the man behind one of the most viewed TED Talks of all time, captured this concept more elegantly: “People don’t buy what you do or how you do it, rather they buy why you do it.”  His theory is based on powerful insights into the human psyche and how we make decisions.  As much as people will articulate rational reasons for making decisions (the “what” and the “how”), fundamentally our decision-making processes are very much driven by emotion and intuition (the “why” behind our choices).

The fact that consumers are flocking to streaming services and abandoning the traditional linear television ecosystem is a real issue for networks like CNN.  I work for a traditional television network too so I’m quite familiar with the impact of changing viewing habits.

The business challenge CNN faced is how to make the brand available to cord cutters without disrupting their still massive revenue stream from cable and satellite companies.  CNN+ attempted to solve this issue by creating an entirely new version of the network, different from the CNN on traditional television, for the streaming crowd.

But in doing so they forgot to ask themselves if an entirely new version of CNN is something consumers wanted.  Was CNN solving a problem for consumers or for themselves?  Did consumers intuitively feel a real need for a new version of CNN?  Clearly the product was built to address CNN’s business challenge with the hope that consumers would find it compelling enough to pay for.  Or perhaps they believed that by creating the product they could help consumers discover a need they didn’t know they had.

I think on some level the team at CNN knew they hadn’t nailed the why.  You could hear in their press interviews. You could see it in the CNN+ campaign.  Similar to countless other brands that have made the same mistake – they focused on the “what” and “how.” They talked about product features:  the talent, the variety of programming and “lifetime” discounts. They never led with the why, which really motivates consumers ultimately.

My guess is that creating a way for consumers to access the real CNN without a cable subscription would have been received better.  The why for such a product would have been much more compelling: we know world class news is important to you and you want the ability to watch it anywhere at any time, even without cable – now you can with CNN+.

CNN is a terrific company full of incredibly smart people. Navigating the complex world of media distribution rights and rapidly changing consumer behaviors, all while trying to preserve still highly profitable revenue streams, is not easy. They aren’t the first and they won’t be the last to stumble. The lesson for all of us in media, indeed for all marketers, is how easy it is to mistake our business challenges for consumer problems.

And let’s be honest, I don’t think there’s a marketer on the planet, myself included, who hasn’t made this mistake at least once.  Just because a concept (always lead with the why) is simple to understand doesn’t mean it is easy to do.

In the end it comes down to this:  if your business has specific challenges that don’t allow you to meet a consumer need, either decide to ignore those challenges in service of meeting that need or acknowledge that you’re not positioned to solve the problem right now.  All the money, smarts and talent in the world won’t save a product if consumers don’t buy into why it matters in the first place.

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