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Lauren Zalaznick always finds it funny when people describe her as a risk taker.
As president, NBC Universal women and lifestyle entertainment networks — which involves overseeing the buzz-generating Bravo TV network — part of Zalaznick’s job is to always be a few steps ahead of her viewers, a fact that has led to airing reality shows such as “Project Runway,” “Top Chef,” “The Real Housewives of Orange County” and “The Rachel Zoe Project.” But far from being big gambles, these reality forays were steeped in research and a deep knowledge of the Bravo consumer base and, thus, “have nothing to do with risk.”
“I am not willing to fail.…I do not advocate taking risks. I advocate making decisions that involve change,” said Zalaznick. “And if you are like me, you work with a bunch of creative people who come up with new ideas all the time.”
In addition to Bravo, Zalaznick is in charge of the Oxygen and the digital Web community iVillage, all of which cater to women, but also have their own unique identities. She adheres to three basic rules for each brand: identify the customer base, listen to its needs and keep the customer devoted to the brand through constant innovation.
Regarding her first rule, Zalaznick said it’s important to realize a given brand isn’t for everyone. “We are niche,” she said. “We know niche can be mass and highly profitable. Bravo is not NBC, but NBC U’s cable properties contribute more than half of [NBC Universal’s] $3.6 billion in annual profits. My own brands individually contribute close to $1 billion in revenues. These niche brands are popular and good at gathering buzz, as you’re pretending to invite everyone to your party, but you don’t actually want everyone to show up because if they do, you risk alienating the very core and first members of the club. Ask the maître d’ at the Waverly [Inn]. They don’t want everyone to come.”
In keeping the second rule in mind, Zalaznick said every product is grounded in “the complex creativity of everyday life.”
“We love to do research. The more data we have, the more we feel we have a pulse on our audience. What is deeply fascinating or deeply repellent? What is it that they cannot stop watching?” Through years of research, Zalaznick has learned, for example, that the average Bravo viewer doesn’t favor the “hate to hate personality.” “It works in plenty of other places, but it does not work on Bravo.”
Her third rule calls for constant innovation, which is directly linked to timing. “Niche has a ton of risk associated with it. It’s a very narrow target,” she noted. “Timing is a real thing now. We are looking six to 12 to 18 months out, preparing now to deliver them products that will get them excited to spend.”
Of course, some rules and priorities are bound to shift in light of the current financial crisis, which many say will only get worse next year. Zalaznick believes it will eventually come to an end, but in the meantime, she wonders when everything will hit bottom and if her Bravo viewers will continue to care about fashion and luxury the way they have in the past. “Will they care about being rich and getting richer? We’ve spent a good deal of time tracking all of this wealth, but these consumers are in a full scale retreat.”
With this in mind, she shared some tips to help survive this recession. “There is an opportunity to keep your brand relevant,” she said. “It’s important to stay in the public consciousness so you will be perfectly positioned to take advantage of the rebound when it does come.”
The challenge the television and print businesses face is the overwhelming amount of press that is changing its story every day. One day, there is a report stating that there will be no more advertising available and, two days later, another report says digital advertising will survive in 2009. “The classic question is, how do you know what to believe? A part of that answer is specifically in advertising. The truth gets truer if you really believe it.”
Zalaznick pointed to other past downturns, such as the dot-com crash, noting studies show that in difficult times, the companies that continue to advertise and keep brands in front of the consumer tend to make it through and emerge with a much larger market share than those that “unwisely overtighten their marketing belts.”
She acknowledged the word “brand” has also become overplayed, but all the same, she said the notion of “brand” is only getting stronger. “Eventually, when we emerge from this, it’s going to be important to maintain that brand messaging…you need to have a very deep knowledge of your consumer. Content plus marketing equals brand. Everyone has different variables in their equation, but that is the basics of it.”
She said a given brand is what connects a business to the customer. It has to be built over time and sustained by painstaking work. “But you’ve got to back up that buzz with a product that delivers on all of the promises,” warned Zalaznick.
“Here is my simple advice that is overlooked with shocking frequency. Do the things that are easier, not harder. Do the things that make more money, not less. Honestly, that oversimplification makes your to do list of maybes a lot shorter.”
And for Bravo, this list probably includes more rich housewives getting Botox and buying yachts, more stylists having breakdowns and probably many more opportunities to see Padma Lakshmi sashaying around the kitchen with Tom Colicchio on “Top Chef.”