What Oprah Could Teach You About Marketing

May 20, 2011  |  

(Businessweek) — In 1988, Oprah Winfrey made a decision that would change her life—and eventually the future of television. Her talk show was already getting better ratings than kingpin Phil Donahue and aired in 198 markets. When she renegotiated her contract with King World Productions, which syndicated her show, and with ABC (DIS), which produced it, Winfrey demanded control and got it. Winfrey’s Harpo Productions assumed the show’s production costs, but it also collected licensing fees from local stations, estimated at $100 million in 1988. Plus, Harpo earned money from a few lucrative moments of advertising each day. “I never wanted to be in a position again in life where I was meant to do something but couldn’t do it because somebody was telling me I couldn’t,” Winfrey later told writers of a Harvard Business School case study.

The impulse to take control of her life—and then enjoy it—resonated with her viewers over a 25-year span that will end on May 25, when she airs her finale on broadcast television and turns her attention to her new cable channel. Over that time, Oprah became a singular brand born of her own personal history. Winfrey’s story of childhood poverty and sexual abuse, her struggle with her weight, and her striving and charisma made her the near-perfect peddler of a relentless optimism. She was more than a celebrity: She stood for self-improvement, doing good, and controlling your own destiny. Her motto, “Live your best life,” was invoked on her show, in her magazine, and on her website.

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