'Treat your brand like a human' – advice on brand building from MTV founder Bob Pittman

By Katie Deighton | Senior Reporter

October 16, 2018 | 6 min read

Bob Pittman, the media mogul currently heading up iHeartMedia, believes his success at companies from MTV to Six Flags can be traced back to one philosophy – treating each brand as if it were a mortal, human entity that needs to be protected.

Pittman formed this theory early on in his career in media, beginning with the launch of MTV in his mid-twenties. He was part of the first team to introduce the music industry to TV, a feat never successfully accomplished before.

Yet now, he questions whether he and his co-founders were ever really "doing brave, crazy things”.

“What worked about MTV is we spent a lot of time on brand,” he said, speaking at Interbrand’s Best Global Brands Summit in New York City.

Pittman, alongside fellow MTV pioneers such as Fred Seibert, Tom Freston and John Skyes, already had the product nailed down; he had the foresight to shape the moving picture around music, and not the other way around like his less successful predecessors had done.

“Then we said that this TV brand is going to be humanlike,” he recalled.

“I was 26 years old at the time we were developing it. We didn't have any respect for experience and we were looking to our friends. We did some crazy, outrageous stuff, but [the audience] came because [MTV] reflected this joyful personality of about four or five of us. It would generally start with heavy drinking and making some jokes, and saying, ‘hey – we could do that’.”

The collective personality that was free to shine through the brand was no better demonstrated than through the MTV logo – an emblem that has barely changed throughout the station’s 37-year history. The channel didn’t have the money to pay for the “big, Stars Wars-type” logo design that was proving popular in 1981 so Pittman commissioned “something so different that it [couldn’t] look cheap”.

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The design cost $750.

“To me it was all about having a really conducive idea of this personality, and any time we brought people into the brand they became a brand steward – the keeper of the vision,” he said. He believes brand MTV “held up” for 30 years; that is until Judy McGrath, the chief executive from 2004-11 who had joined the company as a copywriter in 1981, departed.

“When Judy left there was no keeper of the brand anymore,” Pittman asserted. “It became about making decisions about programming, or decisions about economics, and there was no-one to say, ‘look – paramount of everything is brand. You don't screw with the brand and you don't take a risk with the brand’.”

But by 2011, Pittman had long been busy taking his ‘brand as paramount’ philosophy and applying it to other companies.

With Six Flags Theme Parks, which he presided over as chairman and chief executive from 1991 until 1995, he implemented a strategy of unifying the disparate, national sites under a single banner (when Pittman joined, “every city had a slightly different brand”).

He also embarked on a mission to come in to "second place" by consciously encouraging comparison between his theme park properties and those of Disney.

“When Pepsi did the Pepsi Challenge they didn't want to beat Coke – they wanted to get out of the pack,” he explained. “And when we built the [Six Flags brand] we wanted people to say, ‘you're not as good as Disney’, instead of ‘you're better than Dorney Park’. Because that meant we were in their category.”

Pittman believes he brought Six Flags “back on track” within six months. His experience taught him that brand revival can be a much easier process than brand introduction.

“When you're building brands the two things you have to build are identity and awareness,” he explained. “I think it takes a $1bn of earned or unearned media and about five to seven years to build a brand. I defy anyone that's broken that rule. But you can turn a brand around in six months.

"People have very short memories.”

Pittman has since prioritized brand identity for iHeartMedia, the name he officially gave the former Clear Channel Media Holdings in 2014. He said he believes the new brand adds value to the swathe of radio stations the company owns in the way that the name Pixar adds value to the films it makes – a belief that was called into question when the company filed by bankruptcy earlier this year.

At the time, Pittman noted the company's transformation from "a traditional broadcast radio company into a true 21st century multi-platform, data-driven, digitally-focused media and entertainment powerhouse". The company has since plowed on to purchase podcast brand Stuff Media and invest in marijuana publication High Times.

Pittman remains ensconced at the head of the board, and is more confident in his brand philosophy than ever. After all, he's got plenty of experience working through the challenges that come with leading a business especially since he endured the headache of being at the helm of the infamously, ill-fated merger AOL and Time Warner in 2001.

“The statistical analysis was great. but the press was horrible, because everyone at either AOL or Time Warner couldn't do anything except bad-mouth each other,” he remembered.

“Time Warner was a company where you managed a bunch of dudes that ran divisions and at AOL we were one company, and everyone looked after that brand.

"It was just too much ... and it just came apart. The lesson is, you've got to have a compatible culture on a merger. or you just have to take over another culture.”

He added: “What you should strive to be as a company is a one-of-a-kind company. I don't want to be a radio company. I want to be iHeart. You can't describe it – the personality becomes that unique. And I think that's what we got right with MTV.”


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