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‘Audience-based’ programming is enjoying a renaissance

My favourite example of ‘audience-based programming’ dates back over 60 years; in the 1950s, the then managing director of Guinness Brewery attended a shooting party (yes, those were the days; think late PG Wodehouse!) in County Wexford, Ireland. There, he and his hosts argued about the fastest game bird in Europe, and failed to agree on the answer.

Inspired by this incident, in 1954, the idea of a definitive compendium of verified records – the Guinness Book of Records – was born.  Today, it remains the singular more authoritative source of human and animal achievement.  I love this story because it perfectly demonstrates the process and power of audience-based programming: the campaign was based on a human insight (life before ‘big data’, remember), the latter was based entirely on the audience (drinkers who found themselves in bars arguing over the fastest, longest, heaviest, oldest . . . . ).  And, most of all, it is this insight – rather than the nature and characteristics of the product – that connects the brand of stout to the audience.  It’s pure association.

I’ve written extensively about the need for brands to find relevance, to listen and engage in other people’s conversations; it’s what I call the age of ‘post protagonism’ – brands no longer enjoy a monopoly on the means of communication, they can no longer assume the centre of attention.  A range of trends – from the ease with which individuals can ‘compete’ with even the most established brands for attention – to the tools at their disposal to disregard unsolicited intrusions (ad blockers, filters etc) underpin this reality.

In fact, it appears that the challenge of competing for people’s attention is nothing new; and neither is the idea of engaging in their conversations, rather than simply imposing the brand’s.  This is audience-based programming ‘analogue’ style!

The oldest example I have found is equally compelling; it’s nothing (directly) to do with rubber or car tyres, an everything to do with great cuisine.  The little red guidebook was originally conceived simply to encourage more motorists to take to the road.  At a time when there were fewer than 3,000 cars in France, a guide listing reputable and safe guest houses and restaurants along France’s less frequented highways would become an essential glove compartment accessory.

In 1926, the guide began to award stars for fine dining establishments, initially marking them only with a single star. Five years later, a hierarchy of zero, one, two, and three stars was introduced, and in 1936, the criteria for the starred rankings were published. Today, it rates over 30,000 establishments across three continents; more than 30 million Michelin Guides have been sold worldwide to date.  Michelin is a tyre and rubber manufacturer, I remind you.  No references to tyre treads or pressures in sight . . . . . . Once again, it all started with the audience.

Despite the ubiquity brand campaigns and other forms of push content, audience-based programming can be seen everywhere, if we look heard enough. Starbucks’ ‘third place’ story has been running for nearly 50 years; again, it’s all about the audience (there’s no mention of coffee).  The third place wasn’t even Starbucks’ concept; it was first elucidated in a book by sociologist, Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: “. . One’s ‘first place’ (is) the home and those that one lives with. The ‘second place’ is the workplace — where people may actually spend most of their time. Third places, then, are ‘anchors’ of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. All societies already have informal meeting places; what is new in modern times is the intentionality of seeking them out as vital to current societal needs . . .”

A wonderful example of pure audience-based programming which provides a context and purpose for the brand.  There are many others.  A few years ago, I was involved in developing one for Titan Industries: The Millennial Paradox:  research and observation confirms today’s younger generation (under 35) to be more opinionated, individual and (in some cases) narcissistic than their predecessors. Their’s is the only opinion in town.  At the same time, however, they do not operate in isolation, they need and constantly seek approval from friends and family to validate themselves.  This contradiction – or ‘collective individualism’ – is at the heart of the Millennial Paradox.

This insight provided the brand with a point of view on a huge variety of issues, themes and discussions relevant to its audiences and business; ranging from employee engagement (how does the Millennial Paradox impact the employment and recruitment process?), to technology (mass personalization), and branding (how can an experience be collective and individual?).  These conversations were complemented by a ‘Paradox Panel’ of commentators from different sectors (academia, art, business, research) to participate quarterly roundtable discussions around the theme.

Each of these examples demonstrates the potential for brands to participate in other people’s stories.  Such engagement can represent a tangible asset, which builds relevance (and loyalty) beyond the confines of a product or service; and removed dependency on the same.  I an age of ad blockers, filters and unprecedented levels of indifference facing brands, a return to the audience as a starting point, makes more sense than ever.

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