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Oprah: The person and the brand

Question: With her final TV show this week, Oprah Winfrey is taking up a new challenge: developing a cable network. What is the success rate for highly accomplished leaders when they move on to "second acts"? What are the usual pitfalls? And while we're at it, what has been the secret to Oprah's success as a business leader and shaper of public opinion?

As The Oprah Winfrey Show wraps up this week, Oprah Inc dawns a new beginning. As one of the United States’ most innovative entrepreneurs, the talk-show diva launches her boldest business yet, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).

Oprah is both a person and a brand. As founder of Harpo Productions, she directs a U.S.-based multimedia production company spanning television, radio, publishing and the Internet, not to mention film. Harpo’s products range from O, The Oprah Magazine, to The Dr. Oz Show, to Oprah.com, a website providing resources and content to support her shows, magazines and book club. The site alone averages more than 70 million page views and more than 6 million users per month. 

While OWN is Oprah’s latest entrepreneurial endeavor, it is far from the media mogul’s ‘second act’. She has not only started numerous businesses herself, “The Oprah Effect,” as it is known, has launched the careers of celebrities such as Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, Suze Orman and Rachael Ray, among others.

Want to promote a book? Suze Orman’s book “The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom” sold about 300,000 copies before her first appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. After the episode aired it sold an additional 3 million copies. Want to advertise a new body-slimming undergarment? Spanx became a household name after the product was feature on “Oprah’s Favorite Things” list in 2000.

In 2008, “The Oprah Effect” even extended to endorsing presidential candidate Barack Obama. An analysis by two University of Maryland economists estimates that Winfrey’s endorsement swayed between 423,123 and 1,596,995 votes in the primary, making the difference in popular vote between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. 

But no entrepreneurial leader achieves success without overcoming a few setbacks along the way. Oprah’s poor investment in Oxygen Media taught her a valuable lesson, as did the launch and shuttering of the Oprah’s Angel Network.

What pitfalls must she now avoid? One is over-extending. Leaders who have triumphed multiple times are vulnerable to self-perception of infallibility. Programming 24 hours of cable television content is a much taller task than dazzling daily viewers with 60 minutes of talk-show topics. Given diminishing television viewership and OWN’s slow start in its early months, this is a legitimate concern.

But I wouldn’t bet against the only black woman to make her way onto the Forbes billionaire list as a self-made entrepreneur. Much of OWN’s success will depend on Oprah’s personal commitment to energizing the cable channel with the unique combination of inspiration and entertainment that the girl from Mississippi has so adeptly mastered. 

Oprah has committed to 70 hours annually of OWN on-air presence in a globetrotting show titled Oprah’s Next Chapter.  In addition, she has lined up the Judds, Rosie O’Donnell, Dr. Phil, Shania Twain and Sarah Ferguson to fill prime time slots. Certainly no businesswoman worth nearly $3 billion strikes out without lining up revenue. OWN has advertising contracts with Proctor and Gamble, General Motors, Nissan, Kohl’s Department Stores and more. 

So what is Oprah’s secret? Similar to Sam Walton, Martha Stewart and Henry Ford, she addresses the mega-market of every day life. Oprah’s empire is built on the mantra of “Live your best life.” Her reach extends to personal health, family, financial management and food – what else is there?  

More than that, her success is based on trust. Viewers trust her. They believe what she says. Oprah’s ability to talk about both the good and the bad earns the respect of viewers and consumers. The importance of credibility in business shouldn’t be a surprise. What makes media moguls, entrepreneurs, business leaders and brands successful is the timeless ingredient of trust.

This piece is part of a discussion with our On Leadership panel of experts about Oprah’s past and future success.

Click here to see our full discussion page, or dive straight into another expert’s perspective by following one of the links below:

Nancy Koehn: For Winfrey, this is not the finale

Marie Wilson: Oprah's many acts

Carol Goman: The secret's to Oprah's success

John Baldoni: How to succeed all over again

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Amy M. Wilkinson  | May 13, 2011 11:45 AM

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