As comedian Jon Stewart’s tenure as host of the The Daily Show on Comedy Central came to an end last week, there was an avalanche of news coverage and social media activity that accompanied his leaving. Considering the acclaim, influence and fiercely loyal viewership of the show for the 15+ years that he was host, this should come as no surprise.
While watching the “satirist in chief” prepare for his departure, it got me thinking about how he went from a relatively unknown comedian to developing a cult-like following during his 16 years on the show. What builds loyalty? Whether it’s to a TV host or a consumer brand, what are the qualities that instill passionate allegiance in people? How did Jon Stewart achieve it? And what can people who are building startups or trying to take their growing companies to the next level learn from that?
There are three lessons aspiring companies can learn from Jon Stewart about how to inspire loyalty.
1. Know your customer.
Knowing your customer is something every successful brand understands, and it’s also a big component in Stewart’s success. According to one Wall Street Journal article, his appeal to millennials is what enabled the show to consistently pull in the “elusive” young male audience in the 18-34 demographic.
Having said that, I think there’s an important corollary to this that helped Jon Stewart avoid having too narrow or limited an appeal. He didn’t appeal only to millennial men; he appealed to their parents, too. CNN columnist John Sutter captured this perfectly when he described Stewart as “Someone who makes sense to the Snapchat set. And someone my dad might talk about over a round of golf.”
2. If you mess up, ‘fess up.
Remember when the Coca-Cola KO -0.5% Company took its decidedly unpopular “New Coke” product off the market in the 1980s? Changing the Coca-Cola formula was a huge blunder, but the company was willing to admit it and take its lumps. And all these decades later, Coca-Cola still tops Pepsi when it comes to customer loyalty. That’s a great example of how important it is to the survival of a brand or a business to admit when you’re wrong and take your lumps.
That’s also something we saw Stewart demonstrate again and again when he was host of the Daily Show. Back in 2010, heacknowledged he was wrong on a point about the NRA, winning him the respect of a commentator far on the other side of the political spectrum. Last fall, he apologized for getting his facts wrong in a report on the police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and again apologized for jokingly telling CNN he hadn’t voted in the midterm elections. (“It sent a message that I didn’t think voting was important,” he said. “…That was stupid.”)
According to innovation and brand strategist Debra Kaye, admitting mistakes shows authenticity, which makes customers — or viewers, in Stewart’s case — more likely to stay loyal and give the brand another chance. It seems to have worked as well for Jon Stewart as it did for Coca-Cola.
3. Authenticity, always.
Kaye’s reference to authenticity is echoed in other aspects of Stewart’s stewardship of The Daily Show. He once told Oprah Winfrey that he had learned early in his career not to put too much stock in the reactions of others to his work, preferring apparently to judge the show’s success not by how big an audience it drew but by the standard to which it executed.
That goes a bit against the grain of my own thinking about data being of paramount importance in measuring success. But when I think about it, as important as data is, having the self-confidence to believe in yourself and your vision — knowing that the rest of the world will catch up eventually — is critical, too. It’s what got Roy and Ryan Seiders’ now-wildly-successful Yeti coolers to market in 2006 when nothing like them even existed, and what’s kept Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap dress popular more than 40 years after she unleashed it on the fashion world.
Will the Daily Show survive Stewart’s departure? It wouldn’t be the first time a television show proved capable of evolving and earning the loyalty of a new generation of viewers, however the question is whether loyalty to the show and the concepts that drive it will exceed the loyalty Jon Stewart commanded.
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