National Geographic’s Courteney Monroe talks brand evolution, revamped TV programming, winning attention at Code Media 2017

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During a session at Recode’s Code Media conference in Dana Point, Calif., on Tuesday, National Geographic Global Networks CEO Courteney Monroe sat down with Recode’s senior editor of media Peter Kafka to talk about the transformation of National Geographic’s brand and its television programming in particular. The half-hour discussion touched on a range of topics, including the mandate Courteney received that would ultimately kick off the brand’s current direction.

Making the National Geographic brand essential

Peter began the session by asking about National Geographic’s place in 21st Century Fox’s core bundle. “My job is to create a channel that people feel like they can’t live without, including distributors and consumers,” Courteney said. “And that’s really about creating exceptional content inside a really vital brand.

While many people grew up seeing a “yellow strip” of National Geographic magazine issues lining their parents’ bookshelves, Courteney explained where she wants to see the brand go next.

“What we’re really focused on is moving the brand from reverence to relevance and creating content that is really distinct, really high quality, really premium and, quite frankly, worthy of this brand that everybody knows and loves.”

The genesis of the brand’s shift

Courteney, who was executive vice president of consumer marketing and digital platforms for HBO prior to her current role, talked about how National Geographic’s content didn’t seem to fit its brand when she first arrived. Then she received a call from FOX Networks Group Chairman and CEO Peter Rice, who gave her a mandate shortly before she was boarding a flight. She recalled it as: “You know, Courteney, on the plane ride home, I want you to think about something. I want you to think about: What is the HBO version of National Geographic? Just think about it.”

With that in mind, Courteney said she wrote a manifesto on the flight home, which included a strategy for distinctive, bold television programming created with A-list creative talent. She said Fox is about “thinking big, aiming higher, taking really big swings,” something Chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox Film Stacey Snider mentioned at Code Media earlier in the day.

Recode’s senior editor of media Peter Kafka and National Geographic Global Networks CEO Courteney Monroe.

How to build an audience

Peter asked Courteney how National Geographic planned to guide audiences to its channel, given that some people may have a hard time finding it on the “dial.” Courteney noted an increased investment in marketing and said this is where being part of FOX Networks Group is a big help.

“FOX has broadcast Super Bowls before, and National Geographic has never gotten any airtime, so it’s a real testament to the support in what we’re doing and the investment they’re making in us,” she said, adding that National Geographic will benefit from promotional time across all FOX Networks Group brands.

Courteney also highlighted National Geographic’s massive presence on social media, where the brand reaches more than 300 million fans across platforms and boasts the No. 1 non-celebrity brand on Instagram.

National Geographic also taps into millennials’ commitment to solving global problems. “The National Geographic Society is doing real science, real conservation and real exploration around the world, and 27 percent of our proceeds go back to support that work. That’s a lot of why we’re resonating in today’s marketplace.”

The importance of brands

With the apparent decline in the prominence of branding on hit shows on aggregating streaming platforms, Peter asked about whether National Geographic is thinking strategically about the matter. Courteney replied that she thinks “brands matter more than ever because they act as sort of a curator and an organizing principle.”

She explained that a clear brand “serves as a filter for decision making” about content, which means something for consumers.

Cutting through the clutter

Peter noted that it wasn’t all that long ago when the internet, social media and smartphones weren’t such big competitors for people’s time and asked Courteney how National Geographic pushes through the clutter.

“We’re in the attention business, and it’s the hardest part. I think it’s about being relevant,” Courteney said.

She noted the success of National Geographic’s Super Bowl ad for “Genius,” which was widely applauded and recognized for its ingenuity as an example underscoring the importance of relevance, especially in the moment.

“You have to be really relevant all the time,” she said.

Watch Courteney’s full Code Media session: