Branding Lessons from the Nicest Guy in the Neighborhood
Category : 2020
Conventional wisdom tells us building a brand demands comprehensive market analysis, a thorough knowledge of the competition, and constant reassessment to ensure the brand position remains strong.
What do you do with a guy who held a very simplistic view of his market, rarely gave his competition any consideration, and successfully engaged with his audience using the same format for over 30 years?
When Fred Rogers died in 2003 at age 74, he left a legacy of 33 seasons on television, 895 programs, and generations of children who journeyed through early childhood listening to a man who built a brand out of being kind and convincing his audience, “There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.”
Fred Rogers was a uniquely gifted and extremely talented performer as well as a highly successful business professional. At his peak in the 1980’s, Rogers was watched by 10 percent of American households. His quiet, yet very visible life offers valuable lessons in personal branding.
You can’t pick where you begin; you choose where you go.
Born into one of the wealthiest families in Pittsburg, Fred Rogers was a pudgy kid chauffeured to and from school, and frequently bullied for being who he was. Rogers leveraged the benefits of affluence to fund his early efforts in children’s television and to create the financial stability that allowed him to take risks without fear of personal financial disaster. Rather than using his father’s connections to begin his career at the top, Rogers relied on his dad’s help to get his first job after college working as an apprentice in production at NBC.
Authenticity is your greatest competitive edge.
Fred Rogers rarely watched television and paid little attention to competing children’s programs. He was interested in creating the best programming possible-not doing something better than a competitor. Anyone meeting Rogers in person quickly realized the Mr. Rogers appearing on television wasn’t a character, he was Fred. The same Fred that was married for over 50 years, raised two sons, and would keep a union production crew waiting in a studio while he stopped to interact with a child he met on the street. As biographer Maxwell King described it, “Fred Rogers was so intent on shaping a good program that he didn’t even think about portraying a character-he was just Fred being Fred.”
Rogers was not a saint. As the creator, chief scriptwriter, producer, songwriter, singer, puppeteer, and host of one of the most popular shows on television Rogers had “a strong will and determined focus.” He could be stubborn and tended to be self-absorbed. He had no time for phoniness in an adult and the fastest way to see his anger was by deliberately misleading a child.
Kindness is not weakness.
Fred Rogers believed with all his being that, “human kindness will always make life better.” As he built Family Communications, the non-profit organization that produced Mister Rogers Neighborhood, people severely underestimated the benign man with a quiet voice. Beneath his gentle manner was a core of steel and keen business instincts learned from observing a father and grandfather who built successful companies in the steel industry. As a fierce defender of the quality of his program Rogers once engaged in a contentious meeting with two associates after which one said, “I wonder at what age Fred no longer likes you just the way you are?”
In 1969, President Richard Nixon wanted to cut proposed funding for public television by $10 million to fund the Vietnam war. During the hearings determining the fate of PBS, Senator John Pastore heard little to convince him to keep the budget-until Fred Rogers spoke. Pastore said Rogers’ testimony gave him “goose bumps” and let the public television budget remain intact.
Keep playing to your strengths.
Rogers once said, “You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.” (p.227) In 1975 he forgot his own counsel and ended Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, feeling he had covered everything he needed to discuss with children. He wanted to talk to the adults in the families where he had made friends since 1954. But Old Friends . . . New Friends revealed that Rogers didn’t have the formula for creating compelling adult television and after four years, he was looking for new funding for the next iteration of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. The program ran in its new format for another 20 years.
Staying healthy isn’t an excuse for ignoring your health.
From age 40 through the end of his life, Rogers began nearly every day with 30 minutes of swimming. His strict exercise routine and vegetarian diet (he couldn’t comprehend eating anything that had a mother) enabled him to maintain a weight of 143 pounds most of his adult life.
But his commitment to health caused Rogers to ignore the stomach upsets occurring over several years. He finally agreed to an endoscopy in October 2002 and it revealed advanced stomach cancer. Rogers had promised to be one of the grand marshals for the Rose Parade in January, so he delayed treatment. His first surgery required removal of his entire stomach. Rogers died a few months later-perhaps much earlier than if he had listened to his body.
Never stop learning or building the capacity to learn in others.
Through his entire life, Fred Rogers maintained a child’s level of curiosity about the world which undoubtedly enhanced his ability to communicate with children. Rogers believed social and emotional learning are more important in the first few years of human life than cognitive learning. He focused on developing self-discipline in children rather than imposing it from outside, teaching them to be accountable for their own actions. Rogers always wanted to develop the people around him.
Many emerging leaders in companies across the country were proteges of Fred Rogers. One can hope as they build and lead enterprises, they will remember the wise counsel of the man who branded kindness.
“There are three ways to ultimate success:
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.” (Fred Rogers)