Phil Griffin: ‘Lean Forward’ Campaign ‘Is Going to Define Us As MSNBC’

By Alex Weprin 

What exactly does it mean to “lean forward?”  As MSNBC rolls out its new branding campaign, regular cable news viewers may be asking that very question.

When concveiving the tagline however, MSNBC executives decided to ask themselves a different question: what is MSNBC?

“We talked about all the attributes that make MSNBC what it is,” MSNBC preident Phil Griffin tells TVNewser. “It is active, it is positive, it is about making tomorrow better than today, a discussion about politics and the actions and passions of our time.”

Hence the first two commercials, which heavily promote the idea of progress, without mentioning any of MSNBC’s shows or hosts. MSNBC CMO Sharon Otterman says those two ads are mean to own “the idea of Lean Forward, the overarching brand of the network.”

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The next six commercials will each focus on an MSNBC personality, with Joe Scarborough, Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell each getting a close-up.

Even Ed Schultz, who allegedly threw a temper tantrum after not being included in last year’s election night promos, is getting featured, with his ad following him as he walks through New York City to the MSNBC studios. Despite the eventual focus on talent, the campaign is meant to be about branding the network, not the personalities that populate it.

“They are never going to say the day, date and time that the shows are on,” Otterman says. “They all ladder up to ‘Lean Forward’ and the brand.”

Spike Lee signed on to direct the promos, which will be getting play on MSNBC and the other NBC Universal networks. MSNBC will also buy ad space on other channels through local cable buys, with a print component to appear in newsweeklies and out of home.

The campaign is still in its early stages, and Griffin says the network is committed for at least two years. He also says it will change as the network changes, and adapt as the network adapts:

“It reflects who we are now, and it will evolve some as this campaign is interpreted over the next couple of years,” Griffin says. “This is a new era for MSNBC in the sense that we are packaging us like this and telling people ‘this is who we are,’ but a lot of the work has been done is because it is who we are.”

“What MSNBC is” was part of the problem. Otterman says that their research showed that cable news viewers didn’t really undersdtand what the channnel stood for.

“Out of all cable news viewers, only 51% really know what MSNBC stands for, when 94% know what CNN stands for,” she says.

The new campaign is meant to remedy that, planting the idea of progress, reason and facts in viewers minds. In the ad featuring Rachel Maddow, she says in a voiceover that news is about “a devotion to facts that borders on obsessive. At the end of the day it is about what’s true in the world.”

Or as Griffin puts it: “I think it is going to define us as MSNBC, and I also think it defines our competition.”