The branding of blizzards and the commodification of catastrophe.

In the media swirl around Winter Storm Nemo, many wondered why blizzards suddenly had names, like hurricanes have. Simple: It’s part of a new branding strategy by the Weather Channel. We have names like Nemo because it’s all about the Benjamins.

Weather Channel’s rationale behind the branding, er, naming of storms speaks volumes. Extracts follow:

Hurricanes and tropical storms have been given names since the 1940s. … Important dividends have resulted from attaching names to these storms:

  • Naming a storm raises awareness.
  • Attaching a name makes it much easier to follow a weather system’s progress.
  • A storm with a name takes on a personality all its own, which adds to awareness.
  • In today’s social media world, a name makes it much easier to reference in communication.
  • A named storm is easier to remember and refer to in the future. …

Finally, it might even be fun and entertaining and that in itself should breed interest from our viewing public and our digital users. [Emphasis mine.] For all of these reasons, the time is right to introduce this concept for the winter season of 2012-13.

In this lesson on branding 101, the most important bit is that “should breed interest from our viewing public and our digital users” part. Translation: Branding storms will raise ratings and readership, which means higher revenues. Getting attention for your business is much easier when you have a well-defined and memorable brand, and storms are no exception. This comes, after all, from the media company that brought us the “See Friends at Risk in Severe Weather” feature. (And who finds a storm bearing down on them “fun and entertaining”?)

Video blogger Ze Frank nailed this years ago when he did an episode of The Show on branding: [F]or a brand to be successful, its emotional aftertaste has to be stronger than the more general brands that are associated with it. Your grandma, unless your grandma is Grandma Moses, isn’t as strong as the general brand “grandma.” But “grandma” is a stronger brand than the more general brand “old people.”

And “Nemo” is a stronger brand than “winter storm.” It’s easier to sell a weather disaster with a name, especially a cute one with a pop culture reference. Calling it Nemo launched a million “finding Nemo” and “just keep swimming” references and related memes. What about reasoned discourse over this storm? Ain’t nobody got time for that!

aintnobody

Branding storms and creating added media attention also help spread one more thing: Panic. With Nemo, like Sandy this summer, the Twitterverse filled with tweets in the order of “[College hundreds of miles away from us] cancelled classes. Why won’t my school? Don’t they care about our safety?” When you’re hoping for the shared experience of the brand Nemo, little things like geography and meteorological factors are less relevant than the feeling of being left out. Lining up for the sequel to Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, it’s as if, to paraphrase Death Cab for Cutie, the world was flat like the old days and storms can travel just by folding a map. (Disclaimer: I never fault my college or any institution for closing in the name of safety. Ever.)

Perhaps one positive offshoot could be a return to hyperlocal coverage with the volume turned down on hype. When he gave a revised and reasoned forecast on Nemo late Thursday, 9WSYR meteorologist (and SUNY Oswego alum) Dave Longley had a rather remarkable statement on his Facebook page:

I NEVER write a forecast for ratings or what I think people want to hear. I write a forecast based on the information that is presented and how it might impact CNY. I put everything into each and every forecast and I live each forecast to the end. That is my commitment to you the viewer and me as a scientist.

This, then, is where the Dave Longleys and the scientists of the world diverge from the Weather Channel, which is selling branded infotainment. Seems like it’s only a matter of time until “I Found Nemo” T-shirts crop up in their online store.

1 Comment

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One response to “The branding of blizzards and the commodification of catastrophe.

  1. Ken

    The Weather Channel is finally beginning to understand the tenants of propagandizing their material. Not only are they injecting emotion, names are something people think of as personal. If I know your name, I know you and have a relationship with you, no matter how virtual, and, as they nicely point out, names provide historical reference points that are easier to recall. Great psychology.

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