If being different is overrated, then what should an imitator like CNN do to shore up its advantage? As London Business School strategy professor Freek Vermeulen explains it, “when there is uncertainty about the quality of a product or service, firms do not have to rely on differentiation in order to obtain a competitive advantage.” He’s talking about strategy consulting firms primarily, but the point holds for media outlets too: Both are in the business of dispensing information, and both are staking their reputations on the quality of the insight imparted. In both cases, there is “uncertainty about the quality of the product”—in other words, readers or viewers need to make up their own minds about how much they trust the content, whether that is the New York Times or the Drudge Report. The reporting might be objective, but the value a media consumer ascribes to it is highly subjective. So how do customers in such environments make up their minds? Drawing on research in organizational psychology, Vermeulen argues that “when there is such uncertainty, buyers rely on other signals to decide whether to purchase, such as the seller’s status, its social network ties, and prior relationships.” To simplify, that would be: brand, employees and customers.
And this is what really ought to concern CNN. Its brand has been damaged by sloppy reporting and awkward sponsor intrusions. Rapid change (not to mention layoffs) is always disruptive to employee morale. And the network’s relationship with existing customers does not seem particularly important to Zucker or, frankly, particularly worthy of his notice: There are undoubtedly loyal CNN devotees out there, just as there are Fox, MSNBC, PBS—hell, even C-SPAN—junkies, but most of us just watch it when there’s a mad bomber loose in in the suburbs or a superstorm tearing up the coast.