They never had a chance.
Qatar government owned news channel Al Jazeera recently announced that they would be closing down Al Jazeera America, the American arm of their network, in April of this year.
Though there are several reasons why Al Jazeera America, which had an average nightly viewership of 20-30k, was not a success (i.e. poor content, distribution and marketing strategies), I want to focus on the reason that I believe mattered the most.
Here’s why Al Jazeera America was destined to fail:
1. Terrible Branding
How you brand yourself as a company matters.
The first things that come to mind for Americans when they hear the name “Al Jazeera” are probably “Osama Bin Laden” and “Al Qaeda”.
In the wake of 9/11, to Americans, it seemed like Osama Bin Laden had a sympathizing media outlet in the form of Al Jazeera. They showed all his videos as well as an apparent lack of regard for post-9/11 American hurt, sadness and anger.
By choosing the name “Al Jazeera America” for the American branch of their operations, the Al Jazeera Media Network touched an American nerve and they introduced a severe handicap for their brand in the competitive cable news landscape.
When looking at how Al Jazeera branded itself around its launch, the thing that stood out to me the most was their stated commitment to journalistic excellence. This would mean that we could expect objectivity and integrity in reporting. Fittingly, their slogan is “The opinion and the other opinion”.
Their tone implied that many media outlets were failing in this area (and the readers of this article said amen), and their ability to poach leading and respected talent from competing American news networks showed that the industry believed in them and in their mission.
But here’s the problem: Al Jazeera America’s mission wasn’t the first thing that people associated with Al Jazeera America.
If the first things that people think about when they hear the name of your network is “terrorist sympathizers” or worse “anti-American disposition” they’re going to laugh at the thought of watching your channel – especially when other options exist. What people associate with your brand matters. Journalistic excellence be damned, who the hell wants to watch terrorist tv?
Further compounding Al Jazeera’s branding problem was their choice of logo.
To our shame, Americans can be quite ignorant and xenophobic. If they’re already associating “terrorism” with a foreign television network because of its name, seeing Arabic calligraphy in a logo will only dial up their confirmation bias, leading them to believe their initial thoughts about the Al Jazeera network to be reasonable.
The choice of Al Jazeera for a name coupled with Arabic calligraphy for a logo strike me as a decision that emanated from a corporate office that had a very poor understanding of the target American market.
The executives either naively believed that Americans would not have a problem with the Al Jazeera name and logo or they knew that their name and logo would be a problem, but they believed that American aversion and misgivings could be allayed through good journalism.
The problem with the second line of thinking is that people won’t ever see Al Jazeera’s good journalism if the name and logo keep them from tuning in.
This branding combination was a death sentence for the network.
How Could It Have Been Made Better:
1. Al Jazeera should have been called something that wasn’t “Al Jazeera”.
“Al Jazeera” means peninsula – referring to the Arabian Peninsula, the area north of the horn of Africa and south of Iran and most of Iraq. The name is a nod to the network’s region of origin.
The problem is that most Americans don’t speak Arabic – all they know is what they’ve heard of Al Jazeera in the past and the negative associations are too strong to overcome the positives.
People would have been more willing to tune in to Al Jazeera to watch their journalistic excellence if the network had a name and tagline that Americans would be more likely to associate with journalistic excellence.
Maybe something like: “AJM News: Integrity First”
2. The Al Jazeera logo should not have featured Arabic calligraphy so prominently
The logo should have been more neutral. Possibly something that Americans would look at and think “That’s probably the logo of a news network”. I’m not an artist, but here’s a draft suggestion:
What are your thoughts on Al Jazeera’s branding? Do you have any ideas for what the name or logo could have been? What are your thoughts on some of the other issues that drove their failure? Let me know in the comments.
Until Next Time