National Geographic has long enjoyed a cachet few brands could match. For 130 years, the magazine has connected readers to a world of exotic lands by fostering a sense of community and exploration. That connection sparks a sense of stewardship for the planet, which translates seamlessly from print to TV to social media. Most importantly the brand is infused with a sense of purpose, which translates to its strategic and media partners. In the 18 months since Brendan Ripp joined National Geographic Partners as Executive Vice President, Sales and Corporate Partnerships, overseeing brand revenue across all platforms including linear TV, OTT, social, digital, mobile and print, growth has been explosive: digital revenue has tripled.
Since the brand refocused two years ago and tackled must-read topics as massive as race, gender, space and the planet, it has catapulted National Geographic into another realm on all fronts. The TV channels (Nat Geo and Nat Geo Wild) were just honored with 18 Emmy Award nominations, second in basic cable to sister station FX. Further, National Geographic has the largest social media audience of any brand. Ripp (pictured below) reflects on the company’s recent successes and shares what’s coming up in this wide-ranging interview.
Jacqueline Cutler: It’s been a busy 18 months. What are you most proud of?
Brendan Ripp: I really didn’t believe 18 months ago when I got here that we would be accomplishing as much as we have. We are making bigstrides with key partners with innovative, groundbreaking storytelling and consumer engagement platforms. We reset our go-to-market approach by building a social media rate card and we’re working on branded content rate cards. What is also unique about our social media is that, typically, when social audience grows you lose engagement. National Geographic has on average 124,000 organic engagements per post. That combination of size and engagement is what is unique and differentiates us in the entire industry. A Sports Emmy nomination and Cannes Gold Lion were also very special moments for the team this year.
Cutler: National Geographic has been leading the way for infusing purpose into business. Why is this crucial to the brand?
Ripp: A 2016 Burson Marsteller study said that 17 percent of a company’s financial performance is impacted by whether or not it has a committed and well-defined corporate purpose. Purpose is not just something to make you feel good about coming to work every day; it’s going to affect shareholders. When you start to think about authenticity and credibility, you want to align yourself with a brand that practices what it preaches. National Geographic gives back 27 percent of its net profits to the National Geographic Society. Gary Knell, our CEO, has said the mission of National Geographic is to "save planet Earth."
Cutler: What’s coming up that you are excited about?
Ripp: One of the biggest platforms that will be strong for us is an initiative we launched in June to help the world think about single-use plastic. Obviously, plastic is incredibly important to the medical world, but a lot of single-use plastic is not necessary, as we saw with Starbucks saying it would eliminate all plastic straws and that Alaska Airlines would as well. We are talking to a lot of Fortune 500 brands internationally about what can we do better to help rid the world of single-use plastics.
Cutler: How do the different pieces of National Geographic fit together?
Ripp: There are two tracks I am talking about in the marketplace: first, positioning Nat Geo as the “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval when it comes to corporate social responsibility, and second, positioning the brand as modern thought leadership.
This is an opportunity for National Geographic to truly redefine thought leadership in a modern way. We are leading discussions on critical issues that define our time -- race, gender and plastics. With Susan [Goldberg] leading print and digital/social content, and what Courteney [Monroe] continues to do with the channel, we are the only thought leadership brand that challenges you and -- dare I say it -- entertains you at the same time. That’s what drives engagement in 2018. If you can do it in an organic way then brands want to partner with you. It’s a home run.
Cutler: How and why does National Geographic appeal to Millennials and Gen Z?
Ripp: I personally think it is now cool to care about the world around you. Millennials and Gen Z, more than ever, are socially aware and National Geographic has this unbelievable blend of entertainment and purpose. The way Mars is produced -- half scripted, half documentary -- is an example of how we are treating content across the brand. We can both educate and entertain.
The latest MRI run for National Geographic magazine showed growth in readership in the C-Suite and among Millennials. My theory is that thought leadership is no longer a demographic. It is no longer an old white guy with two degrees and a luxury car in the driveway. It is a mindset of those who are socially aware, who care about the planet and want to educate themselves to be even better. That’s modern thought leadership and brands are excited to partner with Nat Geo for our autheniticity and purpose.
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