The list of the most influential names on Instagram is as you might expect: a roll call of the worlds most talented unicorns – Ronaldo, Beyonce, Bieber and Messi, to name a few. But right between Nicki Minaj and Khloe Kardashian is an outlier. The National Geographic, the activist storyteller that turns 131 years young this month, is right there at the top with an incredible 98m followers. The next closest brands (in the traditional sense) are Nike, with 84m and Real Madrid with 68m.
131 years young and still relevant! What is National Geographic doing right?
To understand why we’re still relevant today, we need to go back to our roots. The first National Geographic magazines were simply a written record of explorer’s journeys – the observations and discoveries they made on their adventures. Back then there was no photography, there was no Google Maps, parts of the earth were still uncharted. So, what we provided was a way to explore the world. Though we have now mapped our planet’s physical geography, the world continues to change, and people continue to need ways to explore.
Culture has shifted too, of course. When National Geographic started the definition of geography was literal – it was about going to places readers couldn’t have seen otherwise. But the definition of geography has broadened over time to include the geography of gender, social geography, human geography and more. The National Geographic brand has taken inspiration from this new meaning to tell stories we would not have told 20 years ago. In 2017, we put a transgender girl on our front cover; it was the right moment to explore her world.
You’ve remained authentic, yet you mirror customers’ personal principles and priorities – how have you done it?
Our core principle has always been to satisfy people’s curiosity and need to explore through great storytelling. If you look at the course of history – from cave drawings, to the bible, to Instagram – people crave stories as a way to understand the world around them. We have always been there to satisfy that need but what’s changed is the type of stories we’re telling.
The original journal was a written account of the travels and discoveries of explorers. It’s hard to believe, but introducing photography was an incredibly controversial move that was derided by part of the board for changing the course of the business (which of course it did in a brilliant way). In the 50s Hollywood’s set designers used National Geographic as a reference to create movie scenes of places that most people had never travelled to. In the 80s the magazine reached 10 millionsubscribers and we were producing content for TV, even before we created our own channel. We have constantly embraced new technologies to tell stories where consumers were, sometimes anticipating where they might be.
I guess I’d summarize by saying that our North Star is exploration but we adapt the kinds of stories we are telling and the ways and places in which we’re telling them, to remain relevant.
Is part of your success that your purpose speaks to a deeper human truth?
When we talk about audiences in markets around the world, we rarely talk about demographics, or income, or education, we talk about behaviours and attitudes. No matter what age you are and what language you speak, we have found 65-year-olds in Latin America and 15-year-olds in India that share the same passion and the same curiosity to explore and understand the world. Then we look at what’s happening with them and what’s happening in the world and ask what can they do to have a part in it? We flex the idea of exploration too – for some it could mean travel, it could mean new experiences, it could mean food.
Increasingly we see that people are looking for a sense of progress and personal growth and that’s another reason why National Geographic resonates so much, were not just satisfying your curiosity, we’re giving you the chance to have a role and to have an impact. Our organisation has social responsibility baked into it. So many companies are searching for a social purpose, we don’t have to invent it, this is who we are. Almost a third of our business funds more grants for more explorers to go make more impact. So just by passively watching TV, you are making a difference. We give people a role in preserving and promoting what mattes to them.
What’s the biggest battle you’re trying to win?
So much happens in entertainment – there is hours and hours of television, millions of hours of online content and now more to be accessed in the form of AI and VR. In this context, I think of time as an incredibly important currency. As we think about this, we are changing how we tell stories – we don’t just do longform storytelling – sometimes it’s just one picture and one caption; we’re looking at what we can do with the oculus. A big question is how can we adapt to telling stories in the ways consumers need us to without losing the impact of the story? I want National Geographic to be one of the three or four brands with which people choose to spend their time when they go home. I want to win people’s time.
How does it feel to join the Disney family?
If I respect one brand in the branding community, it’s Disney so I can’t wait to start collaborating. Disney represents magic, we represent exploration. I can very easily see a world where magic and exploration live together. The way they connect with families, the way they tell stories, the way they connect with nature – there are so many touch points that overlap. I can’t wait to see what happens.