Nuts, you say. The Internet portal has a market cap of $28 billion; the Web bookseller's founder has accrued a personal net worth somewhere north of $9 billion; and the tabloid muck shoveler is still living and working in a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood, reviled by the intelligentsia and despised by the mainstream media.
But I'm not talking popularity. I'm talking branding-the ability to provide a product, service or organization with an image that carries immediate, broad audience identification and which ultimately allows the charging of lasting premium prices. While the jury is still out for all three on the latter particular, on the former point, they pass. Yahoo! has been able to take its reputation for harmonizing the cacaphony of the Internet and translate it into a successful startup magazine. Amazon.com, although subject to the same commodity pricing pressures that will inevitably constrain most on-line retailers, has nonetheless managed to identify itself as the wired world's friendliest bookstore.
And Matt Drudge, of course, has become synonymous with the New News-wild, woolly, unconstrained-a feat he accomplished without a Harvard MBA, venture financing, technological know-how or, significantly, advertising.
"I've never placed an ad, never spent money on publicity, never did a promotional campaign and don't have an agent," the 32-year-old Drudge told me recently during a break from the TV show, radio program and Web site he creates, all of it without substantial staff support. "But I'm selling product to AOL, ABC/Disney and Fox/Newscorp. That's the power of the brand."
So in this (we-should-be-so-lucky) post-Lewinsky era, perhaps it's time to turn away from the content of Drudge and toward the lessons he holds for marketers.
Coming off a Super Bowl that each year reaches new depths of overproduced excess, it's important to note what Drudge is not: flashy. As he's fond of pointing out, he went up on the Web before Netscape even existed and to this day the only graphics on his gossip-generating, news-linking site are "The Drudge Report" logo, crafted by him using Paintshop.
Nor is he an insider. Rather than shape his products according to the cultural standards established by the news cognescenti, the fedora-sporting Drudge is happily willing to be biased, wrong and unslick, qualities that have made him a must-read for those hapless insiders as well as a more general audience. As Roger Ailes puts it, "He has his own style, and he didn't go against it. Part of branding is authenticity-get the authentic thing, stay with it and promote it."
Ailes is the creator and chief of the Fox News Channel, on which Drudge has a Saturday night show. He's also the author of an unfortunately overlooked 1987 book, "You Are The Message," in which he floated the concept of personal branding, since popularized by Tom Peters and others.
To Ailes, brands fall into two categories: "celebrity brands" and "working brands." Celebrity brands, he says, "become known for who they are, not what they do." By contrast, "a working brand is constantly surprising the audience."
While it's every marketer's dream to create a celebrity brand, able to succeed each and every time out of the box on reputation alone, the better strategy, says Roger, is to keep working.
Ailes is a good measure of his own dictum. He's best known for his earlier life, as the nation's premier political media consultant. But he left that to start anew, as head of NBC's cable operations, for which he successfully reshaped CNBC and created the America's Talking Channel, a precursor to MSNBC. Although he broke with NBC, much of his handiwork remains at those operations, notably the resurrection of Geraldo Rivera and the repurposing of print journalist Chris Matthews.
Fox News Channel, meanwhile, is a rousing success, taking viewers from Ailes' former employer and from CNN, a comeuppance to those who said a third cable news channel could never make it. "If you continue as a working brand," Roger explains, "you'll become and remain a celebrity."
Hence the success of the brand called Drudge. Instead of resting on his laurels, making his product with a cookie-cutter or seeking approval within the narrow corners of his profession, he opted to remain true to his tabloid essence, while striving to make it continually relevant to the distribution channel he calls home.
"The love of the medium," says Matt Drudge, "has brought all this to me."