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October 13th, 2013

After one of the largest ever launches in the news industry, Al Jazeera America is now on the airwaves and getting up to speed. I applaud this monumental and well-coordinated effort. However, there is an equally large unknown here: How will the public perceive this new news network? Their tagline promises: “Know More News, No More Noise” — to deliver unbiased, fact-based and a uniquely in-depth brand of journalism. From my perspective as a branding expert, the most critical issue is about branding, and still remains to be seen.

AL Jazeera LogoThe emergence of Al Jazeera America came after the total purchase of Current TV for about $500 million. This would normally have been standard M&A news, just like when Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, ultimately took over control of The Washington Post.

In the Current TV deal, the buyout turned out to be controversial — partly because Al Jazeera originates from the Middle East. In a move that has increased the controversy, Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Cablevision went to the extreme by dropping it. However, even without two major cable distributors relaying its content, Al Jazeera America can still be accessed by 48 million households in the U.S.A. Given the network’s reach, it is important to consider its influence and its audiences, just like any other major media brand.

Al Jazeera America is a true force to be reckoned with, especially if the network’s management puts a serious brand development process in place — specifically for the American marketplace. In many ways their branding issues are quite similar to those we helped Turner Broadcasting address, confront and solve two decades ago as Ted Turner extended the brand value of CNN into a multi-channel media empire.

The willingness of Americans to accept or even prefer, foreign brands is often hard to predict. According to Al Jazeera America’s available market research, among those who have not yet watched the network’s programming, 75 percent had a negative perception of it. However, among people who had watched its programs, 90 percent had a positive opinion of the station. That alone says a lot and points to the first step: getting Americans to change the channel and tune in.

Other unique challenges abound. Even if Al Jazeera America musters a sizable audience, it could have a harder time attracting advertisers than its competition. Apparently, the network is trying to concentrate on what it can do best — delivering unbiased, fact-based and in-depth brand of journalism. That’s unique and that’s good. This implies that its viewers will have fewer interruptions and fewer commercials as compared to other prevalent news stations. Also good.

At this point in time, funding is not a problem because Al Jazeera America has a strong financial base. It is better equipped than other news outlets to circumvent a shortage of ads — the lifeblood of any media business — due to the fact that the station derives patronage from the very rich government of Qatar.

In late August, Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism performed a short six-day study of the new network’s coverage of Syria. The results were analyzed in context of the other US news networks’ coverage during the same period. They specifically compared the origin and focus of the stories together with messaging to unveil significant differences in bias. Overwhelmingly, the results demonstrated that in many ways Al Jazeera America was very similar to CNN, but with heavier emphasis on commentary or opinion-based coverage like Fox and MSNBC, instead of direct reporting.

Overall, we can summarize from this very small snapshot of the network in its early days, that Al Jazeera America is in line with the other major news networks. While similar and familiar may be safe, is this enough? Do we really need another CNN or can Al Jazeera America powerfully differentiate their brand? From my own experience helping to launch the JetBlue Airways brand over a decade ago, Al Jazeera America has the unique opportunity to establish a spectacularly successful media brand — one that truly sets them apart from MSNBC, Fox, CNN and even BBC.

It is easy to notice the benefits of the network. At a time when most media firms are struggling to balance their books and turn a profit, Al Jazeera America has built a staff base of more than 900 employees within a few months — which include 400 members in the newsroom. On top of that, Al Jazeera will set up bureaus in several cities: New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Denver, Nashville, New Orleans, Seattle and San Francisco.

Any viewer will not fail to notice an array of seasoned TV news professionals on the station. In a brilliant move, Al Jazeera America’s quest for supremacy has ensured that they hire the best in the field. They include John Seigenthaler, Joie Chen, Antonio Mora and Sheila MacVicar. The roster also includes highly credible people such as Ali Velshi, Soladad O’Brien, and David Shuster. They are former news anchors and correspondents at stations like ABC News, CBS News NBC, MSNBC and CNN. Essentially they are building an A-Team starting on Day-1 from the ground up.

The familiar faces and strong reputations of these journalists certainly have the potential to attract viewers to Al Jazeera America. If a viewer identifies with the presenters on the airwaves, then why not tune in to the station occasionally? But will it be enough? The true unknown here is about brand perception: Can the network thwart off the biased latent perception that its operations represent interests of the government of Qatar?

The branding challenges at hand appear to be of the utmost importance. And in many ways transcend the herculean task of building a news network from scratch. Al Jazeera America will have to overcome biases against what is conventionally known to the broad American public about the Arab world. Al Jazeera America has an extraordinary opportunity, intentional or not, because the network has the potential to take a serious leadership position as the universal ambassador of the Arab world to the American public. This is an exciting idea to consider and one that is certainly not a small task. If Al Jazeera America chooses this path, it will also be an important one for all of us — both here and abroad.

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