How to Be a Modern Thought Leader Brand Like Nat Geo



Brendan Ripp (EVP, Sales & Partnerships) took the SMWNYC stage to share how the brand has elevated itself to be the leader in social.


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Just two years ago, people still saw National Geographic as a “dusty magazine brand.” Today, the 130-year-old company is the leading brand on social media, reaching 760 million consumers per month, and whose purpose-driven mission has them positioned at the forefront of the global conversation. At SMWNYC, Brendan Ripp Executive Vice President, Sales & Partnerships for National Geographic Partners, explored what it takes to be a global superbrand.

Here are some tips from Ripp and Nat Geo on their way to becoming “the modern thought-leader brand.”

Have a purpose.

Citing Nat Geo’s CEO, Gary Knell, Ripp summarized the brand’s long-standing mission stating, “We are in the business of saving planet Earth.” Chiefly, its main value proposition is to use storytelling to fundamentally shape how we understand our planet and our role in it by dominating the global conversation on topics that matter. This precise mission is infused in everything the brand does. In particular, 27 percent of every dollar generated by National Geographic is reinvested in the nonprofit National Geographic Society. This money directly funds the research, science, conversation, and exploration, which ultimately become the stories we see on social and the impetus for making a positive change in the world.

Breaking down the approach, Ripp presented the following formula: content + scale + purpose = National Geographic. As a reference for the effectiveness of this equation, 760 million consumers are reached by the brand every month. On Instagram alone, the brand’s account boasts a whopping 87 million followers, just one spot below Kendall Jenner. Above all, more social action is taken with National Geographic than any other brand in social media today.

Be organic and true to yourself.

When National Geographic first took a stab at Snapchat, as Ripp bluntly put it, they “weren’t very good.” The source of the struggle? Trying too hard to fit in and be perceived as “young,” “cool,” and “hip.” Once they consulted the Snap team, however, Nat Geo was able to find its voice by leaning back into who the brand truly was at its core and shift its priority towards emphasizing first-party storytelling that puts their community first.

Per Ripp, as cliche as it may sound, being authentic to your communities and audience members means above all, being true to yourself. It truly is that simple, yet something that carries a profound impact with respect to being able to establish and maintain meaningful engagement. According to Ripp, while Nat Geo’s storytelling efforts predate the internet and Instagram, the brand’s authenticity remains a foundational element to its approach to sharing stories and overall content creation.

Emotions are the most powerful driver of engagement.

Nat Geo averages 124,000 engagements on average per organic social post. For context, major media brands like CNN receive roughly 3,000 per post. None of the engagement is paid for, rather, as Ripp reiterated, “at National Geographic we think we ignite the explorer in all people.” In other words, it isn’t just a matter of people consuming the content put out, but the brand effectively inspires action, driving its audience to take their own stories and go out into the world to feed their curiosity, creativity, and desire to connect with other communities and people. “Consumers today believe they have the power to change the world. And we believe they’re right,” said Ripp.

Exploration can mean many different things depending on the individual, and this is precisely what NatGeo celebrates every day. The sheer fact that every single person on the Earth is by their human nature an explorer capable of making a difference.

Be “thumb-stopping.”

A critical phrase in an age that’s dominated by emails, Slack messages, notifications, and the like, is “content overload.” This phenomenon continues to plague businesses alike posing the central question: how do we break through the clutter?

For Nat Geo, being thumb-stopping has everything to do with investment in storytelling. Particularly, an underlying goal of the company no matter what platform is being discussed is the achievement of strong visual storytelling. This doesn’t come as a surprise, Ripp explaining early on in the presentation “we’ve always had photography and imagery in our DNA.” Nonetheless, this strategy has evolved to encompass video and through harnessing the power of the channel, has opened the door to innovation and allowed the brand to push the envelope with respect to what they can create. One recent example Ripp called upon includes the brand’s social-first shows published on Snapchat as well as other platforms.

Another element of the secret sauce for stopping thumbs? Storytellers at National Geographic have full control and authority over the CMS. No curation, no blocking, just direct access to the consumer and genuine competition for having the best content fueled by raw passion and talent.

Push boundaries.

Aside from storytelling, technology and innovation are equally critical to the spirit and energy of the Nat Geo brand. Utilizing tech, one way Nat Geo is able to pushes boundaries is through interactivity. An example of this RIpp shared is a map that includes every street named after Martin Luther King Jr. that exists around the world. Such integrations, he explained, are able to translate very successfully on a global scale and across languages due to the relevance and significance of the topics of conversations that result.

A number of the brand’s recent efforts also surround exploits in live video. Nat Geo currently averages more than 70 social live video campaigns per month, a recent example being the first ever Facebook Live from the international space station, which featured Will Smith.

Towards the end of the presentation, Ripp engaged in a live demo of one of these campaigns. On stage, he (virtually) joined Erika Bergman, a submarine pilot, who had surfaced to the top of the water just five minutes before being dialed. Bergman showed the audience the submarine along with two colleagues aboard with her shortly thereafter stating, “That’s really the joy of being a National Geographic explorer… not only being able to see these exotic, insane places all over the planet but also being able to bring them to you literally live right now!”

This immersive mindset has made Nat Geo a thought leader in social, and one that has changed how the brand views marketing on the whole.

“Let’s not just be publishers of content, let’s start building communities and having conversations with people in real-time,” Ripp said.

National Geographic gets you closer to the stories that matter. Through the world’s best scientists, photographers, journalists, and filmmakers, National Geographic captivates and entertains a global community through television channels, magazines, children’s media, travel expeditions, books, maps, consumer products, location-based entertainment and experiences, and some of the most engaging digital and social media platforms in the world.


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