In the last few months, Oprah Winfrey has been making big deals — and news. Shares of Weight Watchers soared after the company announced Oprah was joining the board and purchasing 10% of the company’s shares as part of a turnaround plan. Then Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing, announced it was publishing Oprah Winfrey’s definitive memoir, The Life You Want. Reportedly it was an eight-figure deal and would be the first book in her own publishing imprint focusing on nonfiction titles.
In both cases, a lot of money is at stake, with the success of both ventures riding on Oprah. Which begs the question, is she worth it?
On one hand, you’ve got two very traditional business models hoping to stay relevant to a younger audience with an increasingly mobile lifestyle. Type the word diet into the App Store and you’ll get thousands and thousands of results, a competitive landscape unlike anything Weight Watchers faced a decade ago. Can Oprah bridge the gap between older customers who grew up with the Weight Watchers brand and a much younger audience with so many options?
Oprah has been candid about her own struggles with weight loss, and as Weight Watchers launches an entirely new program that promises to go “beyond the scale,” it makes perfect sense the brand would align with someone who exudes credibility like Oprah.
And when it comes to selling her memoir, there is no doubt the publishing industry is caught in a disruption similar to what independent film did to the movie industry, or what digital downloads are doing to the music business. The old model of giving an author a huge advance in the hopes of big sales, as opposed to paying based on royalties from actual sales, is clearly broken and not sustainable.
But Oprah is not a run of the mill celebrity. If she wants these deals to be successful, they will be. At age 61, Oprah is worth an estimated $3 billion in part because she can disrupt business models wherever she goes.
It’s also impossible to put a label on her, which instantly makes Oprah more like her younger fans, because the best way to annoy a Millennial is to label them, well, a Millennial. We are witnessing the death of demographics because finally we have a generation that defies generalization — a group of individuals that see themselves as optimistic, creative entrepreneurs who get that anything is possible — sort of like Oprah.
OK, you might be thinking, but can she sell books to Millennials? Don’t forget that dozens of the books recommended by Oprah’s Book Club became a bestseller. And it turns out plenty of Millennials read, with more reading books in print than on a Kindle or tablet.
And there’s no denying Oprah’s enduring appeal — yes, even to Millennials. Born into poverty to a teenage single mother, Oprah, in her early life, experienced more hardship than most people see in a lifetime. Yet she worked tirelessly to get on the radio, then a local TV station, until her show became a syndicated phenomenon, watched by adoring fans in over 140 countries. Oprah was a pioneer to women her own age, but for younger women, she is the ultimate entrepreneur. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Millennials are responsible for nearly 160,000 start-ups a month, so Oprah is definitely a legit role model.
But if Oprah had simply turned her hard work into fame and fortune, she wouldn’t have such staying power. Oprah makes it clear her life story isn’t just about her; it is somehow proof that you, too, can realize your dreams if you work hard and put some positive energy into the world. And, as Oprah has known all along: optimism sells.
In everything she does, she puts herself out there and takes a stand. Look at the world through the eyes of someone in their twenties, and you’ll find they share the same perspective. Oprah is all about believing in better, and a Gallup Poll suggests that 80% of Millennials feel positive about the future.
Certainly the title of her memoir — “The Life You Want” — suggests it’s not merely a self-indulgent walk down memory lane. She said her goal is for the book to inspire “other people to live the highest, fullest expression of themselves.”
In other words, it will be vintage Oprah, a narrative woven from the fabric of her life. Her story is a simple one, and it cuts across generations — if I can do it, so can you.
Whether it’s a book or a diet plan, what she’s selling isn’t her story –it’s ours. And that’s a story that Oprah knows how to sell better than anyone.
TIM MALEENY is a bestselling author and Chief Strategy Officer for Havas Worldwide