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Q&A: Viacom SVP Christian Kurz And The Changing Face Of Power

Christian Kurz is Senior Vice President, Global Consumer Insights for Viacom, overseeing corporate and consumer research and insights for media brands including Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central, Paramount Network, BET, VidCon, Awesomeness and Pluto TV. 

I sat down with Kurz this past week at the Future of TV Summit in New York, after he presented findings from Viacom’s recently released research report, Power in Progress. The study looks at the ways traditional power structures are being disrupted and evolving. As one good example, a few miles away, the day before Kurz spoke, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg spoke powerfully about climate change to world leaders assembled for the United Nation’s opening-week ceremonies.

Thunberg’s speech is hardly the only example of newly empowered young people. New movements from the Hong Kong and French Gillets Jaune protests, to #MeToo and the March for Our Lives are transforming culture in many countries. Importantly for brands,, these changing power structures bring new challenges, while creating potential new roles to make a substantial cultural impact. Here’s a transcript of my conversation with Kurz. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity:

TVRev: Viacom’s new research report, Power in Progress, is a fascinating look at the ways power is evolving at the hands, particularly, of young people, driven by social media, messaging apps and other tools that are empowering new kinds of distributed cultural movements. But the study also looks at what it means for brands. So how does this all manifest for brands? What does it mean for Viacom?

Christian Kurz: I love the fact that you’ve very succinctly summarized my my presentation and the purpose of this project, which truly is to understand what does power mean for young people? And how did the evolving happen? Well done. Thank you. Of course, we have brands such as Nickelodeon and MTV, which have always been at the forefront of what it means to connect with youth. Nickelodeon in its heyday was the only channel that was truly for kids and not for parents. MTV, the same thing, it’s always been empowering us. And the way we look at this is just an evolution really. How can we lean into our audiences, particularly the younger ones? And how can we help them amplify those voices? And how can we really support it in this media company. We try to reflect everybody’s lives from preschoolers all the way to grandparents. But in this particular instance, how do we reflect what the world looks like? How do we help consumers amplify their power, that self-found power, that the internet really facilitates and empowers. How can we lean into that? Just one of the examples is an initiative we’ve launched in the US and I think across Europe, called MTV Breaks, which is all about how can we help people break into the creative industries. Using our findings to take our brands and use them to help people further themselves and continue their education and break into industries.

TVR: So that goes to the collaborator role you talked about in the presentation at the Future of TV conference. But that’s only one of nine roles that you guys describe. The way this is manifesting, we see so many brands being activists. You mentioned Patagonia, and I think Apple and Levi’s has been very big on things like LGBTQ issues, Patagonia with climate change. But it’s been very scary for many brands. How do they navigate making that transition from, “Everybody’s money is green,” to taking a stand, whether we want to or not.

CK: That’s the thing, right? We actually interviewed the CMO of Levi’s for this project, and not just on LGBTQ issues but also in voter registration. She talked about how it all started by trying to register voters in their stores last election cycle, and then giving people time off to go and actually vote. So it became an employee-engagement thing.

DB: That’s important, too, because your employees, particularly if you’re a clothing brand where you have a lot of young people working in your retail stores, they want to work for somebody they care about, right?

CK: Absolutely. They are your customers, they are your ambassadors, and you want to keep them happy, you want to keep them that way. She says “Well, you gotta stand for something. And every once in a while, you just have to do the right thing.” And that’s what it comes down to in the end. So you then also have to think about who is your audience? And who is your target demographic? I would leverage that, really not to decide should I be on this side or on this side of the issue, because you know which side you’re on. That’s not a question. But you can use that to decide which issue do you lean into. There’s a never-ending array of issues that people are passionate about. For one, it’s LGBT rights and voter registration. For another, it’s gun rights or control. It’s female reproductive rights, it’s the environment. Some are more controversial for your target customers, and some are less so.

TVR: So part of it is knowing your audience well enough to know the battle you need to pick. And also knowing which ones you don’t need to be in. You also can’t stand for too many at the same time, either, right? Like you can maybe stand for two or three, but that’s about it. You can’t stand for too many things. You have to be known for something. So these different roles for brands, you mentioned Walmart and its evolving approach to gun issues. Dick’s Sporting Goods also has done it. Both these brands have a lot of customers who have strong feelings about gun rights. How do they navigate that?

CK: I don’t know how exactly they navigated, but I was calling them out as an example for Evolver brands. Those are brands that have really wrestled with an issue for a while. Walmart a couple of years ago made a decision to stop selling certain (gun) parts. And then, as public opinion changes and things happen, it becomes much more visible where the majority of consumers stand.. So in a way, it’s a relatively easy decision to agree with 80 percent of your consumers. But of course, there’s very powerful interests on either side. What’s really, really admirable on Walmart is that they’ve taken the tragic scenario that played out in one of their stores, and that’s really started to change their perception of “Well, if it can happen to me, then it can happen to anyone, and I gotta do something. I can’t just do nothing.” And that’s really what we’re starting to see with a number of brands.

TVR: I see a lot of Collaborator brands, and a lot of Cheerleader (roles for brands) going on. And I think that’s heartwarming stuff. There’s a penumbra of good feeling that comes from spotlighting interesting people for your target audience. But that seems like almost like the easiest thing to do, right?

CK: It’s where a lot of brands start, because you’re just lifting up interesting stories, and amplifying that. That’s oftentimes the entrance into a much more active participation. But one of the things that we’re seeing not enough, particularly in this country, is the Uniter brands. The whole idea is we have more in common than divides us. That’s just true, right? We’re humans. There’s one campaign a couple of years ago in Denmark. It was a very, very powerful spot of two minutes, where they literally put people in boxes. They say, “Oh, those are the people who’ve just arrived, those are the people who’ve never seen a cow. Those are the people who have been here for life,” all that type of stuff. And then they started asking them a series of questions, some personal, some less personal, and ask people from each of the boxes to stand forward, if that statement defines them or is true for them. And as you go through this process, you see that actually, we do have many more things in common than divides us. Those boxes just don’t really define us as strongly. Heineken did an interesting campaign as well, where they deliberately put two people who fundamentally disagree on a topic, and put them in a situation where they have to work together on something unrelated. In this case, they had to build a bar physically out of something. And then they showed them each other’s opinions. And then they had to decide, “Do you want to continue that conversation?” You’re seeing a lot of companies start to take their social responsibility seriously. Germany was an example where newspapers of all political persuasions asked their readers to sign up to talk to somebody who disagrees with them. Then they match people and the conversations those people hold are in private. We’re actually seeing initiatives like that right now. In the social-media world, yes, it gives me power to stand for something. But we’re also starting to see a retreat into conversations behind walls, to protect from trolling. It doesn’t really matter what you say anymore, somebody’s going to vehemently disagree with you, and play that out in the social world. So you’re starting to see that conversations are happening in WhatsApp groups behind walls, which of course leads to this whole echo-chamber issue. There’s definitely a role that brands, particularly media brands, can play. And we’re in the process of figuring out exactly how we lean into that, because the media brands have reach beyond the walls that are artificially created by the echo chambers of social media.

TVR: So you’d love to see more Uniter brands, or brands doing the Uniter role. Are there other areas that seem ripe and are underutilized right now that are identified in this report?

CK: Jumping back to the implications for Viacom and our brands, I think it truly is about going back to the Amplifier role. One other example of how we did that was during the March for Our Lives, the school walk-out. The majority of our networks just went dark for 17 minutes. For a channel like Nickelodeon, that is a really, really big decision and a big step forward. If you go back 20 years, the whole idea behind Nickelodeon was “This is a safe space where you do not have to worry about the rest of the world. This is where kids can go, where parents can put their kids, if something in the world is really going wrong.” And we played that role for a long time. But that’s clearly evolved. And that’s really changed in terms of knowing this is important to our audience, and we should reflect what they are talking about. That’s where I think every brand needs to be and can think about this a lot more. There are little hooks and little elements that you can pull out. McDonalds is providing college scholarships for its employees. It’s part of this whole idea that McDonald’s probably is not going to be your last job, but it might well be your first job, and we will be your best first job.

TVR: They get a lot of talent that way, some of which they pull into their company for the long term, at the corporate level. But for Viacom, if a media company can’t be an Amplifier, who can, right?

CK: That’s exactly it! Last year, at the VMAs (MTV’s music awards show), we gave out a Generation Change award to young change-makers from around the world. It was so hard to decide which ones should win that we gave them to all of the nominees. But it’s that type of idea where we really want to continue to lift up those issues, and most importantly, those powerful young people who have the energy, the aura to bring other people with them. We think it is more powerful for young people to do this themselves. We can help them but it’s not us just going to them and saying, “You should fight for blah, blah, blah, right?” It’s about finding the people who have built this. We can provide information, we can provide all sorts of amplification, and platforms and networks, and then communicate that.