MTV, the US music video channel, is the latest company to have taken that lesson to heart. It is currently considering plans to regionalise its European programming to serve discrete markets on the Continent.
The decision, which will not be cheap to implement, is compelling proof of the now somewhat hackneyed marketing phrase: "Think global, act local." There will still be an identifiably "MTV" look, informed by the company's long experience at home. But by regionalising the programming and advertising, MTV can address discrete markets. Advertisers will be pleased.
There aren't many truly global brands, ones that sell worldwide on a single, simple image. Coke (the beverage, not the drug) is an example, and so is Marlboro, the world's most smoked cigarette. In the media, Disney may be approaching global status: it's associated in the minds of parents in the US, Europe and elsewhere with wholesome "family" entertainment of guaranteed quality. Mickey Mouse is like a warranty tag.
MTV is probably not in the same category, but it comes close. And no other broadcaster has so dramatically changed the face of television the world over. The fast cuts, integrating sometimes surreal images with clever music, are instantly recognisable as the MTV "look". The segues between music videos, and the tightly edited packages highlighting movie and pop stars, are similarly an MTV trademark, although so ubiquitous today that it is perhaps hard to know whether one is watching the real item or one of the many clones. Even the videos, produced by record companies, have an MTV feel about them - an indication of the way the network helped to give rise to what is now the driving force in the music industry. If your video is crap, chances are you won't get far, even with a great song.
MTV is not a simple brand: it denotes an attitude, a style, a posture. It is not rooted in a physical product (like a soft drink or beer) but more in a lifestyle. It not only discovered a market, but helped to create it.
It has been easy to demonise MTV, particularly in puritanical America. The channel, owned by Sumner Redstone's giant Viacom, has been blamed for reducing the attention span of youth to mere seconds. The steady diet of videos, film, and fashion is said to have turned television into wallpaper. But that is to simplify. MTV is undeniably good television, at least in small doses. And it delivers far more than just clips. You also get film reviews, interviews, talk shows, and even The Real World, an MTV series.
At its origins, the idea was to deliver the distinctly US take on youth culture to a mass, global audience, on the quite sensible assumption that young people anywhere on the globe were potentially attracted by iconic America. The world watches Hollywood movies, so why not watch MTV?
MTV Networks Europe, set up in 1987, had its origins in the wild success of the network in the US. Its first efforts here, from its London headquarters, were subtly clever. The channel was not just a retransmission of the US product. The "VJs" who introduced the clips were distinctly European (or English); the playlist reflected the different tastes of a European audience.
Initially available free to anyone with a satellite dish, MTV Europe was a striking success, reaching break-even long before its backers had expected. It attracted major advertisers, eager to reach a market that stretched from the UK to eastern Europe.
Since last year, MTV has only been available on a subscription basis. In the UK, that means you must subscribe to Murdoch's Sky Television, which has included MTV in its multipackage, or to cable. On the Continent, the company has spent months on the transition from free to pay TV, negotiating with cable operators in France, Germany and Scandinavia.
The decision to encrypt the signal for pay-TV has led to a drop in viewers (by how many MTV won't say). The decline has coincided with the growing popularity of MTV clones (insiders might call them rip-offs), offering local-language VJs and a locally tailored playlist.
All these competitive pressures have come at a time when the MTV Europe look has become somewhat tired. The company itself believes the staff in London lack the old spark, and are too often merely cranking out the material in a far too mechanical way. A new director of programming, Rachel Purnell, has been hired to shake things up. There have been high-level departures and a radical internal restructuring.
But the changes to date pale next to plans to introduce multi-strand MTV. By concentrating on discrete submarkets within Europe, the company hopes to beat back some of the competition that has caused it problems, particularly in Germany. In the future, the introduction of digital TV will provide even greater capacity, and MTV may look to differentiate its programming even further.
There is a balancing act here, however. Targeting particular markets may be the best way forward, but MTV will not want to lose its distinctive character. Aspects of American taste show up in youth culture the world over, and the MTV brand is emblematic of that.
The key will be to marry the global MTV brand to regional tastes, even continue to mould them, all the while ensuring that the huge value attached to the trademark is not frittered away through too much dilution and fragmentation. The experience in other markets shows it can be done, and that the results can be highly profitable for the likes of Redstone, Murdoch and the other media barons.