Publishing Continually Since 1888
National Geographic has been publishing continuously since its inception in 1888 and was founded “to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge” which remains today. In 1898 Alexander Graham Bell took the helm and was governed by a board of trustees whose 21 members included distinguished educators, business executives, former government officials and conservationists. Today, National Geographic Society is the largest educational society in the world and the publisher of one of the world’s most widely circulated magazines, National Geographic, as well as National Geographic Traveler and National Geographic Adventure. The company is also involved in book publishing, education, public service projects, and television production, but its flagship magazine remains its crowning achievement. National Geographic has become a staple of American mass culture.
Today, Nat Geo is a diverse, global enterprise. It issues grants, provides educational services and funds several social impact projects. It operates the National Geographic museum in Washington, DC. Publications include National Geographic, National Geographic Kids, National Geographic Traveler, and it publishes special issues of various magazines. In addition, it publishes atlases, books and maps. National Geographic films have produced many features including March of the Penguins (2005) which grossed more than $125 million worldwide and Arctic Tale (2007). In television, it operates the Nat Geo channel and a number of sub-branded channels in international markets, such as Nat Geo Wild, Nat Geo People and Nat Geo Kids.
What Makes Nat Geo a Powerful Brand?
Nat Geo has strong universal appeal – globally. It is respected, revered, unique, wholesome, trusted and important. For over 130 years, it has maintained brand integrity and expanded to be embraced by diverse cultures worldwide. Millennials love the brand as much as Boomers. What is it that everyone is embracing? What makes this brand so compelling and likeable, particularly when, in reality, the products are really all about science?
Nat Geo, in all of its forms, is an intriguing and enchanting experience that transports curious minds to new places – often for the first time. It is constantly surprising. And, Nat Geo always keeps humanity at the center of the narrative experience. We see and feel the science from a personal point-of-view, not an academic one, and are often left with one response – wow. The single response to this brand is awe. It is an emotionally charged brand and experience.
The conceptual core of this brand is discovery and it connects to our childlike curiosity about the world and universe. As a result, there is a provocative innocence involved with this brand. Those who work for the company are called explorers. Nat Geo explorers are at work all over the world to bring us on fascinating adventures through Nat Geo products. For 130 years, Nat Geo has brought us to places, people and phenomena we’ve never seen and in ways that are thrilling. The brand is highly consistent and does not disappoint on delivery.
Nat Geo has a distinct and robust visual identity. Beyond its iconic logo, it has another visual signifier – a yellow rectangular border. Whenever I see that yellow, I think of Nat Geo. I also think it’s extensive use of iconic photographs is a signature of the brand.
Nat Geo is a rare case of a powerful brand that has evolved and adapted its brand identity in order to remain the same. Originally it was conceived to serve an elite society. National Geographic Magazine was the official magazine of the National Geographic Society, a club of academics and wealthy patrons interested in travel and exploration. Today, Nat Geo serves all people with the same product, modernized and popularized. It urges all people to “start exploring” and provides tools to do so. And, it is not simply selling media and content for consumption. It has evolved to become a force for good in the world with what it publishes and the actions it takes.
Pivotal Brand Moment: Photography Almost Never Happened
When most people think of National Geographic, they think of its brilliant photography. No one does photography like Nat Geo. It would be hard to imagine Nat Geo without its iconic photography, yet that almost happened.
When Alexander Graham Bell took the helm in 1898, he found the National Geographic Society in a challenging financial state. He realized he needed to make the magazine into a popular scientific magazine rather than a scholarly journal and hired Gilbert H. Grosvenor (a 23-year-old prep school teacher in New Jersey) to be the first full-time editor. Grosvenor was the daring catalyst behind the immensely successful popularization of the magazine. He mandated stylistic including eliminating academic jargon, keeping sentences short and punchy, and replacing scholarly formality and detachment with engaging first-person narrative. Perhaps most controversial, he introduced photography.
Many critics considered it vulgar to run photos in an academic work. Grosvener encountered stiff opposition from conservative trustees of the National Geographic Society when he proposed the idea. The stuffy clique, some of who resigned over the use of photography, even attempted to have Grosvener removed. However, Grosvener had the firm backing of Alexander Graham Bell who fought the board for photography and won. In December 1904, Grosvenor ran a groundbreaking 11-page photographic spread and expected to be fired, but several days after the issue appeared, he was elected a trustee of the Society. Grosvenor ran National Geographic’s first color photos in 1910.
The June 1985 cover portrait of the presumed to be 12-year-old Afghan girl Sharbat Gula, shot by photographer Steve McCurry, became one of the magazine’s most recognizable images. The magazine remains a pioneer in the journalistic use of photography.
Brand Relevance for 130 Years
I can think of only a handful of brands that have endured over time with so much integrity, appeal and power. Most brands fail to adapt or lose their way as they try. Nat Geo is an exemplar in its commitment to mission and insight. Although the mission is anchored in science, the brand is anchored in illuminating people about science through discovery. Many people don’t think about “science” when they think about Nat Geo. They think about exciting places, cultures, things and beautiful photography. Behind all of that enchantment, is a strong corporate commitment to brand and keeping that brand relevant for all of humanity – true universal appeal – regardless of the decade or the mediums.