Empty newspaper brands don't age like wine


TTwelve years ago, I wrote a book titled Branding and the Newspaper Consumer, a snapshot of how publishers conceive, protect, and grow their brands. The critical — and for me at the time, surprising — finding was that publishers had no idea what a brand was. And if they invested in anything it was short-term image enhancement built around short-term sales campaigns. The image campaign lasted about as long as a publisher's tenure.

This lack of brand understanding was brought home to me today while I read the dreary chronicling of newspaper industry performance in the new OECD report “The Evolution of News and the Internet.” Behind every statistic, I couldn't help but think that lack of investment in brand was a part of the under-performance. With every turn of the page, I got angrier and angrier.

Studies over the past century repeatedly show that brands with high perceived value tend to outperform those with lesser perceived value in sales and engagement. And for media brands in particular, a high value can mean premium rates for advertisers as well as a high book value.

That's how many newspapers built their fortunes with the advertising community. But while newspapers gladly sold the value of brand-building to advertisers from one hand, they choked their own marketing and research departments' efforts to invest in the same kind of activities with the other hand.

Well, my book turned out to be a fairly good indicator of things to come in our industry. Zero brand investment by newspapers made circulation sales efforts limp in the past decade, which led to a popping of the advertising pricing bubble, which led to devaluation even before the current recession.

I couldn't help but think of this 1998 book as I read through the OECD report. On every one of its 98 pages that detailed how our industry got into the position it's in, I couldn't help but see an industry that never understood the connection between what it produced and what its readers wanted or needed.

We were so internally focused, so worried about the craftmanship of the product, so interested in how much we could get away with in charging advertisers for access to the product, so married to protecting this inflationary pile that we inherited. Such artists.

The common refrain from newspaper publishers is that they're sitting on this “amazing brand” built up over the past 50, 100, or 150+ years. They confuse age with brand. They confuse a masthead with a brand.

A brand is not like wine in a bottle — you can't leave it alone and expect it to appreciate in value.

The asset to be managed always was the perception of, connection to, and relationship with consumers to our brand — not the quality of our art in the abstract.

Branding isn't a sit-back exercise. It's a lean-forward exercise. It costs money — lots of money.

That's what we tell our advertisers. Why wouldn't we believe it ourselves?

Branding is a strategic path that requires years of investment in marketing and research, constantly listening to consumers and adjusting the messaging. Branding is a two-way process; it is ultimately not the marketing messages we push to the consumer, but what they project back to us in their bundle of perceptions. Consumers define who we are.

Branding makes sales more productive like an air war makes a ground war more productive. You can do one without the other, but there's a lot of evidence to support companies that sell with strong brands versus weak brands.

A marketer with a well-known newspaper recently told me they invest virtually nothing in brand-building. They may not be investing now, but I know they've invested a ton in brand-building marketing exercises for the past three decades. Today, they are reaping the rewards for those investments and can have a product sales based on strong brand perceptions.

Locally focused news brands — with transient populations and consumer apathy, aversion and hatred projected toward all authority figures in society — have no such luxury. Most have never invested a dime in brand-building and dramatically over-estimate the perception of their brands (the wine in their bottles).

All of this was true circa 2007.

What's the value of your brand today as you stretch across product lines and media platforms? Would your sales and audience metrics improve if you invested just 1% of revenues in brand marketing?

Or are we destined to repeat the same mistake in the decade ahead?

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