How 3 publishers found their brand direction, before and during COVID

By Brie Logsdon

INMA

Nashville, Tennessee, United States

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By Paula Felps

INMA

Nashville, Tennessee, United States

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When Gary Liu became CEO of South China Morning Post in 2017, he found a 117-year-old news company structure already undergoing digital transformation — with 4.3 million monthly active users globally and only 1.3 million coming from Hong Kong itself. But SCMP’s numbers in 2017 were as large as they were going to get, and the next goal was to find new value for SCMP. 

SCMP's readership numbers were good in 2017, but they weren't going to get better without change.
SCMP's readership numbers were good in 2017, but they weren't going to get better without change.

For Newsday Media Group in Long Island, New York, COVID-19 brought with it some unusual new opportunities for branding and connection. Cultural awareness plays a pivotal role in branding efforts, and the pandemic brought unexpected ways to promote that, Publisher Debby Krenek said.

Halfway into its three-year journey to become digitally sustainable, Svenska Dagbladet has shifted its approach to a reader-led future, creating new models of measuring success and being clear about how readers perceive the brand.

For some news media companies, COVID-19 has prompted a dramatic reconsideration of missions, business, and value creation strategies. For others, the pandemic has reaffirmed branding plans in progress. South China Morning Post, Newsday, and Svenska Dagbladet shared how their brands are evolving to meet the needs of today’s — and tomorrow’s — audiences during Tuesday’s “Business Model Innovation and Creating New Value” session of the INMA’s Virtual World Congress

SCMP 

SCMP’s masthead would carry the company from the comfortable nest it created to the opportunity of a lifetime, Liu told INMA members. 

“At the end of the day, what we believe is this: China’s rise and how it changes everything around the world is one of the most important stories of our lifetimes,” he said. “Any news organisation that can own even a slice of the story will be able to find incredible value exchange.”

CEO Gary Liu shared SCMP's digital subscription rise since 2017.
CEO Gary Liu shared SCMP's digital subscription rise since 2017.

The company’s direction of coverage has shifted from being for Hong Kong to being from Hong Kong for the rest of the world. SCMP’s transformation toward this future has happened on three parallel fronts. 

  1. Brand and identity: Since SCMP’s primary delivery channel was trading ships, the company looked to maritime flags for its new brand identity. The simple yellow and blue symbol, which means “I wish to communicate with you,” was split into two windows and formatted into the dimensions of a broadsheet newspaper.
  2. Process and structure: This was a need to identify a priority and an effort to allow SCMP to become a different type of news organisation — delivering digital news on a global scale and creating a structure that encourages the internal collaboration needed to tell the complex story about China. The newsroom has gone from having a single Chartbeat databoard to its own AI-driven data sets that allows staff to better understand its audiences and how to serve them. 
  3. Product and technology: SCMP invested in Mobile Web, video, understanding how the social ecosystem works, and graphics. The latter is significant because a lot of nuance of complicated stories can be told in a single graphic and shared anywhere.

SCMP got through these three parallel transformations just in time, Liu said, as the last 12 months have brought the Hong Kong protests, the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, and COVID-19.  

“The SCMP of 2020 was around to capture that, not the SCMP of 2017,” Liu said. “There is no way we would have been able to report on any of these stories, including COVID-19, if we were still the SCMP of 2017.” 

Newsday 

Newsday launched its journey to build a brand more reflective of Long Island culture in 2019. 

“We knew this would not happen overnight and we were vetting ideas about how to do that,” Krenek said. “But the pandemic has actually propelled Newsday forward in ways that we hadn’t anticipated, moving us down the path to a brand embedded in culture.” 

Newsday serves two counties with a total population of 3 million people in the U.S. region hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The company was in the midst of creating an innovative consumer-focused campaign when the pandemic hit. Plans stalled and the publisher pivoted to provide news on the pandemic and its effects on the market. 

“Interestingly, we found that in the three months [of the pandemic], rather than derail our brand effort, COVID-19 has actually accelerated Newsday’s brand position dramatically.” 

The coronavirus crisis fast-tracked branding concepts Newsday was already working on.
The coronavirus crisis fast-tracked branding concepts Newsday was already working on.

Newsday’s brand positioning was grown in three ways:

  1. Strong editorial coverage. Reporters went inside one of the ICUs at a local hospital and produced an “Inside the Red Zone” special, which resulted in more than 18,000 digital subscriptions. Video views more than doubled. By placing the COVID-19 content in front of the paywall, Newsday saw dramatic increases in growth, leading to a 32% increase in digital subscriptions over 13 weeks (one-third of those came from the free COVID coverage). 
  2. Service to the community. Under its “Together Long Island” brand, Newsday launched a series of free message boards, newsletters, and virtual events. “We’re also in the process of completing a new TV studio and theater in our building … but we sort of pivoted to virtual events,” Krenek said.
  3. Support of advertising partners. Newsday’s “Advertising Match Program” (AMP) is basically a grant programme for advertisers, started with the pandemic lockdown. Whatever amount advertisers spend on advertising is matched by Newsday. The company created a Facebook group to showcase what local businesses were doing to help their customers during the pandemic, generated advertising revenue with special sections, and provided branded content sponsorship that allowed advertisers to support content.

“COVID-19 has helped accelerate our cultural brand,” Krenek said. “We really believe these effects will be long-lasting. The Together Long Island brand will be with us longer than the coronavirus ever will be.” 

Svenska Dagbladet 

Founded in 1884, Svenska Dagbladet has long enjoyed a strong position in print, but needed to find its digital footing, explained Anna Careborg, CEO and editor in chief. 

“We looked at two things: The willingness to choose and the willingness to pay,” she said. “We asked 1,363 digital news readers about their views and their driving forces to pay for digital news.” 

Staff at Svenska Dagbladet asked 1,363 digital news readers what type of news they would pay for, then created experiences that matched those responses.
Staff at Svenska Dagbladet asked 1,363 digital news readers what type of news they would pay for, then created experiences that matched those responses.

Her team learned some surprising facts from that inquiry, including that digital users are largely motivated by the digital product experience and its convenience. They also learned that, while their brand was perceived as trustworthy and serious, readers also saw it as being “boring and old.” 

Increasing digital engagement required developing priorities, and for this they chose three main areas to focus on:

  1. Readers: “Our goal is to be Schibsted’s most reader-oriented organisation of 2020,” Careborg said.
  2. Journalism: “We did our biggest recruitment in a decade to be able to reach our position.”  
  3. Relevance: “This is most important, so we put resources into investigative journalism, in-depth stories, and guiding material going forward.”

At a time when other publishers have dropped the paywall and offered coronavirus-related content for free, Svenska Dagbladet has instead raised the price of subscriptions.

“The Corona crisis has strengthened us. Now we have to move even faster,” Careborg said. “People are willing to pay for quality journalism, but they have to feel it’s worth it. I think it’s a great opportunity to show the value of journalism and the value of what we’re doing.”

The Congress finishes on Thursday with the last of nine modules, “News Media Outlook 2021: What To Expect Next.” Register here for individual sessions or the entire Congress (the latter includes access to this and previous sessions).

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