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Get your branding off our editorial lawn

The words ‘reader research’ and ‘brand awareness’ can make some editors a little defensive – especially when they come accompanied by a long list of all that is wrong with the paper. Yet, without the editor onboard, branding projects are doomed to failure. Simon Strutt looks at the issues.

By Simon Strutt

Do we all experience an occasional tension between those who talk the language of brands and those who actually put the paper together? Does the territorial battleground of the editorial floor sometimes make marketers shy away from representing the views of the reader?

As brand research consultants, who spend much of our time scrutinising newspaper brands, we at the Marketing Works encounter this friction on many occasions. But this is not surprising: having given birth, few mothers would welcome the intervention of suited experts claiming to be able to improve the child – ‘there’s nothing wrong with my baby!’

Editor as brand guardian

We have much sympathy with this view: often the product is good; and no-one is going to ‘improve’ it more effectively than the parent… So that is why we think editors should be promoted.

After all, they don’t just run a department, set an editorial style, and produce a new product once or six times a week. They are more important than that. They are the brand guardian, the brand director, the brand ambassador and the head of customer satisfaction. And, unless we accept that, progress will be painfully slow.

And sure, they may be sceptical of all that brand language – it can stretch the credibility, especially among such strong-minded and verbally skilled characters as these. But, in truth, they instinctively know the power of their brands, even though the language is not for them. They know that the name / masthead of the local paper (or ‘the logo’) is as familiar in their area as Coke, Marlboro or Nike, if not more so. They know that the number of people who spend time with their brand, in the area, beats the figures for these international brands by far. And they know that local paper brands command more loyalty than virtually any other named brand in the area. And they are hellishly proud of their brand as well, and rightly so!

For those of us who have ‘bought into’ the brand philosophy, how can we honestly help? Well, how about starting off by acknowledging a few truths. First, that inviting an editor and his team to a readership survey presentation is not the same as giving him the information he needs to edit the paper. It’s hard enough to understand the implications of this kind of data for editorial policy, even if it is your full-time job, and the tiny shifts in demographics are often exaggerated to give someone at NOP something to do! What’s more, in front of his team, he may not be very keen to ask the stupid question that might make sense of all those graphs and grids.

Nor is having him wade through readers’ letters or reader complaints. An analysis conducted many years ago in Birmingham demonstrated that those who write letters to newspapers are a very unrepresentative lot.

(One of our other clients, a car dealer, was mystified when research analysis suggested that his customers were almost all 65+. In fact, they were looking at a self-selected sample of people who went in for a particular competition – much like the self selected characters, with time on their hands, who tend to write most frequently to newspapers!)

The other technique guaranteed to fail is to list all of the criticisms of the paper mentioned by light-reading individuals in focus groups: they may be true, even valid and representative, but not necessarily motivating! The sulking editor is unlikely to buy into a change programme, no matter how much highly crafted New Labour-styled management jargon is used to support it. Indeed, nothing could put him off more effectively.

(Why is ‘consultant’ such a dirty word with editorial staff? Perhaps because it is often followed by the words ‘cost cutting’ a few months later. But, to clarify, that’s management consultants, not us brand research consultants. OK?)

But, you may say, how do we go about supporting the ‘editorial brand director’ in such a way that we can make the paper offer more interest and more value to more people? Here are seven pointers:

1. Find out what readers think. Then translate it into something that is both reliable information and is interesting and motivating.

2. Go beyond the numbers. Conduct focus groups with readers, and depth interviews with internal staff (including editorial) and advertisers. This provides a qualitative feel, detailed answers to the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ questions, and much more actionable information than raw data can provide.

3. Involve the editor throughout the process. He’s the one that needs to know most.

4. Show readers some ideas for change in the paper. They find this easier to respond to in the focus groups. (After all, if we asked you about your favourite clothes brand and asked you how it should change, you’d struggle to say. But, if we showed some alternative ranges, you’d be able to recognise those that suited and enhanced the brand’s appeal, and those that didn’t.)

5. Benefit from the experience of others. Find out what other papers have done.

6. Spend some serious money on finding out what your readers think. Several % of turnover is not much when your future strategy – and success - depends on it.

7. Implementation. When you have the information, you will probably need to make changes. This is the toughest stage. Even after everyone has agreed the improvements they often still don’t happen. You also need to monitor reader reaction to the changes, and then fine-tune the content still further.

Don’t forget – you can make what feels like huge changes – to the content, the masthead, the front cover – and readers will hardly notice! What’s more, if you make changes and don’t tell light and non readers, they may not react at all. Have you noticed the recent changes in a magazine you don’t read? Probably not.

A brand culture

Branding is not just an editorial and marketing responsibility though. Organisations benefit from a brand culture which runs through all departments. And it is not just about logos, design and advertising. At its core, branding culture should encourage an organisation, from top to bottom, to recognise how its product or service differs from the competition, and to ensure that the differentiating brand promise is being delivered.

Branding is a word that is abused and often misused, and this has given it a bad reputation in some quarters. Looking back in history, a brand was simply the mark placed by a farmer on his livestock, so that anyone who came across the animal knew where it was from – and knew what level of quality could be expected of it, based on the reputation of the farmer. And that farmer would spend many years building a reputation, investing in his brand, so that his animals would remain in demand, and he would perhaps be able to charge more than the average for his meat – a premium price.

This farmer probably survived without the advantage of having brand research consultants available to advise him. How did he cope, you may ask. He did so because he met his customers face to face, and they probably provided robust feedback on a regular basis, in the form of short words which probably did not need translating, synthesising or diagrammatising. His brand strategy was probably easy to define, and the incentive of starvation probably meant that he did not need motivational consultants either.

Protecting the brand

Of course, such a brand reputation is a fragile thing, even for him, and accidents do happen which damage brand reputations large and small. For the farmer, disease can do long term damage. For the modern brand owner, the plane crash might deter customers from his brand, as would the poisoned fizzy water or the washing powder that damages clothes. This kind of bad news travels very fast in this media age, and yet memories fade much more slowly.

Branding is a much simpler idea than some make out. It is just another word for reputation: the brand encapsulates your reputation. Of course, this can be enhanced by presentation – an attractive logo, a good looking product, an advert that explains the facts of the reputation in an appealing way, even showing that a famous person, whose judgement is respected and admired, uses your brand. In centuries past, if the squire favoured your meat, then that was worth publicising. Now, it would be Jamie Oliver shopping in your food store, or David Beckham wearing your boots or Kate Moss using your cosmetics – although you then take the risk of your celebrity losing favour.

For some, this talk of brands seems a long way from the process of putting a newspaper together. But it isn’t. Your readers always have a choice of whether to spend their time and money on your paper, or to use these scarce resources on your direct or distant competitors. And, brand thinking simply acknowledges this competitive environment and harnesses it. The most important part of the process is to produce the best product you possibly can. This is true of all brands in all sectors – make the product as good as it can be. Excellence in the craft itself is critical. But, unless your craftspeople know and care about what the customer wants, the economics breaks down. That’s not brand psycho-babble. That’s capitalism.