REGIONAL PRESS: The branding of local papers
By ROBERT DWEK, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 14 June 1996 12:00AM
Falling ad revenues and competition from other media have forced local papers to examine and promote their own brand values.
Falling ad revenues and competition from other media have forced local
papers to examine and promote their own brand values.
Perhaps the first time UK newspapers were referred to as brands was in
1982 when Rupert Murdoch came on the scene in a big way.
The Dirty Digger had no problem seeing newsprint as something akin to
consumer goods products - something which could be easily distilled down
to a snappy set of brand values and which needed to be constantly
refreshed and updated. It was not for nothing that the Sunday Times
recently became the first British newspaper to launch its own credit
The UK regional press, by contrast, has been slow to get to grips with
branding. Unlike the national press, it has not been so exposed to
intense competition and turf wars, and it has thus had less motivation
to change its ways.
Jim Chisholm, who has worked for many years as a marketing consultant to
the regional press, recalls an occasion that happened about ten years
ago when he was thrown out of an editor’s office for describing his
beloved paper as a ‘product’. But Chisholm, like many others in the
industry, now believes ‘those days have gone’.
Change is in the air as local newspapers realise there is no more room
for complacency. They are faced with assaults on many sides - the growth
of local radio and of national media, the demise of traditional
communities and corresponding growth of ‘virtual’ communities through
the Internet, and the rise of free newspapers.
If left unchecked, these new threats will accelerate the long-term
decline of the regional press’s share of total advertising spend.
Between 1980 and 1994 it slumped from 24.6 per cent to 20.5 per cent,
according to Advertising Association figures (which exclude spend on
‘The regional press can no longer afford to take its local identity for
granted,’ Chisholm warns. He advises papers to define themselves much
more clearly and stresses that their geographical position is not in
itself worth a great deal. ‘It all comes down to how you exploit that.’
The Guardian and Daily Mail both have a very strong sense of the
‘communities’ they serve, even though both operate on aÿ20national level.
Gordon Douglas, a director of the new product development consultancy,
Presight, goes so far as to suggest that local newspapers might be
better off if they scrapped the whole idea of geographical focus. He
admires the success of the advertising-only newspaper, Loot.
‘I’d be tempted to abandon the designation by region and go more for a
specialist audience, in a way which allowed me to develop my title as a
fully fledged brand.’ This might result, he suggests, from an in-depth
study of a paper’s existing audience to determine the readers’ main
If, for example, it transpires that you have an unusually high number of
golf enthusiasts among your readers, you might be better off becoming a
golfing or sporting title. If successful, you might expand distribution
and eventually become a national title.
This may sound frighteningly extreme, but there are clear signs that
regional newspapers are starting to think much more laterally. The
Newspaper Society recently commissioned a report from the new product
development consultancy CLK, looking into the issue of branding and the
Entitled ‘Exploiting newspaper brands’ and published in March, it is
stuffed full of advice on how to see a newspaper through marketing eyes.
It constantly refers to well-known consumer brands - the likes of
Timotei, British Airways, Dettol, Gillette, Wall’s, Haagen-Dazs and
Cadbury - that have created very strong identities, either from scratch
or in response to a period of dramatic decline.
The report explores the difference between tangible and intangible brand
values, the former being, for example, a newspaper’s in-depth coverage
of local news, and the latter, its supposed honesty, integrity and
‘No company can assume it knows who its customers are and what they
demand,’ CLK cautions. ‘Indeed, theÿ20demand may be latent and require a
fresh offer to stimulate it.’
Later on, outlining the heated debate between free and paid-for
newspapers, the report concludes: ‘Pride and prejudice is fogging the
issue.’ It indicates these should be secondary concerns which come well
below the more pressing question of what kind of product is right for
Newspapers are urged to redefine their role. ‘What business are you in?
State this in one succinct sentence; if you cannot you do not have a
clear idea of what business you are in.’
Finally: ‘Stop using industry terms and start using consumer terms -
this will automatically take you closer to the source of your revenue.’
The Liverpool Echo is doing just this. Last year its management decided
to raise the cover price. The marketing people decided, however, not to
go for the usual tactical sweetener to ensure reader loyalty - for
example, a joint promotion offering a free Jaguar, which had worked very
well in the past.
‘We sat back and thought: no. This time we wanted to do more than just a
promotion,’ the marketing and sales promotion manager, Jane Hunt,
recalls. ‘We wanted a campaign that knitted the whole newspaper together
with its readers. A campaign that would offer a real feel-good factor.’
Out of this soul-searching grew a recognition that ‘newspapers such as
the Liverpool Echo are brands that should be understood, nurtured and
supported’. A product planning team was assembled to draw up a set of
brand values - the most prominent of which turned out to be pride in the
local community and the slogan, ‘local and proud of it’. A newspaper
mascot was designed and now appears throughout the newspaper, and even
on some ads.
‘Our aim is to try to ensure that the stories we use, the way we use
them, the features we write, the advertising messages and content, the
promotions that we run and the prizes that we offer should all be
consistent with our brand values,’ Hunt explains.
Portsmouth’s the News, 120 years old and with a circulation of 78,000,
has so far had three meetings to discuss ways of ‘extending our brand’.
Keith Ridley, the newspaper’s director of sales and promotions, says
it’s still early days but that it is already thinking about appointing
full-time brand managers.
‘This would send a clear message to people both inside and outside the
company that we are serious about branding,’ he claims.
So far, the lateral thinking has resulted in forays into new media: a
teletext service with cable TV channels is mooted; telephone services
such as weather reports and loveline matches are being developed; and an
Internet site has already been established.
Ridley has been a journalist for 21 years and considers himself an old
hack ‘first and foremost’ despite his new marketing responsibilities. He
is confident that ‘the barriers are beginning to come down’ and that the
fog of pride and prejudice which has hindered brand development in the
regional press is starting to clear.
‘Our editorial staff are increasingly happy to promote events that our
marketing staff have organised. There’s a realisation that we’re all
working towards the same ends,’ he says.
Midland Independent Newspapers, the UK’s second largest evening
newspaper group, expresses the same sentiment. ‘Historically, the
regional press has been quite compartmentalised,’ the group marketing
director, Mark Hollingshead, says. ‘But our newspapers are now moving
ahead as one unified form of communication. The brand is king and
everything we do has to benefit the brand.’
At the beginning of this month, Midland Independent Newspapers went
where no regional newspaper had gone before by launching an electronic
loyalty card for its flagship title, the Birmingham-based Evening Mail.
Offering readers a 10 per cent discount at 50 local retailers, the aim
is to ‘lock in’ the newspaper’s readers and capture a mountain of data
that can be used for direct marketing, future promotions and for
tracking purchasing behaviour. This information can also be used by
advertisers to ensure they are targeting consumers as accurately and
effectively as possible.
‘We’ve looked outside our industry and are now trying to employ
strategies from the consumer marketing sector,’ Hollingshead adds. ‘Of
course, we’re more complicated than, say, Tesco, because we have several
audiences to think about - readers, advertisers, newsagents and so on -
but the general idea is the same.
‘We want to ensure that everything we do pulls the different strands
together into a recognisable brand.’
The Leicester Mercury
‘What we’ve discovered is that a newspaper is like any other fmcg
product.’ So says Marlen Roberts, deputy managing director of the
Leicester Mercury, a local newspaper which for the past two years has
been investigating readers’ needs and wants.
Its latest circulation figures show a 1.2 per cent fall on the January
to June period last year, but Roberts says this is not as bad as many
other provincial papers. She attributes this relatively strong
performance to the fact that ‘we’re now actually listening to our
The Leicester Mercury has worked with two consultancies, most recently
the London-based, New Solutions. It has not been enough, explains
Roberts, to rely on letters to the editor type of feedback. ‘There are
an awful lot of people out there who don’t bother to write or pick up
‘We’re trying to get closer to our customers, to understand what it is
that hooks them, or why exactly some people will only buy the paper on
one particular day. If I can increase the number of casual purchases
this would give us the increase on last year’s circulation that we are
looking for. We can’t afford to ignore any part of our readership. Only
being interested in six-night readers means that traditionally we have
failed to develop the casual purchaser.’
Now is the time to address these issues because competition from local
radio, cable and Internet-related services is beginning to mushroom.
‘There’s a lot more people out there providing similar information to
evening newspapers,’ Roberts notes.
Roberts and the team at the Leicester Mercury are looking at ‘all the
big marketing questions - the four Ps: product, price, promotion,
position’ - and want to get their strategy crystal clear before putting
it into practice.
Niche marketing will become increasingly important as the newspaper
tries to target its customers by evermore refined criteria, rather than
the traditional age, sex, regular/irregular reader categories. Roberts
explains: ‘In the past the answer to ‘who’s your reader?’ was
‘everyone’. But nowadays nobody markets to everyone.’
Roberts doesn’t yet know which reader segments will emerge from
researching them (although one significant by-product was the launch six
months ago of a listings supplement called the Week).
She describes the project as ‘a very big investment’ but stresses she is
only following in the well-trodden footsteps of fmcg companies. ‘A
newspaper brand needs refreshing in the same way that a product like
Coca-Cola or Nike needs updating.’
General promotions, as opposed to precisely targeted marketing
campaigns, will never work with today’s sophisticated customer,’ Roberts
‘We’ve got to stop looking among ourselves for answers and start looking
more to our readers - our customers.’
Janet Bik, a director of New Solutions, agrees. ‘The competitive context
is going to get so much greater. Newspapers must stay on their toes to
make sure they are a positive purchase rather than a habitual purchase.’
Regional press revenue
Regional press Share of total ad spend
ad revenue (pounds m) % (excluding
1994 1871 20.5
1993 1715 20.8
1992 1640 20.7
1991 1628 21.3
1990 1715 21.6
1989 1707 21.7
1988 1544 21.8
1987 1280 21
1986 1101 20.7
1985 1004 21.8
1984 921 22
1980 640 24.6
Source: Advertising Association
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk
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