REGIONAL PRESS: The branding of local papers

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

direct mail).

‘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

regional press.

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

your customers.

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

the phone.

‘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

                                      direct mail)

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