Thursday, September 20, 2007

What can media brands do to be different and become an integral part of their consumers’ lives?

I spent my childhood and youth in Madras (that was the name then, however much our politicians might scowl). That was in the Sixties and Seventies and it is hardly worth the effort to figure out my age! The only newspaper that we read then was The Hindu. The easiest way to create chaos in our lives then was to interchange our morning kaapi with a cup of tea and replace The Hindu with another newspaper. That would ensure that the day started wrong and continued to go wrong!
That newspaper was an important and integral part of my life and of others’ lives as well. When I tried to read the paper and Jack Fingleton’s column before my uncle had seen the paper one morning, I got slapped by him for the first and thankfully the last time.
I remember going to Bombay (that was the name again) for a holiday when I was in Class V and I can still remember going around the streets of Matunga asking at every shop for The Hindu while other sympathetic, like minded-people said, “Hum bhi Hindu hain.”
Newspaper brands in our youth were strong brands whether it was the one from Tamil Nadu that I have spoken about so lovingly or The Statesman from Calcutta. Parents urged their children to read these papers so that they could improve their English. Did we feel strongly about these brands of our youth because we were exposed to them at an impressionable age? Or was it because they were almost invariably the only ones we were exposed to? Or was it because these brands were relevant to us as consumers?
Whatever the reason for this, one fact is clear, today the challenge is inherently more complex for media brands than it was 40 years ago. Why do I say that? In Bangalore, the city where I live in, one has the opportunity to see 11 English newspapers every morning. What about television? There are 388 TV channels in the country with the expectation that it will become 400 in the near future. (Never mind the fact that when you switch the television on over the weekend you still can’t find anything worth watching). As for FM radio, there are 69 radio stations in the country and the expectation is that the number will grow to 245 in the near future.
What makes brands successful? Successful brands are relevant to their consumers and different from their competition. Are any of these media brands different? What can they do to be different and become an integral part of their consumers’ lives?
Positioning … the name of the game
David Aaker describes positioning as “A part of brand identity and value proposition that is to be actively communicated to the target audience and that demonstrates an advantage over competing brands.” This leads one to ask the question: How well are today’s newspapers positioned? I spoke about the 11 newspapers that I get to see every morning and once in a while to actually read – now how well are they positioned? What really makes for the positioning of media brands? What makes them different?
Let us first stay with brands and see what makes them different. Every brand, whichever the category it belongs to, has a few elements - the name, to start with. You can have a name that is generic, ordinary even. Consider a category like telecom. In a category which has brands like Singtel, Bechtel, Alcatel and Airtel, one brand has (or is it ‘had’?) the name of Orange. Clearly a stand-out. In India when most newspapers had some chronicle or times to their name a newspaper has the name Mint. Clearly there is a point of difference in one element of the brand at least.
Some brands have their packaging as an element that is different. In India, we are familiar with the sachet, a completely different packaging form that has now become a way of life for the category of shampoos and now for other products as well. Packaging in the case of the newspaper could be important as well. Newspaper brands too are continually upgrading their look and feel, type styles and page layout. It is perhaps worthwhile for newspapers to remember that while they keep upgrading themselves and modernising themselves in an attempt to contemporise and get new readers, they run two risks. The first is that in their quest for younger, newer readers, they might be alienating their longstanding older readers who have been reading the same newspaper for years. The second risk is that they end up becoming exactly like their competitors, ape them and finally end up confusing the consumer. A number of newspapers that I read have similar Page 3 type offerings. Yes, I suppose I am not the target audience! But still …
But at a more basic level, what makes brands successful?
Very often we get carried away by the emotional aspects of branding and the imageries conveyed by advertising. The risk with an approach like that is that it underplays the basic importance of the product or service. Having a high-quality product or service is the bare minimum or hygiene factor in today’s crowded, competitive, cluttered world. While it is perhaps easier to determine what makes a good product or service in the world of consumer products or services, I wonder if it is as easy to figure out what makes for a successful media brand.
One can recognise a wonderful media brand like The Economist which one admires, but how do you figure out the causes of success? A true media brand, in my view at least, stands for something. Editorial integrity, for instance. The essence of a brand or its raison d’etre is often ignored. It becomes even more crucial in the case of a media brand where the interplay of editorial and marketing and their relative importance to each other become crucial factors. How many of today’s media brands have a point of view? How many actually stand for something?
Advertising… does it really matter?
People in marketing believe in the power of advertising, as they should. While agreeing with that, one must also mention in the same breath that advertising is, perhaps, less critical in the case of the media brand, as lots would depend on the product itself and the reactions of consumers to the product. In India and perhaps, one must mention, in the rest of the world as well, there is a tremendous reliance on giving the paper away at a ridiculous price, if not for free. How will the consumer value a brand that is given to him free? Yes, the Indian market is perhaps very different from other Western markets. We are growing and the regional newspapers are growing quite significantly compared to the Western world which has mature markets that are at best constant if not declining. So the strategies that work in the West may not work with equal success here. Yet, it is perhaps worthwhile to ask a few questions to owners of media brands. After all, it is certainly easier to ask questions than to find answers.
Are you trying to address ‘eight to eighty-eight’?
How good is your online offering?
Are you ready to reinvent yourself on the net?
Are you ready for personal, proactive media?
Do the people that trust us and value us want to buy other things from us?
Are you as Rupert Murdoch said, “remarkably, unaccountably complacent?”
That in fact leads me to the final point that I wish to make. These are exciting times for media in India. The markets are growing, the consumer’s literacy is improving dramatically, as is the affluence of the average Indian if such a person exists. Media brands can, as they are probably trying to, ride the momentum, give away free copies, try hard to be like their competition and still get away with it in a booming economy. But it is decision time as well. The right decision is to think long-term. It is to carefully evaluate their current position. Is there an opportunity to fine tune their offering? Is there a difference in the product now or can it be built in? Yes, it is a wonderful time to be in business in India. A wonderful time to be in media. But the time to think about tomorrow is today. How many of today’s Indian media brands are ready?
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)

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