With newspaper readership in decline, media owners are turning to other ways of cementing commercial relationships with their beloved consumers.
Audience fragmentation has made establishing a dialogue with readers a “must” rather than merely a “nice to have”.But how far can this relationship be stretched between a newspaper brand and its audience before it snaps? Traditionally, brand stretch has been conceived of in a very literal fashion. Consumer goods in particular have extended their appeal along product lines; from shampoo and leave-in conditioners into shower gel.
Or breakfast cereal stretching into cereal bars.
Here, the extension is logical; a concerted drive on the part of the brand manager to sell a wider and wider range of products.
In the world of newspaper publishing, stretching the brand has traditionally equated to offering readers more of the core product: information. This has been the easy option, since the newspaper already has the credibility and the resources to offer readers more in-depth information services.
When media owners began establishing digital versions of their newspapers, additional information content tended to be the starting point.
Yet, this presupposes that readers actually do want more of the same. Some have said that this is why red-tops have chosen not to move content online.
Clearly, not all examples of brand extension follow the linear product extension route.
Creating new markets based upon the psychology of the brand has been successful for Virgin, Tesco, Boots and others. Based on its fun, irreverent, value for money ethos, the Virgin umbrella brand branched out from a record label tomusic stores, airlines and more.
Tesco has exploited its brand values as the family brand, moving out from groceries to banking, insurance, telecoms and more.
Boots developed its core offering as a trusted pharmaceutical brand to branch out into cosmetics, dentistry, opticians and more. Building upon the brand values of the newspaper is now becoming the platform for astute investment from newspaper owners.
Pioneering media owners are extending the range of services they offer around the notion of encouraging readers to actually get together with each other.
Since consumers very often feel a strong affinity with a particular newspaper, there is a real sense of “people like us” – a feeling that fellow readers are of a similar ilk.
And as newspaper brands very often have a strong, highly definable identity, this is a real opportunity for media owners to create communities and so strengthen the collective bond between readers and publisher.
Of course, the new services must make sense to the audience; the extension must be logical and preserve the values of the newspaper brand. But, in this case, the common denominator is the brand persona of the newspaper.
Clubs, holidays and dating services are all good examples of how audience communities who relate to this brand persona can be brought together. Take the example of dating services – long a stalwart of the newspaper publishing industry.
Branded dating services have been providing newspapers with additional revenue through premium-rate telephone charges for many years. And more so, perhaps, than any other type of newspaper service, dating services bring together people who share similar values.
Many newspaper publishers have created successful digital versions of their core brands in order to widen their appeal to existing customers and draw in new readers with a fresh demographic.
Online newspapers are enabling a far greater degree of personalisation than would be achievable though the printed product. And ancillary services are now being moved on to the online versions of newspapers in order to encourage audience interaction at every turn.
Our recent research into the extent to which the different newspaper types were bolstering their revenue and extending the brand through reader services indicates that, within a few years, online newspaper services are likely to be as numerous and varied as their printed equivalents.
Recent debate has centred on whether digital versions of national newspapers should be viewed simply as replicas of the printed product.
In my view, to class online and print newspapers as separate entities is a nonsense. They are different aspects of a single, extended, brand.
Some readers will access the printed version on some occasions and the online versions on others. Few readers use a single channel, so understanding the reader, whichever version they are using, is key.
In order to get a rounded understanding of the audience, the services offered under the extended newspaper brand must be fully integrated insofar as they are offered.
The model now seems to centre around creating a virtuous circle of interactions across the printed page, the digital newspaper and the telephone.
Appraisal of reader behaviour
Linking information on consumer interactions across multiple channels leads to a more rounded understanding of the audience, and allows for a better provision of services, based upon a scientific appraisal of reader behaviour and preferences.
But there is a limit to the extent to which a brandmay be stretched. It cannot be forced to be too many things at once.
Any extension must be connected to the core brand values in some way; they must be logical and the common face of the brand maintained in the mind of the customer.
A newspaper espousing values of social responsibility will, for example, avoid any involvement with brands that are known for sweatshop production, or cosmetics brands that persist in animal testing.
Similarly, a newspaper, the brand persona of which is one of urban sophisticate, will steer clear of offering readers the chance to get involved in an angling or trainspotting club.
Despite the theoretical advantages of launching new products and services under an established and respected umbrella brand, research has shown that roughly half of all brand extensions fail.
We hear that successful newspaper brand extension is underpinned by an understanding of the extent to which readers want to get involved with their favourite paper. Certainly, while the primary purpose and use of newspapers is to provide information, they have wide and unparalleled appeal.
Current affairs, finance, home business, travel, home, property, arts, fashion, music, cooking, sport, celebrity gossip; all these diverse aspects of our lives and loves are included in our favourite newspapers.
And they often permeate both our work and our leisure time.
The advantage of newspapers is their very variety.
It is a rare reader that reads all sections of a newspaper, and uses all the ancillary services offered; most will pick and choose. It stands to reason, therefore, that, while the brand can be extended by offering a variety of different services, only partial take-up of each service should be expected across the readership.
Newspapers enjoy the advantage of having a strong brand identity and a crucial presence in the daily life of their users.
The power of an established brand over the consumer is enormous and the science of brand extension is permeating all sorts of industries wanting to strengthen the bond with their customers, generate additional revenue and increase the potency of the brand.
Healthy readership figures are important; retaining amature audience and enriching their involvement with you while also increasing their profitability, even more so.
Identifying with brand values
The universality of the newspaper brand is prompting pioneering publishers to think of brand stretch more in terms of “brand enrichment”, encouraging reader involvement and nurturing communities which identify with the newspaper’s brand values.
Now it is less about selling – more about offering the customer a better, richer experience of the newspaper brand.
Damon Russell is chief executive of Telecom Express
This article was first published on Media Week