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Battleground Kerala: What difference can TOI make?

The Times of India is all poised to enter the English newspaper market in Kerala.

The Times of India (TOI) has decided to enter the state of Kerala, and like always, TOI's much anticipated entry has sent off ripples of excitement across the state's print market as it prepares to welcome India's premier English daily this year.

Initial reports indicate that the TOI could get a smooth entry into the state. The gap between the number of potential readers and the number of English newspapers is very wide in Kerala. As per IRS 2010, the total number of copies for all English dailies put together is only 3 lakh in the state, even though there are 60 lakh people who can read English. The figures reinforce the fact that there is definitely space for an English daily in the market.

S Muthukumar, senior vice-president, Lintas Media Group says, "The TOI is expected to trigger off a greater reading orientation of English newspapers, as they have done in Delhi, Bengaluru, and Chennai. Besides, the state has a high literacy rate and an affluent readership which is waiting to emerge in the new era."

One of the reasons why English newspapers fall behind in the state is perhaps due to the fact that like West Bengal, it is the regional newspapers that rule the print market. The state claims a total circulation of 29 lakh copies for the Malayalam dailies.

The other reason for the regional dailies doing good business is their existing advertisement rates. For instance, Malayala Manorama (all editions) claims a rate Rs 2,200 per sq cm for coloured pages, and Mathrubhumi claims Rs 1,610 per sq cm, while The Hindu, the most-read English daily in the state, commands only Rs 480 per sq cm.

As a senior media observer comments, "Kerala doesn't have the kind of retail advertisers to support the English print market in the state and all the dailies are largely dependent on national advertising."

The TOI, with its aggressive marketing tactics is expected to bring about a positive change in the existing market, which should be beneficial to other players in the same category, as well. It is also expected to expand the size of retail advertising in the state for the English dailies through its supplements and localised products.

There is another point of view according to which the slow growth rate of English print in the state is due to lack of product differentiation. Says Muthukumar, "All players who have entered Kerala with an English daily are from the Southern region, which has resulted in absolutely no product differentiation."

In addition, most English newspapers in the state are considered to be more Tamil in content and flavour, than Malayalam. A senior media practitioner says, "For instance, take the case of Sun TV, a Tamil television channel. It may be popular in Kerala, but is not the lead channel. This implies that the consumers in the state are willing to compromise in the absence of good content, but will not do so when options are available."

The situation is considered to be favourable for the Times Group, though. The TOI's cosmopolitan image could be a big factor in differentiating the new product, and if it gets the product right, it stands a greater chance of success.

However, there is also a word of caution for the TOI. A section of the industry is of the view that the new entrant should aim at being the second newspaper in the household, rather than trying to increase the readership base or replace the other language or English dailies as the one-and-only newspaper.

"Its strategy should revolve around attracting the younger readership of the households, as well as immigrants in Kerala," asserts Narendra Kumar Alambara, general manager and head, Starcom Worldwide, Chennai.

The TOI plans to launch four editions in the state, which includes the Malabar, Kochi, Travancore and Kottayam editions.

According to experts, in all likelihood, TOI will focus most on Kochi, a fast emerging IT hub of the state. "The IT industry will bring in lots of readers from other parts of the country who are used to reading the TOI. The new entrant will surely cater to that population," says Alambara.

According to Chetan Ahuja, general manager Mumbai, TME, the TOI would work better in Kerala than it did in Chennai. The lessons learnt from its experience in Chennai could prove to be crucial in planning its strategy for the Kerala market.

However, industry observers also believe that for the TOI, its biggest challenge will be not be from The Hindu, The New Indian Express or even the regional print, but from the fast developing television business of the state. Television has grown tremendously in the state during the recent past. The radio's popularity is growing at a fast pace, too, and retailers have more cost-effective opportunities with the radio, than with newspapers. "The TOI will have to compete with the different mediums that have sprung up in recent times," says a media expert.

Half-a-dozen news channels are about to be launched in the state. These include channels from Kerala Kaumudi, Madhyamam, Mangalam, and Janapriya Communications. Apart from these, Asianet News, Reporter, Indiavision, People (Kairali), and Manorama News are already there.

Follow Sumantha Rathore

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