What exactly is a brand, especially in a ferociously-competitive space such as the news business? Is it the channel name and logo or the anchors who are its face? Is it the look or the colours the channel wears? The issue is especially pertinent in a space where consumers can switch brand consumption at will - and often do.
Media Content and Communication Services (MCCS), a joint venture between ABP group and Star India, faced these troubling questions last year when the agreement that allowed it to use the STAR name was terminated. All the channels had to drop the powerful STAR prefix.
Ashok Venkatramani, CEO, MCCS, recalls those days and the lessons learnt. Excerpts:
A: A big concern was what would happen to the viewership ratings and, hence, the advertising rates. Our biggest challenge was that we had a generic name. So, if we removed Star from Star News, we were left with only 'News', which didn't connote anything. The problem was a little less in the Bengali and Marathi channels (STAR Ananda and STAR Majha, respectively), as they had a unique suffix.
So, we had to figure out how to transfer the brand equity and credibility of the channel, which was vested in the old name to a new name. For a brand, its brand name and identity are everything. For a news channel, the entire identity, credibility vests in that name and logo. We had to think of the consequences post the transition. What if the consumers didn't recognise us, didn't relate to us? We would then have been no different from a new channel launched a day earlier. We genuinely ran the risk of business disintegration.
Q. Did you have enough time?
A. There is never enough time! You always feel that if you had had more time, you could have done things better. We didn't have time for research. At that point in time, we were worried, nervous, concerned. We took decisions purely by logic, gut and our feel of the brand. Now with the benefit of hindsight and with things going well, we could say we had sufficient time!
There was no fluctuation in viewership as our campaign took a sharp, high burst. We wanted the transition to be quick and not linger on. The fact is that even six months later, the viewership ratings in all three channels are consistently better than even the old ratings.
Q. How much time did you have to prepare for the name change?
A: It took us four months. We came to know about the transition in February, 2012. We then launched a two-month campaign to make people aware of the change. Like classical brand communication, we looked at target audience, reach and frequency and advertised in multiple mediums - television, print, outdoor, radio and digital.
However, we pulled back the television campaign after six weeks. In fact, the campaign achieved the reach frequency objectives within the first three weeks. There was no point in repeating the message over and over again. The reason it worked was that our message was simple.
Q. You could have used the occasion to emphasise 'new, improved'.
A. We wanted to keep the problem simple, the solution simple and not complicate life by talking about something 'new and improved', which may not have seemed that way to the consumers. It would then have appeared that we have failed to deliver on our promise. In any case, we didn't have that much time.
We thought we would continue to be who we were and what we were - with same level of flair and fulfillment. So, the task, though not simple, became manageable. When you continue doing what you do, you live up to your communication and promise.
It was also a genre issue. We are not a lifestyle brand; we are a news brand. Our job is not to sell dreams; our job is to hold up a mirror (to society).
Q. Your learning: what makes up a news channel brand?
A. Credibility. At the end of the day, news is brought by brand and not by programme name. In that sense, news is more classical brand than any other genre. General entertainment and sports channels are bought by programme but that is not the case with news. So to me, channel credibility or brand equity is the same.
The second aspect is people. We were systematic in our communication to four clusters - our employees, media buyers and clients, newsmakers/ sources and our audience.
Third, it was important that we executed the transition with speed and finesse. So, on June 1 we ensured that all employees had the new id, mike id, new logo. We have a tie-up with Youtube, so we changed the logo in footages there as well as the library footage.
Q. Your view on what digitisation will do to the news business.
The carriage fee will be brought down to a manageable level. We are all paying crazy monies right now, which is far more than what we ourselves get from the business.
It will also clear out the pipeline between broadcasters and consumers, which will enable us to command a fee for our content. Hence, we will be able to move our revenue from purely advertising to subscription and advertising. This, in turn, will encourage good quality content. The industry's financial health will improve. Today, the return on investment is pathetic.
The other consequence of digitisation is that the consumer will now get choice. How many news channels are consumers going to watch? There is empirical evidence, which shows that a person on an average views only about six or seven channels in all, while a household watches about 15-20 channels. When this happens, brands will have to face reality.