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Excerpt: Media Monoliths

In his new book on how to breed a successful brand, this British journalist dissects 20 brands, from MTV to The Economist, and finds they all have seven common keys to survival.

- October 15, 2004

HAVE A VISION

It's incredible how few of the media monoliths grew out of a team effort. When you probe into the history of the world's greatest media brands, you realize that, more often than not, a single individual created them, as well as putting in place the values that still drive them today. James Gordon Bennett Jr, Condé Nast, Paul Julius Reuter, Adolph Ochs, Ted Turner, Mike Bloomberg—all fascinating personalities who had the spark of an idea and took it through to its logical conclusion, paying little heed to their critics.

The growth of the media monoliths has not been steady—on a chart plotting their progress, there would be a helter-skelter of peaks and troughs. But the secret is not to give up, to fight tooth and nail to stay in the game. Do deals, make sacrifices, and play dirty if you have to. And remember that some of the best ideas spring from necessity—I particularly appreciate the fact that the Financial Times was printed on pink paper not just because it would stand out, but also because it was cheaper.

PICK A TARGET

Few great media brands are aimed at everyone. The gentlemen above had very specific targets in mind. Vogue's Condé Nast and the IHT's Gordon Bennett targeted the new elite—the "jet set" of their day—that had been created by turn-of-the century industrialization. Today their products continue to serve well-heeled globetrotters, whether interested in international news or in high fashion.

Paul Julius Reuter and Mike Bloomberg targeted those who worked in the financial markets. The creators of the French newspaper Libération aimed their product at the emerging generation of post-1968 rebels. Ted Turner was a well-traveled news fiend looking for an international perspective, and he correctly assumed there were others like him. MTV was created for a tribe of music fans that knew no geographic or linguistic boundaries.

A magazine like Paris Match, with its wide demographic appeal, may be the exception that proves the rule. Remember Olivier Royant, the publication's deputy editor? He said: "If you launched Paris Match tomorrow, you might not be able to get it off the ground." But even Royant accepts that Paris Match is at the end of the day a French newsmagazine, and thus has a self-defining market.

CREATE A CLUB

Once you've identified your audience, it's essential to make them feel part of your project. This strategy is perhaps best illustrated by two utterly different but enormously successful media brands: MTV and The Economist. MTV became compulsive viewing largely because its audience felt as if they owned it. They had the impression that it had been created by people who understood them—were, in fact, very much like them. "I want my MTV," ran the channel's first advertising slogan—a jewel of inclusive marketing.

The Economist's famous poster campaign plays a similar trick. Witty, intellectual, a bit elitist—those who get the joke feel as if they are in on something, as if this has been written with them in mind. For me, the execution that sums it up is this one: "A poster should contain no more than eight words, which is the maximum the average reader can take in at a single glace. This, however, is a poster for Economist readers."

These are just two examples, of course, but there are plenty of others dotted throughout the book. Almost every newspaper and magazine editor I interviewed felt that readers did not buy their products as mere sources of information, but as lifestyle statements.

GO WIDE—YET NARROW

"Aggressive, creative, relentless distribution." Bill Roedy, the president of MTV Networks International, said that this was the company's key marketing strategy. It is practically impossible to become a true media monolith without some kind of international status, even if that means getting your paper or magazine on selected newsstands around the world. It's far better, though, to have print sites in every corner of the globe. Better still to have regional foreign-language editions. (If you can't afford that, try thinking asymmetrically, like the International Herald Tribune and its strategy of placing branded supplements inside prestigious domestic newspapers.) For broadcast media, it means getting your brand on to as many screens as possible—not just in homes, but in hotel rooms, bars, airports, planes, buses, taxis….

As well as going wide, you have to go narrow. The world is not as homogenized as the anti-globalization paranoiacs think. The other strand of MTV's marketing strategy is localization. At the time of writing it has 42 different channels. These are tailored not only to reflect cultural and linguistic differences, but increasingly, variations in musical taste. The wonders of digital technology are allowing MTV to create channels for those who like rock, rap, techno, and so on.

But remember—although you can adjust the content, it is essential that you maintain the brand's values. MTV means "irreverent," Vogue means "elegant," the FT means "business." Lose sight of your core message and you could lose control of your brand. Mark Wright, the creative director of CNN International, told me: "The number one component for successful branding is consistency."

BE FLEXIBLE—AND BE QUICK ABOUT IT

When I was reading Mike Bloomberg's biography, Bloomberg by Bloomberg, it became apparent that his company had an important edge on its competitors. Bloomberg realized quicker than most that a brand limited to a single medium was at a disadvantage in a world where audiences synthesized information from a rapidly widening pool of sources. He sensed that, once you had a brand people trusted, you could put it on as many media platforms as you like —print, TV, radio, the Web, mobile phones—and still attract eyeballs.

But Bloomberg was not alone. One of the oldest brands in this book—The Wall Street Journal, founded in 1889—was also one of the quickest off the mark, charging a subscription fee for WSJ.com almost as soon as it had the site up on the Web. The others were slower to catch on. All of them are now desperate to become cross-media brands, having launched various TV, Web, and mobile phone offerings. But sometimes their efforts have an unseemly haste about them, as if they are running for an accelerating bus.

BUT MAINTAIN QUALITY

It's a long time since I've read any Marshall McLuhan—but if the medium was ever the message, it doesn't seem to me to be the case any longer. Consumers feel comfortable accessing their preferred brands via a wide variety of media, as long as the quality is consistent. It's no use having a cultivated newspaper and a primitive website, for instance, or a sumptuous magazine that lends its name to a trashy TV show.

It brings us back to trust, which nearly every single one of my interviewees mentioned, and which I touched on in the Introduction. When you move across media platforms, make sure you're not tempted to cut corners and undermine your reputation. To deliver consistently high quality is to protect your brand. The message, in other words, is the message.

Quality also plays a crucial role in marketing strategies. For example, although branded accessories are an acceptable way of raising awareness and generating revenue, not many media monoliths—with the notable exceptions of Playboy, National Geographic and (despite its denials) Vogue are keen on the "bags-and-t-shirts" style of promotion. Books and CDs seem to be about as far as they are willing to go.

Even classical marketing techniques are given short shrift. The Economist has built a superlative brand through an equally inspired advertising campaign, but I was surprised by how many media companies told me: "Our product is our best marketing tool." Everyone from CNN to Vogue said they preferred to spend their money on content and distribution rather than advertising. Those that could get away with running branding initiatives as cheaply as possible did so: think of BBC World and its barter deals with other channels, or CNN and Time magazine using cheap (perhaps even free?) advertising space at other media brands in the Time Warner group.

It's worth noting that the smallest brands are often the most inventive when it comes to marketing. I particularly admired the daily radio and TV "news bulletins" run by El País—which combined creativity, as the exact opposite of the Internet—presenting the newspaper as a luxurious, time-consuming product in which one wallows like a hot bath—was inspired.

FINALLY, STAY RELEVANT

A heritage is a wonderful thing—but it doesn't make you invulnerable. There are plenty of historic brands that have been reduces to mere shadows of their former selves by various economic and strategic mishaps—I'm thinking of Life magazine in the United States, and the satirical publication Punch in the U.K. The older media monoliths I visited were almost as paranoid about relevance as they were trust, and rightly so.

The recession has alerted big media to the danger of complacency. Reuters is currently going through a painful modernization process, and over the past few years both The Times and the Financial Times have revamped to pull in younger readers. The IHT—possibly the most fragile of all the media brands I've covered—may have acted just in time with its 2004 relaunch.

Yet the events of the past few years, from the Twin Towers to Iraq and beyond, have proved that veteran brands have a certain advantage. Both Time magazine and The Times told me that their readership figures soared after September 11, 2001, and have yet to sink back to their previous levels. CNN—always a safe bet in a war—undoubtedly benefited from events in Iraq. In times of uncertainty, people embrace the familiar. The trick is to make sure you deliver what these returning audiences expect, but in a fresh and surprising way. Then they'll stick around for more when the smoke clears.

This is excerpted from Media Monoliths, by Mark Tungate. Copyright © 2004 by Mark Tungate and published by Kogan Page Limited, London. Excerpted with the permission of the author and publisher. You can buy this book here. To hear Mark Tungate's thoughts on whether living abroad can help a journalism career, check out our Bulletin Boards.



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