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Sales declining? It’s time for consistent brand strategy!

December 13, 2010

Declining sales has been a major issue in the publishing industry over the last few years. Whether it’s value migration to online products or ebooks or whether it’s simply declining demand for products, the effect on the bottom line can be nerve-wracking. We have spoken before on A Brand Day Out about the importance of brand strategy is leveraging profits but how can it be made to work?

Brand strategy is of course about developing, maintaining and monetizing an emotional relationship between publisher and reader. This means strong product delivery and positioning, excellent customer service, credible and reassuring brand touchpoints and price matched to value.

Product delivery implies quality authorship and ease of use. Prolix manuscripts badly edited and poorly laid out will create an immediate brand disconnect. Poorly-titled products where expectation is not matched by delivery will have the same effect.

Books, literature, in whatever form, MUST be effective in communicating ideas through text; a failure to communicate will lead to lack of belief and falling sales. So authors need to write well, editors need to make sense of writing and commissioning staff – the curators of the literary ethic – must be pro-active (not reactive) in acquiring new writing talent.

Brand touchpoints are equally critical. Poorly laid-out websites, badly designed products, shoddy typography, inept customer service, lengthy delivery periods are all signs of brand touchpoints which are wrongly applied, leading to unfamiliar product positioning.

For example, I recall a major rebranding by the Halifax Building Society (as it then was) which led to a complete overhaul of branches across the kingdom. Sadly, a new mortgage deal in my local branch was then promoted on A4 sheets straight off the printer and stuck up with Sellotape around the branch.

The point here is that brand is not an act of the marketing department. It is not an “initiative”. It is a fundamental – and consistent – statement of a company’s involvement with its customers: effective product management for commercial success. Publishers too have learned the lesson of “rebranding”, although some have not. One publisher, who shall remain nameless, rebranded itself almost a decade ago. A recent survey (so I am told) showed that it’s old name and logo among its customers had a 95% brand recall. It’s new name and logo a mere 2%. Led by an inflexible upper management team, the company persisted with it’s new logo… Er, right…

You mess with brand and name at your peril. Sure, like Shell, you can change the design subtly but if you’re going for radical solutions then your strategy should at least allow for failure and correction.

And then there’s price, of course. Price is a statement of confidence, of position – and of delivery to the bottom line. A stock response to falling sales is price reduction. This is not a good idea because lower prices mean you have to sell more through elasticity. If elasticity does not occur in the modelled way then the same number of sales will result in lower revenues and profit.

With pricing, customers are happy to link price with quality and perception. If you have a quality brand, customers will expect pricing to match. If you want to offer discounts, better to offer them so that they don’t damage overall brand perception. For example, a “special” Christmas or “seasonal” offer. But many publishers seem trapped in the headlights of pricing – perceiving that low price is the way the market (led by people such as Amazon) is going.

But low price is not the future for publishing. Pricing linked to value, tied together with brand perception and recognised product delivery and customer service to known end-users is the route to success. A blind following of low price and shrinking in the shadow of retailers will cause only one thing: brand weakness. And no-one wins from a position of weakness.

Declining markets call for strong positioning, rigorous product management, value-based pricing and strong brand recall. Companies which hope for the best and fight on with un-rehearsed low-price strategies with and unfocused product range can expect the worst. And further rounds of cost-cutting and brand devaluation to follow.

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