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Publisher brands – stay focused or respond to incoming fire?

March 1, 2011
Vulcan Crash

Problems of tailspin - instant reaction at the expense of strategic thinking can cause brand calamity

There was an interesting debate at one of my publishing clients this week and one which I have seen before: competitor activity causing potential tailspin.

In publishing, of course, it’s hard to stay focused on direction when the world around is so chaotic but responding to a tactical act by a competitor merely creates more of the same. So what do you do when a competitor suddenly starts edging in on your territory?

First. let’s be clear of the threat. In publishing, it can sometimes be the case that random conversations on trains between senior management and unspecified customers create unsubstantiated beliefs which, due to the seniority of the persons concerned, become fundamental truths. Similarly, ill-advised statements from sales people about the need to lower prices or even the lemming-like obsession with advertising on the Underground – all can lead to chaotic switches of brand strategy. All driven by the need to respond – but respond to what, exactly?

This is the worst kind of threat: one that doesn’t exist but which cannot be refuted for fear of dismisal or of appearing to look like a chump against the altar of group think. It also causes chaos, tying up staff in many hours of wasted time until the next chance encounter causes the next change of tack.

Instead, a brand threat must be one which is not randomly tactical but one which fundamentally affects the company’s actual brand strategy. A brand threat is not about some similarly-named book appearing to challenge some product in your own portfolio. A brand threat is not about a competitor changing their corporate colours from red to blue.

A brand threat is an encroachment on your emotional relationship with your own customers. A brand threat is where the robust elements of your brand are now being threatened: service; quality; outcomes; deliverables. The things that attract and retain your customers. A true brand threat, therefore, is menacingly strategic.

If strategic brand assets are challenged, that’s when you have a major problem on your hands – and one that should, and must, be taken seriously. Think of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Think of Borders. Think of Books Etc. Think of all the many “illustrious” publishing houses which are now some small part of a giant conglomerate, stripped of their great and illustrious former leaders who had “real publishing nous”.

A brand strategy is about credibility and consistency. Your customers come to expect certain things of you, done in a certain way. By showing consistent behaviour, customer credibility and loyalty increase. Trust agents, the new brand advocates of the social media age, are the outcome of a consistent brand strategy. After all, word of mouth does no one any good if the person you are so impressed with suddenly changes their spots.

But equally, you can go the other way: enter into some delusional brand strategy to apply untested brand connotations to other areas of your portfolio which may not have the wit or substance to carry them. In today’s Brand Strategy Insider, Derrick Daye and Brad VanAuken state: “One of the big indicators of brand health is resonance. If you stretch your brand’s meaning too far with exaggerated licensing deals and brand extensions, well –you’re hastening its demise. Before you start making big shifts by adding more stuff to what your brand encompasses, be confident it aligns to the organizing principles of your brand strategy.  Don’t muddy your long-term brand equity by losing your resonance with the tribe that got you there to begin with“.

So we can now see that brand strategy is actually a long term game. Within the strategy there will brand stakeholders: commissioning editors; sales people; marketers; designers; senior management. Brand strategy is not owned by one, it is owned by all. And at the centre of this is a statement of core brand beliefs which are logical and intelligible to all. Inside the company and without.

As brand adviser Peter Jones states: “a brand is essentially a promise. The bigger the promise, the more important it is to keep it. People – and “consumers” are people – judge you on what you do, not what you say. They want you to display emotional intelligence and empathy. They expect you to deliver.”

Of course, the main reason that many publishers respond so chaotically to an attack on their brand is this: they don’t have a brand strategy. They don’t have a brand strategy management model. Instead they have inherent beliefs and the force of personalities. They are run by received wisdom and group think.

This is why many publishers respond so chaotically when a chance meeting on a train leads to the “next big thing”.

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