Which tribe do you belong to?

We all know what newspapers are for, but do we know who they are for? For some brands their target market is clear, but many remain ‘tribeless’, says Giles Hedger

HedgerThere has been a lot of speculation about the future of newspapers. For people who enjoy lofty debate, the subject is irresistible. It’s an opportunity to use words like “systemic”, “substitution”, and “digitisation”. An opportunity to ask questions about “monetisation”, and to erect imponderable dilemmas between things such as “search” and “subscription”.

Yet behind the language of decline, the job of marketing is largely unchanged. It’s about selling papers. Or, if you prefer the long-hand, it’s about working out who (in this dizzy pace of change) might want to read your newspaper; whether (in this world of cheap and easy alternatives) they are likely to pay for it; what (in this era of info-commodity) the unique added value is; and how (in this world of competitive clutter) this value can be brought to life creatively.

Newspaper marketing has been distracted from these simple principles by the structural change in the market. It has started to set itself tasks that are not core to the above syllabus: attract younger readers because the old ones are dying out; attract a wider political spectrum because the age of ideology is past; position the newspaper around comment because the age of breaking news is past; shrink the format because the Tube is too crowded. All of these are valid tasks, and all are responses to fundamental change, but none of them is an answer to the essay question: who is this newspaper for?

There can be no more absurd dereliction of marketing duty than a newspaper – propelled as it is by a near psychic relationship with its reader, and likened as it has been to a nation talking to itself – that doesn’t know, or doesn’t make it clear, who it’s for. The task should be easier than it is for many brands. The audiences of the quality press are typically smaller and less disparate than the audiences of, say, Volkswagen, Heinz or HSBC. But I have a far keener sense of who VW is for than I do most newspapers.

The exceptions are obvious. The Guardian knows who it is for, and so do the rest of us. The question is not how to recruit to The Guardian “people” who are not minded to consider it; the question is how to be the best paper available for the people who are. Not only is that a more realistic way to increase circulation, it’s also a better way of aligning editorial values with the values of a newspaper brand. Both can unite around the tribe they serve.

The Independent launched with a declaration of this very alignment. There is something similarly glove-like beginning to develop between the Metro and its Metropolitan reader. The Financial Times is for people who subscribe to the notion that business is the engine of all life. The Week is for people who understand that news is most meaningfully digested outside real time. The examples exist. But they are out-numbered by the newspapers that are, in positioning terms, tribe-less.

The structural change is sexier, perhaps, and makes selling newspapers feel a little pedestrian. Perhaps, too, the stuff of structural change is more career-enhancing. A point of view on the future of the market is unlikely to be ignored; and the issues are so complex, no one is actually expected to solve them. A market in flux makes consultants of us all. Articulating problems becomes a higher order activity than implementing solutions. Especially in the newspaper market, where articulating issues is a core competence.

Newspaper marketing doesn’t need to be re-invented; it needs to be done better. Re-invention is a far more alluring agenda, because simply “doing it better” sounds like hard work – which it is. There have been plenty of so-called “broken” markets, where marketing has prevailed by being better, not by being replaced with a 2.0 version.

The car market, sclerotic with over-supply, and bearing all the fragility of aluminium-thin margins, has ideas powerful enough to command loyalty and premium, even in a world where there are more cars than people to drive them. In the packaged goods markets it looked as if the retailer had all the power. But here too, marketing has stepped up a gear to prove that consumer pull is still alive and well, and something that retailers have to listen to. Financial service is broken too, on paper. The trust has gone, and the products make no rational sense. But marketing has achieved differentiation, not by re-inventing itself, but by trying harder.

Giles Hedger is planning director at Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy

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