This campaign on its own won’t sell a single extra paper,” says News Group Newspapers marketing director Ellis Watson, almost proudly, of a branding push for The Sun which aired last Sunday (MW February 26). “It’s everything that The Sun does to sell extra papers which will be that much more efficient as a result of this campaign.”
It is a startling admission. It is such a departure for The Sun, both in the style of the advertising, and in accepting it will not in itself put on sales, that it has been the subject of hard bargaining at Wapping.
The response of its arch rival The Mirror, when it read about the detail of the campaign in Marketing Week, was to start serialisation of an interview with Trevor Rees-Jones, Princess Diana’s former bodyguard. And, according to sources, to increase its weekend media spend. The Sun responded on Monday with its own Rees-Jones “exclusive”.
But it is Watson’s “everything” which is of most interest to The Sun’s rivals. Although Watson talks of not going down the “Virgin route” it is clear that the newspaper is investigating a series of brand extensions that may stretch from holidays, where it already operates, to possibly radio and TV.
The reason seems obvious – 12 months ago its monthly average ABC figure stood at 4,046,067. A series of minor fluctuations has resulted in a steady decline to 3,740,268 in January of this year. And Newspaper Readership Survey figures suggest both The Sun and The Mirror have lost female readers in the past two years. But The Sun remains way ahead of The Mirror, which for January had an average monthly ABC of 2,315,790.
Ironically, The Sun’s estimated 1.5m brand push was over shadowed by its wholly tactical weekend promotion with RyanAir, offering discounted travel to Ireland and Scotland. The promotion also offered the chance to buy The Sun’s sister paper, The News of the World, for 10p on Sunday.
The branding campaign, created by TBWA Simons Palmer which has worked with the paper since 1994, employs the “Dedicated to the People of Britain” strapline which first began discreetly appearing on the paper’s masthead on February 13. It is understood that the line will also be used in future tactical campaigns which will be maintained.
The core of the idea is to position the newspaper as one of the things which define British society. The subtle black and white cameos showing shots ranging from a hospital waiting room to a tattooist underline that position – it’s always there even if its readership has fallen. But the tone is soft, not the shouting which has become its trademark.
Watson admits that since the summer, sales “have started to go down marginally”, but adds: “It is unsurprising that when our price returns to normal we are bound to lose a tiny amount of the frequency that we got as a result of dropping our price in the first place.”
The Sun cut its price five years ago to 20p, and since then, says
Watson, its lead on The Mirror has risen from 600,000 to more than 1.3 million.
Observers believe it is the most recent hike in The Sun’s cover price, to 28p, which has prompted the branding campaign. Paul Mukherjee, press and radio buying director for WPP-owned Mindshare, says: “It has put the price up, so now it has to give people a brand-driven reason why they should buy it.”
The initiative is designed not only to reinforce The Sun’s market share – built during the price-cutting years – but also to close the gap which Watson and others believe has developed between the perception and reality of its target market. “Those that find it outrageous might, when they read it, realise it’s just very, very hard hitting,” says Watson. “It’s about degrees and balances.”
But, as far as extending its quintessential Britishness, Watson is not prepared to rush. “We have a gradual and sustained roll-out of activity that does reflect well on our core business, which is printing newspapers,” he says. “Anyone who looks upon brand extension as a means of making money before they decide what it does in terms of promotion of the brand is a very, very short-term marketer.”
Mukherjee warns: “It has already looked at holidays. It would seem sensible to try tie-ups with sports. What it can’t do is go into brand extensions which compete with consumer advertisers, unless it does an extension in conjunction with them.”
It is a veiled reference to those advertisers in the financial services sector which forced The Telegraph to abandon its plans to expand into insurance by threatening to pull their advertising (MW February 16 1996).
Rodney Mylius, creative director at branding specialist Interbrand Newell & Sorrell, thinks The Sun can only benefit from a branding campaign. He believes brand extensions, coming from a UK satellite channel or radio station with The Sun branding would be “sensational”.
With BSkyB as a sister, The Sun would have to be careful about treading on toes, but in a multi-channel digital age perhaps the brand could stretch to a channel which encompassed The Sun’s sporting and celebrity obsessions.
Other media buyers are less optimistic. Simon Timlett, head of press at media buyer Optimedia, thinks it will see only short-term benefit in a branding campaign because of the newspaper drift into the middle ground, dominated by the Daily Mail.
“Look at the success of the Mail. While the struggling Independent is looking to move downmarket,
The Mirror and The Sun try to move up, because that’s where the money is,” says Timlett. But that move upmarket is consistent with the brand campaign.
John Williamson, a partner at Wolff Olins, believes The Sun has lost its way as a brand which explains the campaign. “It must be looking at the brand now to work out its relevance, or at least it should be.”
There have also been editorial changes. SportsWeek, a regular sports supplement, was launched on Saturday and supported by ads on Sky Sport starring Damon Hill. The appointment of Rebeka Wade as deputy editor earlier this year is seen by many as heralding further change.
According to Watson: “This is anything but a relaunch, this is a reaffirmation of what is great about The Sun.” But the paper has appeared out of step for some time. Gone are the jingoistic days of the Eighties. News International has realised that The Sun is a strong brand and it wants to exploit it. It has to make itself relevant again.