Mark Ritson: The Sun on Sunday’s launch has been fumbled

It was vintage Rupert Murdoch. In the depths of the biggest crisis ever to hit his publishing empire, he took the opportunity to announce one of the most audacious gambles of his career. The Sun on Sunday will launch this weekend.

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Few would disagree with the marketing logic behind the move. The Sundays are one of the few areas of print media not to suffer eye-watering declines in circulation in recent years. There is also the potential of The Sun brand itself which, with more than 7 million daily readers, clearly has a lot of potential to extend into the Sunday news category too. And finally, there is the opportunity created by the sudden demise of the News of the World, which left 2.5 million newspaper buyers without their weekly fix of news, scandal and sport when it closed last year. A significant proportion of that readership has switched to other tabloid Sunday papers – but there is clearly an opportunity to win most of that lost market back with the launch of the Sun on Sunday.

While the marketing logic behind the launch may be strong, the manner of its brand execution already appears significantly flawed. For starters, there is the presence of Murdoch himself.

The great man personally announced the new paper’s imminent arrival last Friday and he has promised to stay in Wapping for the coming weeks to oversee its first fledgling issues.

At first glance, it might make perfect sense for the head of News International to be so involved. A smarter approach to brand management, however, would have recognised that Murdoch and the parent company are damaged goods in the reputational sense. Their direct involvement in the News of the World saga and the subsequent press hearings that followed mean the last thing the Sun on Sunday needs is the official imprimatur from its spiritual leader.

When brands are born they are, just like human babies, incredibly sensitive to infection. And yet here was a man, in many people’s eyes tainted by the phone-hacking scandal, arriving at Wapping on Friday to announce that the members of the Sun’s editorial team who had been arrested earlier in February were now welcome to return to work while on police bail. Only then did he proceed to announce the new Sun on Sunday. Not an auspicious start for any brand.

From a brand management point of view the smart leadership play would have been to stay quiet, stay in the US and stay as far away as possible from the Sun on Sunday.

Either the Wapping marketing team are afraid to ask their ultimate leader to stay in the shadows or they are not up to speed on brand management

Curiously, until the News of the World crisis, parent company News International had operated a relatively well-run brand architecture: a house of brands in which very few consumers realised that The Sun, The Times and the News of the World were all sister brands. But after the 2011 crisis, the actions of Murdoch and his management team have perceptually reconnected all the brands to each other at the very moment when, ideally, each brand would have emphasised their independence from the others as much as possible.

Either the marketing team at Wapping are afraid to ask their ultimate leader to stay in the shadows or they are not up to speed when it comes to brand management. One of the great magic tricks of branding is to construct a brand architecture that helps an organisation deliver on its goals. All too often, structure can be just as important as strategy when it comes to branding. In the case of a house of brands strategy, you combine back-of-house synergies (like printing presses and office facilities) with front-of-house independence. That’s especially important when one of your brands gets into reputational trouble. And yet here is the Sun on Sunday already tarnished by association before it has even printed a word.

It’s hugely ironic that during the same week that Murdoch was illustrating the perils of brand architecture, Apple was demonstrating its advantages. Chief executive Tim Cook took the stand last week at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference in San Francisco to emphasise the ‘halo effect’ of the iPad on Apple’s other products.

Apple, of course, has a very different brand architecture from News International. Its endorsement approach explicitly associates each of its sub-brands with the Apple parent brand. And that, according to Cook, will be instrumental in Apple’s success in the years ahead. The iPhone’s growing success in new markets like China and Brazil not only increases the company’s handset profits, it also acts as a catalyst for Apple’s other products too. Cook pointed to Macintosh sales in China last year, up 100% compared to the category’s growth of just 10%, as evidence of the iPhone’s halo effect on its sister brands in new markets.

The central lesson of brand architecture is that it is often as important as any of the strategy choices made by the brands within the portfolio. Get it wrong, as in the case of News International, and you place a large and unnecessary handicap around a high potential brand. Get it right, like Apple, and the synergies can be, well, angelic.

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