Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Lesson In Branding

I’m all for changing things up. Renovation. Reinvention. Redress. Redo. Rebrand. Whether it’s an individual or an organization it’s a good thing to do when things aren’t working or when things get stale.

But it can also be a dangerous path. Especially when things are working.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I heard that NY1 News, the 24/7 local newschannel dedicated to serving the five boroughs of New York City is purported to be changing its name after twenty years. I admit to having a soft spot for the channel. I admit to having worked as their Director of Sales for seven years. But I write this as a marketer who believes change is often necessary and can be a very good thing when done right.

According to varying reports the impending change was announced last Thursday as the result of a marketing study revealing that the average NY1 News viewer did not know that if they opted out of their subscription plan with Time Warner Cable they would no longer get to drink their coffee while Pat Kiernan reads In The Papers. The viewer is not aware this is a proprietary channel that can only be seen if you are a Time Warner Cable household. Because they are not making this connection, Time Warner Cable is losing subscribers to alternate cable providers.

So they are planning a rebranding, which will include all seventeen news channels across the country, to something approximating Time Warner Cable News. What exactly?  That's still unclear.

The plan, as reported, is to call it something warm and inviting like Time Warner Cable News.  Because after all, doesn’t everyone just love the cable company? Doesn’t everyone just dance with joy when that big ol’ bill arrives in the mailbox every month? That will stop the erosion of its subscriber base for sure.

Right. The parent company. The brand that does not have a loyal following. The ones that are not well liked. At all. The ones that people are constantly complaining about, be it price or service. That will fix it.

This is where it gets dangerous

Based on what I have read, the rebrand has nothing to do with a problem with the NY1 News brand or product, but rather with the Time Warner Cable brand and with customer retention. It has to do with alternate cable delivery methods and a digital landscape where a younger generation is not even sure they need a cable provider anymore. It has to do with price points. But NY1? Not much wrong with that brand. A little kitschy for sure. It’s part of the charm. But it works.

So what happens next?

The decision is announced and the uproar is loud. That’s what happens today. The rules of marketing have changed.  Do something they don’t like and people have easy access to platforms where they can be heard. They have the power to create PR nightmares.

Consider the #saveNY1 Twitter streams. The outpouring of articles. The angry viewers that Pat Kiernan is trying to calm down, assuring them the content will be the same. The fresh rage from the Time Warner Cable haters. There is even a Save NY1 petition that has surfaced.  Which may sound a little overdramatic. NY1 News is not going away. Really.  But the damage from a PR debacle in today's landscape takes on a life of its own.

Changing things up is always a good thing. But it has to be for the right reasons.

Seth Godin says we are living in a connection economy, “projects that create connections, and those that don’t.”

That means a lot of things. It means the old rules don’t work anymore. Your customer wants to be heard. They want a good product experience. They want to be engaged with, not talked at. They want you to pay attention to their needs. They want a relationship with you. They don’t want to feel used.

When it comes to NY1, they’re doing it all right.

Under the leadership of Steve Paulus (who it is reported to have fought the decision) it has grown to a station with a national reputation that spawned others like it in cities across the country, a dedicated newsroom, a loyal and engaged viewership, a history of breaking stories and a strong connection to the community that solidified in its superior coverage of 9/11.

You don’t fuss with a brand that is working. You hone it. You polish it. You make it shine brighter. You keep its recognizable name.

The brand you work on is the one that doesn’t glitter quite so brightly. You start by understanding the rules of marketing have changed. Today they are about engagement, user experience and customers feeling connected to the product. You start to work on improving that relationship. You don’t start by doing more damage to the shaky one you already have.

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