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Stretching a brand from print to digital

January 06, 2014
Joe Wikert

Can it really be done? Can you take a brand that’s well established in the print world and move it to digital?

You might think that’s a silly question as it’s already been done many times. I’ll bet you can rattle off quite a few print brands that have made the jump to digital. But have these print-to-digital brands really been successful? Have they truly maximized their reach and revenue potential? Or have they actually diluted the original print brand? Would they have been better off doing something else instead of stretching the original brand from print to digital?

I’d like to look at this from a couple of different perspectives: newspapers/magazines and books.

Newspaper and magazine brands

I’m hard-pressed to name any major newspaper or magazine that doesn’t also have a website. They all have digital editions of their print product as well. Let’s look at a couple of sports brands though to see how they’re performing: Sports Illustrated and ESPN.

Both SI and ESPN have magazines. SI’s brand origins are tied to their magazine while for ESPN, their magazine came long after their brand was established on cable TV. You could argue that this isn’t a fair comparison, that SI and ESPN simply have different corporate strategies. I would counter by saying that how both of these brands were built and extended is at the very core of their corporate strategies.

Take a look at this link, which shows how “ESPN” and “Sports Illustrated” compare in Google Trends performance. Google Trends, btw, simply shows how popular a phrase is in Google Search; the higher the ranking, the more frequently the phrase is searched. As you can see from that link, there’s no comparison.

If that’s an unfair comparison, how about looking at “Sports Illustrated” vs. “Bleacher Report”? If you’re not familiar with Bleacher Report, it’s a sports site that was launched in 2007 and has rapidly gained momentum. Here’s how the digital-first Bleacher Report compares to Sports Illustrated on Google Trends. I believe that chart illustrates a tired print brand trying to compete against a vibrant digital startup.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of “Sports Illustrated”? For me, it’s the word “magazine.” And when I think of a magazine I think of a print product. In this case, I think of a 50+ year-old print brand that’s struggling to find relevance in the digital age.

Book publisher brands

The situation for most book publisher brands isn’t as bleak. I’m not suggesting book publishers have done a better job building and managing their brands. No way. The reason book publishers are in a better position to extend their brands from print to digital is because most of them aren’t household names. Nobody is looking for the next book from publisher xyz. As a result, it’s easier for many book publishers to extend their brand name from print to digital.

Most aren’t bothering with this though. You can tell by how little the typical publisher has invested in creating their own direct-to-consumer (D2C) channel. All of them have websites. Most at least sell print books from their site. Quite a few also sell ebooks. Almost none of them give consumers a reason to buy direct rather than from the big retailers though.

The successful book publishers in the future will be the ones who establish a strong household brand name and build a solid D2C channel. Some of the existing players will make this transition but I believe we’ll see quite a few younger players that are digital-first or digital-only.

The other print-to-digital branding option Let’s go back to the Sports Illustrated situation. SI is part of the Time Warner family and Time Warner might be thrilled with the brand’s performance. The Bleacher Report comparison in the link above should be a wakeup call for them though. It shows just how much the SI brand is tied to a static print era, not today’s dynamic online model.

Here’s another problem quite a few successful print brands like SI struggle with: Their core customer base is in the older demographic, aging every year and, over time, dying. Not a good position from which to build a long-term business strategy, right?

So what should the SI’s of the world do? Or, what should they have done?

Once a brand is defined in a consumer’s mind it’s very hard to change the meaning of that brand. In SI’s case, the brand is so closely tied to a print product that it has limited upside in the digital world. Sure, SI gets a lot more pageviews, uniques and readers than many other sites, but at least one digital-only startup is eating its lunch.

SI should have made the difficult decision years ago to create a digital startup of its own. It could have been a sister company that’s “Powered by SI” but it should have had its own completely separate brand name. It also should have been built separately from the SI organization, not constrained or in any way influenced by how the SI brand was built, how SI’s content is developed, etc.

Going forward

What does this mean for your organization and its brand? Before you answer that question you first have to answer this one: Is your brand closely aligned with the concept of print? If so, regardless of your current strategy you need to honestly assess how far you can stretch that brand into digital. Even if you believe your print-to-digital transition has been successful, take a hard look at your digital-first competitors then ask yourself this last question: If I had the chance to do it all over again, would I recommend we follow the same strategy we did originally or would we have been better off creating a totally new brand?

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