What can we glean of importance from the rather juicy leak of News Limited’s nascent rebranding exercise?

Leaving aside all the marketing gobbledygook, the significant things come under four headings:

  • What it tells us about the quality of strategic thinking within the group
  • The organisation’s plans to introduce paid content, and their likely impact on the future of the news business
  • The telling insight the document gives us into News Australia’s corporate self image
  • The organisation’s assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of its competitors.

The core of the strategy is to emphasise the News Limited (News Australia) brand, and make it more visible, rather than relying only on the very many mastheads and brands, from Foxtel to The Australian, to SuperFooty, True Local, Vogue, GQ magazine and dozens more, under which the company’s products are presently known.

Underlying this is an attempt to improve the image among advertisers and media buyers whom, the document acknowledges, are presently likely to view the company as arrogant and slow off the mark in developing integrated multimedia solutions for advertisers.

Although there is no explicit mention of this in the document, it would be foolish to ignore the context within which the company is embarking on its major rebranding exercise.

Is this really the time, when News Corporation’s name is mud in Britain, and to a lesser extent the US, to emphasise the corporate parent rather than the mastheads and brands?

There is a telling question mark in the document when it talks about the need to “Understand US & UK NewsCorp positioning [?]”. Perhaps one could read in that message that little old Australian News Limited might be less than fully briefed on international News Corporation plans and reactions to present crises. Or that the international response is itself in some disarray.

And is it the time to be emphasising the fact that News Australia owns so much? Is now the moment to do that, when concentration of media ownership, and the Murdoch organisation’s dominance in particular, are the subject of political controversy and media inquiries? Is this really the time for News to be talking about “unleash(ing) the power of its combined platform strength”?

The document reveals that the justification for the rebranding includes the plans to introduce paid content — which we learn for the first time will be in November 2011 (a bit later than the “by October”  plans the company announced earlier in June.)

The plan will be to “launch a single subscriber system across all mastheads”, meaning that for the first time, readers will be relating, not only to the masthead of their choice, but to News Australia.

And at the same time, the company wants to talk up its current activities in corporate responsibility. The document acknowledges that things such as the Reconciliation Action Plan and the carbon neutral status are presently not widely known about or recognised.

(There is no comment on the fact  that the company mastheads’ rather confused and bolshie approach to climate change science might be an inhibitor to promoting its “carbon neutral status”.)

And what about the paid content plans? As Crikey reported last week the delay in introducing paywalls is no surprise. And it is still unclear as to when people will actually be asked to pay, as opposed to giving their details to a subscription data base.

But in the bowels of the document, we find some causes for concern. iPad application sales for its newspaper brands are acknowledged as a “threat” to the business in that they are “lower than predicted”. My information is that the true picture is “much lower than predicted”. Surely that must be giving the internal thinkers some cause for concern over what will happen once the websites move to a partially paid model?

So to the corporation’s self image. The document reports on research, namely interviews with 11 key executives including  the CEO John Hartigan, and comes up with an internal narrative in which News Australia is a pre-eminent story teller.

Here is a statement of the company’s self belief:

“We have a heritage of great story telling. Our value lies in our ability to deliver relevant, compelling stories to Australians, regardless of channel or format. We reflect and fight for the values of middle Australia…as a result, we can deliver this audience to our advertisers. News is a company of story-tellers. It’s what drives us every day. For decades, we have been telling stories that inform, entertain, challenge and intrigue people — stories that reflect the values of our communities. Our mission is to provide Australians with timely, relevant news and information to help enrich their lives. We help people make sense of the world around them…connecting them with everything that’s interesting and entertaining.We develop content that excites people…that provokes and sometimes infuriates. But we put things on the agenda by engaging people with stories. That’s how News began, and it’s still at the heart of what we do today.”

And that’s the brief for the advertising agencies pitching for the rebranding exercise work.

But there are also acknowledgements of troubles internally. So far as selling the ideas to consumers — an exercise scheduled to begin with a “cultural values rollout” in April next year (don’t say you weren’t warned) — key issues are identified as including “accountability, standing up for consumers, accuracy, owning up to mistakes, environmental/sustainability issues”.

Hmmm, as they might say on Frontline.

There is one mention of “ownership” as a possible issue of concern to consumers, and a plan to “add questions to Newspoll omnibus”.

Hmmm again.

And so far as the company’s internal message is concerned, the document reveals that “…research revealed some misalignment with espoused and enacted values. It also suggested that any existing value statements were often disconnected from the company or brands and were not well communicated”.

Another point of interest is the company’s assessment of the “volume” of its message. That is, to what extent did different groups understand “what News Australia stands for”. The graphic in the document suggests that the understanding among advertisers is high, employees and government “medium” and consumers and suppliers “low”.

It would be interesting to know whether Communications Minister Stephen Conroy would rate his own understanding as “medium”. Medium rare, perhaps.

Lastly, there is the assessment of  competitors’ strengths and weaknesses. The document contains a SWOT analysis on channels Seven and Nine, and of course Fairfax Media. Most of it is predictable enough — the strengths of national reach and cross-media platforms. The perception of newspapers as old hat and digital media as the new strength.

And of course for Fairfax, key identified weaknesses include “issues between print and digital teams” (shout-out to Jack Matthews there) and “management turnover and instability in executive team”.

Well, tell us something we didn’t know.

And meanwhile, brace for the “cultural values rollout”.

Goodness, gracious me.

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Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey