Monday, April 22, 2013

Building a Brand from the ground up

As I pass by World Trade Center in New York City early (c. 6 AM) every morning on my way to work, I see several people handing out free newspapers like Metro, AM New York etc. Among these, there was a paper that was quite different - The Epoch Times. I had never heard of this paper before, and I didn't care for it in any way more or less, than for the other papers being handed out for free.

But eventually, over years of traveling that route every morning, I had occasion to sample the contents of these various papers. I found the Epoch Times had surprisingly good content, with real news reporting, with a very good detail in stories about China particularly. In reporting and presentation, it differed markedly from the other free papers, in that the ads weren't too glossy, the paper folded like a real newspaper as opposed to the others that had more of a tabloid feel to them, ... and did I mention, not as many glossy ads? (some might view this as a negative)

While the stories themselves were worth reading, I found the paper quite cumbersome to fold and read like a real newspaper while sitting in the subway train. I wondered if they might be able change their form-factor in a way that made it easy to read like the other free papers, all while keeping their own distinctive reporting style and quality content.

Distribution for this paper was different too. While most other free papers were handed out by people yelling out the names of their respective papers to passers-by, the Epoch Times distributors (the first few anyway), tended to try to engage people walking past them by shouting out rhyming verses. This got people's attention, and led them to give away more papers, and spread the word.

Then they started charging for it - what was free, was first being sold in the same location for 75 cents. There weren't any takers - this wasn't the market for paid newspapers. Besides, who would carry along change or wait for the vendor to make change for a dollar while rushing between the PATH train and the subway to get to work in the morning? Prices went from 75 cents to 50 cents to a quarter. Then Hurricane Sandy struck. No more Epoch Times vendors. I thought sadly the brand died.

... I was mistaken. Just a month or so ago, I see them handing out the papers again. And it is free again too. However, rather than target people picking up the papers as they board the train, they target people getting off the train in stops where lots of people get off. The content has gone a little downhill (China reporting is still good, but has a markedly anti-establishment tone to it, reducing what I valued about it the most - a sense of balance and complete coverage). And there are more ads (which is perhaps what keeps the paper free). Overall, I'd still prefer The Epoch Times to other free papers. I just wish they'd stuck to their original vision for it though.

Key Take-aways:
1. Target the right market segment (not sure they were doing this right, they are doing a somewhat better job now)
2. Difficult to charge for something that was previously free. The NYT website is facing similar issues. And definitely don't expect people to wait for you to make change as they rush for their train.
3. Market your product in an easy to use form - if you're targeting subway readership, make the form-factor easy to use in that context
4. Diluting your brand sometimes works, but seems to me to be a losing proposition in the long-run.

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