Killing the News of the World brand was long over-due
Yesterday's killing of the News of the World (NOTW) newspaper by News Corp's CEO, James Murdoch holds some interesting branding lessons.
Part 1: Quick re-cap, esp. for non-UK readers – feel free to skip if you know the background
Britain's biggest newspaper
NOTW is Britain's biggest newspaper, with 2.5 mil readers every Sunday. Its other name is "The News of the Screws", as it is famous for celebrity sleaze and gossip. But as it is so big, it actually has more "ABC1" (upper/middle socio-economic) readers than other more upmarket titles like The Sunday Times. So, it attracts a lot of big-name advertisers.
Five years of brand damage
The killing of the brand was prompted by the latest and most repulsive revelation about phone hacking by the TNOW: listening to mobile phone messages of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler after she disappeared in 2002, and even deleting some of her messages. Amazingly, the scandal has been going on for 5 years and the revelations could (and will) fill a whole book. But here's a brief summary of the Wikipedia page:
2006: the paper's royal editor and a private investigator are investigated and then jailed for intercepting voicemail messages of the Royal Family during 2005
2007: The editor of the NOWT (from 2003-2007), Andy Coulson, leaves to become Conservative Party Communications Director
2009: the Guardian newspaper alleges that the NOTW phone tapping was much widespread and involved numerous celebrities and that Coulson was in the know. The NOTW deny the claims and the Police refuse to reopen inquiries as "no additional evidence has come to light". The Guardian also reports that the NOTW had paid £1 million+ to three people subject to phone-hacking
2010 : The New York Times reveals more details about the phone hacking and about Coulson's alleged knowledge of it. In a separate court case, Coulson again denies any knowledge of phone hacking.
Jan 2011: Coulson resigns. Soon after Metropolitan Police announce a new investigation into the phone hacking affair.
April: New arrests, inc. the NOTW's chief reporter and a senior executive. News International finally announces it will admit liability in some of the 24 legal actions against the NOTW
4 July: The Guardian alleges that NOTW journalists hired private investigators to hack into schoolgirl Milly Dowler's voicemail inbox after she disappeared in 2002. Two days later new reports said that phones of dead British soldiers' relatives may have been intercepted by the NOTW.
Advertisers start to pull their advertising out of the coming weekend's edition.
7 July: New International announce the closure of the NOTW after 168 years in print. The last edition on Sunday 10th July will run with no ads.
8 July: Andy Coulson is arrested
Part 2: Branding Lessons
1. Brands are incredibly resilient
What amazes me most in this sordid story is how the NOTW brand survived and even thrived during five years of allegations. Advertisers kept buying media space. And punters kept buying the paper. Only when the phone hacking allegations went beyond celebrities to include victims of war and crime did advertisers pull their advertising.
2. How not to lead a business
Bold action to sort out the NOTW mess was long over-due from The CEO of NOTW publisher News International, Rebekah Wade, and CEO parent company NewsCorp, James Murdoch. This pair have shown how not to lead a business, by watching the NOTW brand become more and more toxic and failing to act. They are both still in a job whilst the 200 employees of NOTW are getting fired. And this despite the following admissions by Murdoch:
– "The NOTW and News International wrongly maintained that the issues were confined to one reporter"
– "The paper made statements to Parliament without being in the full possession of the facts. This was wrong."
– "The Company paid out-of-court settlements approved by me. I now know that I did not have a complete picture when I did so. This was wrong"
3. Potential for a stronger brand portfolio
The closure of the NOTW leaves the door open to a stronger brand portfolio through the launch of "The Sunday Sun". News International's The Sun is the biggest daily paper in the UK and has a similar mix of gossip, sport, sex and scandal. News International registered The Sun on Sunday web domain names ealier this week, before the closure of the NOTW was announced.
There is no reason the Sun can't stretch to be a Sunday title as well. This is a common branding strategy with News International's The Times/The Sunday Times and the Daily/Sunday Telegraph. This means a focus on one media brand, The Sun, and a way to escape the toxic NOTW associations.
Phew. What a story!