It could be a CEO's branding nightmare. Last year when Star India wanted to exit from Media Content and Communication services (MCCS), its 26:74 joint venture with ABP Ltd, the big question for the Kolkata-headquartered media group was not the capital needed to buy Star out-it was what to do about Star News? Of the three channels, MCCS owned then-Star News (Hindi), Star Ananda (Bangla) and Star Majha (Marathi)-Star News was the most established. At 60-70 per cent of MCCS's topline, estimated to be about Rs 250-Rs 300 crore, it was also the biggest revenue puller for the company. As a popular national brand, it brought a 40 per cent premium on ad rates for MCCS in the Rs 2,000-crore commoditised news television market. So, "If we hadn't pulled this off (the rebranding of Star News), our existence would have come under threat," says Ashok Venkatramani, chief executive, MCCS.
But how do you rebrand a channel that had been called Star for over 13 years? ABP is a big name in West Bengal with brands such as Anandabazar Patrika and The Telegraph, but it doesn't have a national identity. "A name change is the most drastic change in the identity of a brand or a person," says Samit Sinha, founder and managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting. Nevertheless, at the stroke of the hour on June 1, 2012, Aveek Sarkar, chief editor and one of the owners of ABP, pressed a button that changed Star News to ABP News overnight.
In June 2013, one year after that event, it seems like MCCS has pulled it off. In a stagnating market for news television, its share of audience has actually gone up. Though revenues have been flat, in line with the advertising slowdown, MCCS continues to remain one of the few profitable news networks. "It was a situation where we were pushed into a corner and it brought out the best in everyone," says a relieved Venkatramani.
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These two factors in turn minimised the risk during implementation, the key to the whole rebranding exercise, say analysts.
Meeting and parting
Star News was launched in 1998 with content from NDTV. When the contract ended in 2003, Star decided to go on its own. That is when pressure from a group of Indian media owners made the government revise uplinking guidelines to cap foreign equity at 26 per cent, instead of the then 100 per cent in news channels. This pushed Star to sign up with Kolkata-based ABP. The joint venture was christened MCCS. It had a good run till a few years ago when Star India took a strategic decision to get out of most of its joint ventures-ESPN, Hathway and Balaji Telefilms, among others. By late 2011, MCCS knew that Star may leave any time, although no formal notice had been given. So a secret project codenamed "Anamika" was put in action by Venkatramani along with four people from Lowe Lintas, the MCCS agency.
The big decision to make was on the brand: should they go with the existing brand positioning, change it completely, buy or build a new brand or ally with another international brand? As luck would have it, there were none available then, says Venkatramani. "I was against any relaunch. That would have created expectations and we had to keep the expectations simple and to a minimum. So it boiled down to building a new brand versus using the existing brand positioning. We finally decided building a house brand was better. We debated on using Telegraph or Ananda among others, but finally stuck to ABP," says he. That is because research shows that three letter brands work very well in news-CNN, BBC, NBC.
The punchline-that nothing has changed except the name-was true in every sense. The channel continued to do the same shows and use the same people as before. In fact, all new shows were ruled out till the rebranding exercise was through. This, say experts, was the most critical decision. "In a high-involvement product like news, continuity in product attributes is very important," says Sinha. Bijoor agrees. "As much as 80-85 per cent of the brand proposition in a news channel is the anchors, 7-8 per cent is the tone, tenor and decibel level," says he. At ABP News, all of these remained constant.
In March 2012 when Star's notice for pulling out of the joint venture finally came, the secret team was prepared. With some grace, the changeover was scheduled for June 1, 2012. In those 60 days, the three big steps in the logistics of rebranding the entire network were put in place.
Changing the network
Step one was the actual physical change. Everything from mike IDs to OB vans, letterheads, employee and vendor contracts, among a dozen other things was changed. The anchors and reporters had to be trained to use the new name every time they spoke on air. "Every conceivable document, record, had to change. We had a tie up with YouTube for over three years-so the logo had to change in every video uploaded on YouTube with retrospective effect," says Venkatramani.
Step two was communicating that change to viewers, media buyers and advertisers, suppliers/vendors/cable-operators and newsmakers. Venkatramani sent 80,000 personalised letters to the stakeholders. Five of the top anchors on the three channels were picked to communicate the change to viewers. The media duties were given to Mindshare. The goal was to achieve 70 per cent reach in the four-plus group in the six-week campaign. "By the fourth week of the campaign, we had delivered on our objective," says Venkatramani. The tricky part was ensuring that advertisers and cable/DTH operators did not desert the company. While there was no trouble from the latter, some advertisers did leave. But most stayed because of the ABP linkage.
Step three was keeping the team steady. As luck would have it, Star's notice came in March, when appraisals were due. The company identified 100 key people and bound them into three- year loyalty programmes. By April, the increments were operational. This ensured that attrition actually went down during the transition period.
The flaws? Both analysts and competitors wonder why ABP did not do a group rebranding and then migrate that to the news network. As things stand, the national identity of this over 90-year-old company now stems from its youngest business-television-and not from the one that houses its core strengths in content, print. The Telegraph and Anandabazar Patrika have a cult-like following in the eastern part of the country. The inside view is that the top management did not want to go that route. Sinha agrees with the decision. "A company rebranding exercise cannot happen just for one news channel. It has to be part of a larger strategic shift for the company. For example, if it decides to become a large national brand," says he. For now Businessworld magazine and ABP News remain its national face.