Brand Winners... And Losers: Kindle and The Rocky Mountain News

Brand Winners…

   And Losers

The Marketing Doctor says:

Winner: Amazon and Kindle

Loser: The Rocky Mountain News (and Newspapers)

Folks, you don’t get symmetry (and irony) like this too often in my world: A brand winner that offers a taste of the real marketing answer to the problem that doomed this week’s brand loser. 

Yes, I’m talking about the rise of the Amazon Kindle and the fall of traditional big-city print newspapers:

The Winner:

Amazon and Kindle. 

There’s not much positive product launch news in our dismal economy, and that’s why the buzz, order backlogs and initial customer satisfaction with the Kindle make Amazon and their e-reader the winner this week.

When Amazon first launched the Kindle, a lot of people scoffed and said things like: “Nobody’s ever going to read like that.  You’re not going to replace paper.”

I will never forget the moment when I was teaching at St. John’s and a student confidently informed me and the entire class that the CD would never replace the vinyl record because of the CD’s cost at the time.  Beware these kinds of predictions, and never build a marketing strategy around them.

Real marketing is about acknowledging constant change and satisfying shifting needs —not just plodding along with an inflexible strategy based on yesterday’s model. 

In Kindle’s case, real marketing meant recognizing that many readers are clearly going to be willing “to read like that” if “reading like that” also offers other advantages, like being able to bring a library of 1500 books with you wherever you go, download a book on demand (and at a lower cost to the print version) and, last, but not least, get other content (like newspapers) instantly delivered wherever you are.

It also meant recognizing and responding to the fact that consumers are becoming more and more used to getting their reading content electronically, through blogs and online print publications.  The hurdle of reading off a screen is simply disappearing.

Kindle might not be the last stop on this journey to the electronic book, but it’s a good start; and if Amazon continually adapts to consumer needs, they just might manage to make the name Kindle synonymous with e-book for generations to come.

The Loser:

Sad to say, the loser is the venerable Rocky Mountain News, the Denver newspaper that was shuttered a few weeks before it was to celebrate its 150-year anniversary. 

Think about that for a moment: the paper was shut down, not downsized or spun off.  Shut down.  That says something pretty frightening about the future of big city newspapers.  Now there’s talk that the Seattle-Post Intelligencer and The San Francisco Chronicle are next.  Wow.

I’ve looked at the newspaper dilemma before (here, here and here), but until The Rocky Mountain News closed up shop, I’m not quite sure that most people understood just how bad the newspaper industry has flubbed marketing.

It’s not just about declining readership or increasing newsroom costs or even being innocently caught unaware of the change to their industry… Newspapers never really got marketing. (The real marketer can be hurt by big marketplace upheavals, by the way, but they won’t ever be completely surprised.)  Or, rather, they got real marketing at the beginning (think Hearst and his nineteenth-century penny papers), but then lost it once they became “institutions.” 

Newspapers simply assumed for far too long that the worst case scenario could not happen to them, since —like The Rocky Mountain News— they had a long history, a profession that heaped awards on its practitioners and a false belief that the daily newspaper was an inevitable feature of big city life. 

Any one of us who aspires to real marketing can learn from this.  One of the biggest dangers for any brand is a belief that it is indispensable and the neglect of the customer’s needs that stems from this belief in its indispensability.  Real marketers must always assume that a better job of serving their customers’ needs is possible —and be actively figuring out how to do so, before a competitor steps in to fill unmet demands.

The funny thing is that this week’s winner, Kindle, might just hold out hope for the newspapers.  Some of the major players are supposedly beginning to explore if they can bundle Kindle purchases with paid subscriptions to their publications.  Kindle might very well become the savior of the newspaper industry.
Of course, I’d argue real marketing demands that newspapers go much further by targeting with even more accuracy and relevance their readers’ needs.  For example, quality of information matters, not just speed and volume —but a lot of what we’re finding on the Internet is light on quality and credibility.  Whatever the advantage is, newspapers have to identify it, focus on it and forget about the things that don’t add value to their customers’ experience, no matter how time-honored.

This is going to be hard, and it’s also why I’m still betting on local newspapers as the ones that have the best chance of sticking around in our changing world.

And remember, it’s always easier when you keep marketing and branding in mind.


The biggest threat to your brand is the belief that it is indispensable and will “be around forever.”


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