Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Brand Management, Revisited

Happy Groundhog Day, everyone!

Now that the exchange of greetings pertaining to the World's Stupidest Holiday are complete, I'd like to revisit a topic I brought up last month: publisher branding and brand management.

As Andrew Wheeler brought up in the comments (and later in in his own blog post), it may not be in publishers' best interests to push their overarching corporate structure on consumers, but rather let their individual brands speak for themselves. And I quote:

I'd say your advice is exactly backwards: publishers need to understand the power of specific brands and strengthen the ones they have... This is exactly parallel to the way that SC Johnson isn't a brand, but Glade, Drano, Windex, Ziploc, and Raid are brands.

This is true! However, do we not all know (most likely via some sort of creepy post-hypnotic subliminal messaging) that S.C. Johnson is a family company? (Thanks, television!) Like MomCorp of Futurama fame, should publishers not maintain some hulking, terrifying presence in the consumer's brain? (I kid, but you get the idea.)

Andrew makes a good point, and so let me resolicit your opinions, fair readers. Should consumers not be made aware of the publisher's branding (e.g. Penguin Classics, Ace) as much as the author(s) in question? Granted, authors are the the primary brand because they're the ones attracting followings, producing content, &c, and liking one of their previous titles is generally a better indicator of whether you'll like a new title, but what of the début novelist? The gal or guy whose branding might, for the time being, rely exclusively on the house brand to which (s)he belongs?

Andrew may be right that our awareness of specific brands and imprints belonging to a larger publisher are more important than our consciousness of the publisher itself, but I think it's for precisely this reason that the "flagship" imprints to which Andrew points have lost their steam and vision over the past several years (the eponymous Penguin imprint and "Little Random" being prime examples).

The question, I suppose, is this: should the larger corporation brand itself as, in a sense, a creator of myriad brands (imprints), or should it stick to those specific imprints and not try to brand itself (vis-à-vis the "flagship" model)?


  1. There was a time when the reader had a feel about a book because of a particular p.h. (publishing house) brand. Now with so many options -- self-publishing or smaller p.h. with good reads available, it doesn't have the same strong influence. As we know, the times are a changin'. Still, and more so for a début novelist, the p.h. branding continues to influence the sales, until the author her or his self stands on her/his own merit or talent, so to speak. My humble opinion.
    Not a marketing expert but catching some ideas.

  2. I've often wondered why books aren't more visibly publisher-branded.

    I work at a board games store and I can attest that most contemporary board games have the game designer's name and the publisher's logo on the cover. The majority of customers will recognize the publisher's logo over the designer name. "Oh, this is Rio Grande, and I do like Carcassonne." And there are some people who think everything colourful in a square box must be like Cranium.

    A minority of customers will go by the designer as well as careful research of reviews, so for that segment, branding is irrelevant.

  3. When I buy a novel, I don't look at who the publisher is. (The only brand that I can think of that I immediately recognize from the cover is Harlequin and Silhouette Romances which I won't normally buy.) For novels, the author is the brand. For bestselling authors or authors with more than one book published, it doesn't matter to me who the publisher is.

    However, I won't take a risk on someone that I haven't read before who is published by a smaller house. I will take a risk on a debut author published by one of the bigger publishers. I'm a heavy reader and I am always on the look out for a new author to add to my favorites list.

    Nonfiction is a different kettle of fish. In that case, the publisher of the book is more important than the author. There are certain publishing houses that I trust to publish high quality information. And for those lines, branding would certainly help me identify which books I can trust to have good information.

  4. As I observed last time out, I think good brand strategy is best focused on building stronger imprint branding, not stronger corporate branding.

    In significant part, this is because the corporations involved are too big and too diversified (and in many cases, not US-based -- the last thing Bertelsmann wants US book-buyers to figure out is that [gasp!] foreigners are controlling their print media). Successful brand development also requires a line of products that's relatively like in kind. This can be stretched to some degree -- Campbell's has several lines of soup, for example -- but not when the subcategories differ too much (notice that nobody tries to brand paper towels and bathroom tissue with the same logos and product names).

    The problem with the "flagship" model for the major book publishing conglomerates is that to the extent that any of the surviving flagship names have discernible brand identities, they're generic; there is no loyal consumer following that recognizes a difference between one corporation's books and another's. There are exactly two exceptions to this -- Harlequin and Scholastic -- and they are exceptions because both those publishers spent many years building their direct-to-consumer sales, Harlequin via mail order and Scholastic via school-based book clubs.

    For any of the other big corporate players, it's too late to build "flagship" consumer loyalty. Building imprint-based brand identity will be much easier and more cost-effective.

  5. I think that going piecemeal would work best. Years ago, record labels did much the same thing (and probably still do) with the plethora of music genres under their umbrella, so why shouldn't publishers do the same thing with the multitude of genres under their umbrella?

  6. I think one of the most successful brandings of an imprint was the Doubleday Crime Club run of original hardcover myserties. Good branding for libraries anyway. A fascinating imprint when you consider that it covered both hard-boiled and cozy crime stories. American and British authors. That's at least two different markets in one imprint. And it worked because the deciding factor to include an author within the imprint was quality.

    In the end, the word "Club" may have cursed the line because some people thought the books were cheap reprints along the lines of some book club editions. I still wonder why they did the line in... to garner more sales for Bantam hardcover mysteries? Oh well.

    A successful imprint brand may definitely have a half-life, which is likely shorter than ever with online saturation. Brand an imprint, light a fuse.

    I would also suggest that cultural products (uh, books, movies, music) branding is more temporary than Glade or Drano. Or at least more fickle. And now (as opposed to then) moreso. Meanwhile, many successfully branded authors end up struggling against their own carefully crafted brand once it becomes stale.

    Despite successful imprint branding, it is clearly by author that branding is most successfully engaged within the publishing industry. Nothing else comes close. Thank god.

    Publishers need to sell authors more and imprints less. That's my naive opinion and probably a bad one. In short, you can sell imprints within the business... but now that sales are more directly a result of individual consumer marketing, the only thing a consumer wants to know about a book is who wrote it.

    And, if they're a new author, who do they write like.

    As for Harlequin, well... yes; but there are huge mega seller authors there... and a whole lot of midlist too. Authors eventually make the sales. Although, I have to give credit where credit is due. Fabio was pretty cool branding there for awhile.

    If publishers can't tell, or don't care, which of their authors offer a quality product for the marketplace, then their imprints are going to be pretty meaningless.

    They still throw most of the books out there and let them sink or swim on their own, while they pile all their marketing resources behind one (maybe two) titles a season based almost solely on what they had to pay to get the product in the first place.

    Publishers sadly over promote sinkers all the time because they paid a lot to get them. And one of the really top authors they overlooked moves to another house and, oops, hits the top 5 NYT with her second or third book.

  7. I do have a question along the lines of branding.

    Since publishers tend to promote books they pay scads of money for, is there a branding of/by literary agents and agencies that effects publishers??????

  8. As a consumer and avid reader, I look at book covers and titles first. That's what grabs my attention in a bookstore. Then I scan to see who the author is. I hardly ever check to see who the publisher is...

  9. Let's put it this way, from my own debut author's perspective: Would I choose Random House over self-publishing or a lesser known publisher brand name? Almost assuredly (although these days, even that game is changing.)

    But more importantly, if Stephen King or Dan Brown or James Patterson started an imprint, would I choose their name recognition over Random House?


    The point is, the gravamen carried by the publishers is all well and good, but it is nothing compared to the power of a true brand name. Some get it close to right, like Tor for SF/F, but when I look to find a new debut author, I look to recommendations, cover/title/blurb in bookstore(without regard to publisher), and I certainly value a favorite strong author endorsement highly. Blurbs of course can be tricky, but if James Lee Burke is touting the next new mystery writery, or Cormac McCarthy says I need to read a new literary genius, then I likely will.

  10. Tor books are an SF imprint in New York, with about a dozen editors (and several mini-imprints). They have a strong brand identity, with lead editors who are well-known in the SF world. If you like books published by Tor, and see another book published by Tor - even if you know nothing else about the author - that makes you more likely to pick it up.

    Tor books are owned by Macmillan, which is owned by Simon and Schuster, who publish literally thousands of books every year. Nobody in their right mind is going to think "ooh, I liked one S&S book, I think I'll give them another go!" The product range is too diverse for that to make sense. To expand on Andrew's point, it would be like thinking, "hmmm, I like Fairy washing-up liquid, whose ultimate owners are Procter and Gamble, so maybe I'll try those Pringles crisps! And buy some Duracell batteries while I'm at it!"

  11. The quick answer is yes and no.

    Brand strategy is a complicated issue because a brand serves more functions than establishing an identity of expected experience with consumers.

    A brand is important to employees to create loyalty, teamwork, and commitment to achieving company goals - think of how much an employee of Google takes a sense of ownership in building the company's future.

    Effective branding with employees carries over into consumer experience - think of the difference in behavior between a flight attendent of Southwest Airlines and one from United Airlines. The employee's behavior reinforces the brand (or screws it up with poor behavior).

    A brand is one of a corporation's most valuable assets; if done well a brand can be worth many multiples of the expense to create it - how much do you think the name Coca-Cola is worth?

    A brand is also hideously expensive to establish. When Toyota launched the Tacoma Truck brand, the first year expediture was just over $100,000,000.

    A brand is critical to attracting investors to help a company grow. Think of television ads for Siemens or 3M. Ads for these companies do not have a direct link to consumers; they are aimed at the individuals and firms who invest.

    Like any business, a publisher must carefully plan with a limited budget how to build market share, launch new products, attract investors, and build intangible asset value.

    For most publishers, this would mean a major portion going to consumer level author branding (perhaps piggybacking a publisher label), a big slice to trade marketing to promote products to booksellers, and a small slice at the corporate level for investors and the balance sheet.

    Failures of brand strategy can be catastrophic. General Motors' brand gymnastics over the past twenty years is a leading cause of its loss of market share.

    A publisher which spends heavily for front-of-house promotion of a title that sells poorly suffers loss of reputation with the bookseller (and probably has an uphill battle negotiating the next deal).

    A corporate brand like Random House that is permitted to erode in value results in a loss of investor confidence (stock price falls) and an accounting loss (the intangible value of brand falls on the balance sheet).

    In the end, any business, publishers included, must carefully balance the goals of brand building - market share, product value, employee commitment, investor value - at several levels against forecast sales and income.

    Businesses which do this well succeed in market share, profits, and market value of the firm. Businesses which fail at effective brand strategy generally fail as an enterprise.

  12. @walkinhistory:

    "Since publishers tend to promote books they pay scads of money for, is there a branding of/by literary agents and agencies that effects publishers??????"

    I know little about the agent business, but I would be surprised if the answer to your question was not "Yes".

    An agent with an established reputation (read: brand) for consitently delivering saleable product from an established author, or finding saleable new talent, would command greater attention from publishers than an unestablished agent or one who lacks the talent and skill to identify and deliver saleable product.

    An analogy would be a stockbroker. A stockbroker with a reputation for providing winning advice would attract and retain clients more readily than a new broker or one with a mixed performance record.

    The value of a literary agent or a stockbroker rests on the same key issue: The ability to identify and capitalize upon profitable opportunity for their clients. Success on this issue establishes reputation and the foundation for the agent's or broker's brand value.

  13. A lot depends on what the definition of "flagship" is. A few commenters have referenced the strong Harlequin brand. But Harlequin itself is owned by Torstar, which has a diversified portfolio of products from newspapers to publishers.

    Is it too late for print publishers to start branding would be my next question. Is this a missed opportunity?

    There are a number of e-pubs now with newsletters and storefronts that attract buyers through their branding. I'm keen on seeing whether belonging to a branded consortium gives a new author a significant leg up over self-publishing.

    Also, many genre imprints of the big boys are also pushing their brand through community websites, newsletters, dedicated storefronts, and such.

    Product placement in stores helps make buyers aware, too. All the Keebler crackers are shelved together, all the Lean Cuisine dinners are displayed together. This makes brand memorable in the customer's mind. Until bookstores are willing to breakdown their displays by category -> genre -> subgenre -> publisher -> imprint -> author, branding won't likely gain much traction in-store.

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  15. I think the problem is everyone is using today as the set point. Brands build over time...years, decades. The Stephen King brand had no cache when it was introduced. Only after years of putting out solid content did the brand generate value.

    In the entertainment field, I look at the brands of Disney, Pixar and Toy Story. Disney is the publisher, Pixar the imprint and Toy Story the series. In this example, Disney is this huge conglomerate with a family-friendly brand identity. Pixar is an imprint that creates great animated family films. Toy Story is a series of films that nestle nicely into the over-arcing brand identity of the entities above it. Notice that the screenwriter and director (a.k.a. author) are all but irrelevant (to the general public). However, you look at the other conglomerates (Sony Pictures, Paramount, Universal) and none of them have a brand identity that even comes close to Disney.

    And in this bizarro world where the author brand is minimized and the actual product (the movie) is just about king, there are still a handful of screenwriters and directors (Charlie Kaufman, the Coehn Brothers, Michael Mann, etc.) that have effectively created brands for themselves. But again, only after years of consistently putting out high-quality content.

    All this to say, "Yes, publishing houses could brand themselves, as could their imprints." It just takes time, money and patience, three things in short supply in today's publishing universe.

  16. So, I disagree with Andrew Wheeler: the publishing house is a brand - it is in fact the "master brand".

    Like any brand, it is a construct of identity symbols, corporate values, promise to its target audiences, and other components.

    The author's brand is a "sub-brand", connected to but separate from the master brand.

    By way of example: SC Johnson is a master brand - but it is minimized on Windex product packaging because it is appropriate for the sub-brand to take the lead.

    Same with novels - imprint branding on the spine and in other unobtrusive places, and author brand in high-profile places.

    I can't help but think that in this world of e-books and self-publishing, that it would be wise for publishers to invest in their own brands. I think this is a good idea even if it means diverting resources from promotional budgets.

    Here's why: if a publisher/imprint brand builds equity among the reading public and begins to be (better) recognized for its fine portfolio of products, then it becomes known as a high quality curator. Once this happens, debuts become easier and the mid-list becomes more valuable, because readers will buy based on the halo effect generated by the curatorial properties of the brand.

    Invest once, benefit across the portfolio.

  17. When I pick up a novel by an author I"ve never read, it's often the endorsements that will convince me if I'm on the fence, not the publisher and I think that's because in the realm of Sci-fi/Fantasy one publisher will publish all sorts of different types and quality and so I can't relay on just the publishing house to know if I"m gonna like it. But, other authors whose work I respect I feel like I can rely on; even magazines and such who review and sometimes blogs. So, I guess for me it's more the author that convinces me (or a reviewer I respect like Discriminating Fangirl)

  18. if a publisher/imprint brand builds equity among the reading public and begins to be (better) recognized for its fine portfolio of products, then it becomes known as a high quality curator

    That's the whole point behind imprints!

    There are three brand levels - publisher, imprint, and author. Large publishers are too diverse to be recognised as curators, so they create an imprint with a stronger identity.

  19. I think the publisher brand should be more subtle, but can help substantiate the author brand. We've been told SC Johnson is a family company so many times that we are probably more likely to be receptive to the specific item brand being advertised.