Advertising is often the commercial backbone of the publishing business: But has the industry forgotten what else marketing can do for it?

Publishers advertise their own publications based on their product, not their point of view, attitude or brand story. However, it is by thinking ‘purpose-first’, not product, that will help win over the new, younger generation of readers. These readers judge the brands they interact with on their values, not just their value, says Lorna Burt, strategy partner at Orange Panther Collective.

Today, thanks to technology, lower barriers to entry, and the proliferation of creators, consumers are spoilt for choice. Readers are harder to capture, and harder to keep, than ever before.

Attracting customers, and turning occasional dabblers into signed-up subscribers is fundamental to the growth of any business, but especially in an industry as highly competitive as today’s publishing industry.

Publishers have a great history of grabbing attention and fame. In fact, some of the most enduring, famous and successful advertising of the 20th century was created for the likes of the Economist, the Guardian and the FT. Full of attitude – this was advertising that wasn’t afraid to share a point of view. Take The Economist who created advertising so smart most people wouldn’t get it. Or The Independent, who ran an anti-establishment call to arms as a brand ad (if you haven’t seen the Independent’s ‘Litany’ ad, with John Cooper Clarke’s inimitable voiceover, I urge you to watch it now).

Why then, despite the highest competitive pressure, do we so rarely see great advertising from publishing brands anymore?

Perhaps there’s less confidence in advertising, with brands too often relying on reputation, quality and brand name to catch the eye of potential readers, and convince them to read, or click, on.

But I’m sure I don’t need to spend much time convincing you of the power of advertising for brands – after all, for many publishers, advertising is their commercial lifeblood, and much time and effort is spent unpacking the impact of advertising for your advertisers.

So it must be something else. Perhaps the campaigns just aren’t as good as they once were.

Advertising in publishing has become all about the product. Advertising has been reduced to a display case, a showcase, a mechanic used to simply point at the content and suggest ‘read this’. And we get why the temptation to do this is so great – it’s a quality product, and it’s what your readers are here to see.

But, in my experience, advertising doesn’t work like that. Or at least, good advertising doesn’t.

An ad is a piece of engaging, persuasive content in its own right. It shares a point of view, an opinion, a joke, a story. It celebrates what you believe and why, not just what you sell.

And these opinions, beliefs and points of view are more powerful than ever.

You may report the same events, or draw from the same cultural themes, but the way you cover them – the attitude and perspective you have – is what helps you find distinction in such a cluttered market.

And even more importantly, it is thinking purpose-first, not product, that will help you win with a new, younger generation of readers. Coming through the ranks are consumers who judge the brands they interact with on their values, not just their value. They only want to spend time with brands whose principles reflect their own, so the more time you spend bringing these (authentic) principles to life, the better your chance of capturing their ever-wandering eyes.

In fact, watch the aforementioned Independent ad from 1998 and tell me that, 24 years on, it wouldn’t resonate just as powerfully with an audience of 20-30 year olds today, sick of Tory governments, fed up with social distancing rules and ready to dismantle the system. They want attitude, they want opinion – and they shouldn’t just find this in your publication, but in your communications too.

Cards on the table time – I’m speaking from experience. At OPC this is an approach we take with all our clients – including the FT. Whether it was creating TV advertising for the US, or re-launching their FT Live events platform, our focus has always been to identify the beliefs and benefits of the FT as a brand, and to build content around this, rather than simply showcasing their journalism or events.

Advertising is a powerful tool for growth, and especially when it comes to unlocking new audiences in competitive contexts. But to really make an impact, publishers need to do more than just advertise their content, they need to share their brand stories.

Lorna Burt
Strategy Partner, Orange Panther Collective

Orange Panther Collective helps build the next big things. They work with both young and established businesses looking to launch something new, helping them define and understand new audiences, build brands that connect with them, and create communications that will catch their eye.