If you were the chief marketing officer of the number-three brand in an overcrowded and highly competitive category, with a large and loyal band of consumers, what would be at the top of your to-do list?
Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I don’t think changing your brand name and identity would be it.
Yet that’s exactly what’s under consideration at the number-three U.S. news website, www.MSNBC.com, and its parent company, NBC Universal – and all because of the Spike Lee-directed new ad campaign their sister cable channel broke this month.
Separated at birth
MSNBC cable and MSNBC.com are fraternal, not identical, twins, both having been born in 1996 and both going their own ways almost immediately afterward. The cable channel, for example, stayed with parent NBC in the New York metro area, while the website went to live at the other parent’s home in Redmond, WA.
The split wasn’t just geographical. While MSNBC cable uses much of parent NBC’s news infrastructure, MSNBC.com has its own staff of reporters, editors, photographers and even advertising sales reps. And while the website has striven to maintain what its president, Charles Tillinghast, calls an “impartial news product,” MSNBC Cable is, well, MSNBC Cable.
“In recent years,” what the New York Times‘s mediacoder blog understatedly describes as “MSNBC [Cable]’s shift to the left – with hosts like Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow – has further complicated the TV/Web relationship,” and the new ad campaign brought those complications to a head. The channel’s “splashy new ad campaign and…new tag-line, ‘Lean Forward,’ … reinforces [sic] the opinionated nature of the programming.”
Or, as blogger Ed Morrissey puts it, “Even MSNBC.com wants distance from MSNBC.” The union between the two media, he says, has outlived its original purpose, namely, “extending parent NBC News’s reach into 24/7 cable and the Internet.”
A dysfunctional relationship
But “this strategy became derailed as the cable channel became unhinged,” Morrissey notes. “Now the brand is so damaged that only 12% of the marketplace trusts it, and MSNBC has become synonymous with hard-Left diatribes.”
So, like the parents, the children are strongly considering filing for divorce. (Or at least one of them is.)
A costly divorce?
NBC Universal and Microsoft are quietly conducting high-level talks about changing the brand name, an action that mediacoder says “could be a risky endeavor for the third most popular news Web site in the United States.”
Why is it risky? Because unlike brand changes for physical products, rebranding adds a whole second layer of potential downside.
Mediacoder says changing a popular URL is “akin to a business closing a bustling storefront and posting a sign that asks customers to visit its new location.” But it’s not. Even here in Richmond, brick-and-mortar businesses do that all the time with few ill effects.
For strictly online businesses, it’s a different story. MSNBC.com’s problem goes beyond the possibility of “sacrificing years of brand loyalty” with a new brand name. That’s because consumers’ online reading habits often don’t depend on keying in a name. Regular visitors to news websites generally have their regular URLs bookmarked. Change the brand name, and the bookmark gets you a 404 error (Not Found) message. So there goes regular readership – maybe not permanently, but certainly until MSNBC.com’s audience figures out that now it’s, say, NBCNews.com, starts going there and eventually bookmarks that URL.
This will produce a noticeable, maybe long-term, drop in traffic, and traffic is what websites live on. Like many mass websites, MSNBC.com carries pay-per-click advertising. With an average click-through rate of only 1.6%, any decline in the traffic base of which that 1.6% is a fraction could leave the new brand really hurting for revenue.
No good answer
So does MSNBC.com risk losing traffic because its similar name to the cable channel’s brands it in many consumers’ minds as a bunch of loons?
Do they bite the bullet, rebrand, and risk losing tons of traffic to suddenly inoperative bookmarks?
Only time will tell.
Keep watching the Internet for further developments – but not necessarily at www.MSNBC.com