Trying to expand your audience isn’t always a solid business move, particularly if it dilutes your brand identity. NME learned this the hard way as they attempted to stop a slide towards irrelevance.
Iconic music weekly NME announced last month that it would cease print publication. Launched in 1952, it captured the zeitgeist through decades of musical innovation and changes. From the Beatles to Punk, New Wave to Brit Pop, NME and its seminal covers managed to be as integral a part of the music scene as the music itself.
The writing has been on the wall for a few years at this stage however. Since NME’s transition to freesheet in 2015 has attempted to re-invent itself as a one-size-fits-all compendium of pop culture. The still covetable cover now had a label which declared “Music- Film-Style” in a half-hearted attempt to snare new readers.
The move to freesheet came after over a decade in declining sales. The downturn in fortunes was based on a multitude of reasons; a more digital oriented music consumer, the opportunities social media presented for musicians to speak directly to fans, bypassing the media middle-man, and the sad but unavoidable fact that NME simply wasn’t relevant anymore. Emerging technologies such as Spotify and its powerful algorithms helped music aficionados find new music they’d like far faster than recommendations from a print magazine.
The cover was, up to the very end, still a desirable place to be. However in this era of polished pop and sterile interviews, there was little of substance within to encourage a potential reader to go out of their way to pick up a copy in their local Topman.
Attempts to keep NME relevant (such as being available in Topman and the annual NME awards being sponsored by hair-styling brand VO5) smacked of desperation, and came across as your dad twerking to Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda in an attempt to be “down with the kids.”
These dad-dancing attempts to stay significant are in direct contrast to what Kerrang!, one of NME’s major rivals has done.
Kerrang! is now the only weekly British music publication left standing. What has it done differently to its peers to not only keep its head above water but announce recent expansion? It has kept its brand identity.
While NME in recent years attempted to pander to more diverse audiences, Kerrang! remained steadfast in who it targeted, mainly fans of metal and hard rock. In addition, it strengthened its brand identity with a savvy social media presence, a radio station, satellite TV channel, and a well-designed website that drove fans to the print edition in a way that NME’s site failed to do.
So, what lessons in branding are there to take from the decline of NME?
NME stands for New Musical Express. Music fans bought it to read about their favourite bands, or to discover new ones. The 2015 addition of film and fashion to the contents wasn’t likely to gain the magazine new followers, particularly given the dire state of print sales in general, and further served to alienate an already disaffected following.
While Kerrang! managed to drive print sales via their social media and website, as mentioned above, NME never quite figured out a formula to do the same. If your aim is to promote one aspect of your brand above all others, then the others should do nothing to detract from that aim. This is something as simple as only publishing interview teasers online, with the full version only available in print or (more likely these days) behind a paywall.
If you diverge from the brand identity which made you in the first place, you can hardly be surprised if your once loyal following drifts away. Conversely, if you can manage to embrace new social and technological advances while remaining true to your brand identity, your product will be all the stronger for it.