Why changing the name of BRMB, Beacon, Wyvern and Mercia is the right thing to do

When anything changes, we think how it affects us. Not whether it’s the right thing for them to do.

Radio is habitual. We make a decision to consume something and then consume it for a couple of hours. Everyday. Forever. When someone interrupts our habits by making a change to something we’ve enjoyed we get annoyed.

However, just because you like, or are used to something, doesn’t give it the god-given right to exist forever. Sorry.

ILR has gone through three distinct phases. We’re now in the third.

1. 1973 to 1992: Launch and growth.

ILR was new. There were few radio stations, no internet, four TV channels, limited newspapers and magazines. It was easy to compete against the BBC because you could find something that they didn’t do.

To win… be more local, be more friendly, play popular music, make sure people know about you and work out how to sell lots advertising (unless you go bust first).

2. 1992 to 2002: Least worst option.

Whilst in the background there was the gradual growth of CDs, multi-channel television and online – it still had a brilliant competitive set – there were hardly any competitors!

Plus through a mix of luck and judgement, commercial radio fixed it’s product.

Some may call it uninspiring, but the explosion of research-led programming meant that ILR played the right kind of music – in decent quality – FM! (and generally) told the DJ to STFU. Happily Radio 1 also threw itself off a cliff offering up its listeners.

The music shift was important as many of the stations positioned themselves with the optimum mix for their market. Broadly it was Radio 1 without the new stuff, Radio 2 without the old stuff – it was the station that everyone could agree on.

2003 onwards

The third age is not so happy.

The downside of being the ‘least worst option’ is that you create very little passion from the audience and you don’t super-serve anyone. When a better opportunity comes along you can be left behind. Playing the middle ground can get much harder.

This was fine before the explosion in choice meant that the listener who prefers dance but tolerated pop had somewhere better to go. The person who preferred a few older tunes gets an easy listening station. The person that wants more company gets the big stars on Radio 2.

ILR

The problem for the vast majority of ILR stations whether 2CR, The Pulse or BRMB is that they failed to re-invent their product when they should have done – about eight years ago – the point when everything was changing.

For the vast majority of ILR stations that haven’t re-branded, their 2011 product is the same as their 1994 one. But, amazingly, probably less tight and focused.

In the same time consumers and successful pop culture brands changed and evolved.

The biggest issue is that consumer has evolved much faster than the stations they grew up with.

I was involved in some of the background work for one of the many Capital re-brands. The research was fascinating. Capital scored incredibly high for loads of images – from news, to travel, to ‘being London’ – the music scores weren’t outstanding but were okay too. But when asked whether they listened the answer was no. They’d found something else that scratched an itch better – generally Heart for the women and Kiss for the youngsters. They still had enormous positive feeling for Capital, it just wasn’t for them.

It was the same story for many other ILR stations, though the lack of competition in each individual marketplace often hid the scale of the problem. 20-years of doing the same thing had burned the traditional ILR perceptions in the mind of the listener. Normally this would have been a good thing, but even though they thought that ILRs did a good job, a growing number of them shrugged and turned on something else. Being number one for local, or travel wasn’t enough. It was no longer ‘the station for people like me’ – and owning that or other images wasn’t going to fix it.

Heart, and then Capital.

This wasn’t the reason for the re-brand of 30-odd ILRs into Heart though. That was driven by cost saving and delivering a more easily buy-able product by advertisers.

Prior to the re-brand, product-wise they were a variable lot. Some, often the bigger ones, had done quite a good job. Looking at GWR FM or Trent FM – their audience had been down a little – but nothing drastic. Whereas Hereward and Invicta hadn’t fared so well. It’s no surprise that Heart has improved some and reduced others. The stats are harder however to crunch since Global changed the TSAs.

Heart’s success is they’ve generally kept a steady ship whilst massively reducing the costs. – I reckon by half to two-thirds. The Heart product is an excellent one, super-slick and relatively clutter free. The thing that really helped Global was that the brand’s values had been worked out a long time ago. It mattered less that listeners didn’t know the brand – what was really important was that they knew what they were. Then it was just communicating it to the audience. Something they did with loads of TV advertising.

Many of these stations had never had any TV-spend before. Existing listeners found that little of their station had really changed and at the same time non-listeners (who knew very well what GWR FM was etc) could be prompted to try it again. A smaller amount of  Hereward FM-related baggage to wade through.

Heart’s difficulty now is that as they’ve pulled back on the marketing gas they’re starting to see some cracks in audience growth, especially where they’ve merged a large number of stations into one. It’s still very early days on that though and you have to remember that they’ve saved a HUGE amount of money.

The product problem they face is whether they’ve actually just created a better ‘least worst station’ and just corrected the output (and pushed back) the years before they see more competition-related decline.

I say that, of course, as if it’s a bad thing. It might just be the nature of what mainstream radio now has to do. Constant Madonna-style re-invention.

Capital, I think is more interesting. In that network they’ve taken a niche product (the ex-Galaxies) and applied a clean lick of mainstream paint. For London it’s also a much more contemporary sound than its ever had before. They’ve also aligned it strongly to what’s modern, mainstream and cool.

As a young station it matters less what ex-listeners think – it’s about constantly attracting the young/pop fans (and those who see themselves as young/pop fans). They’ve managed, in their first year, to alter core brand values and start to shift perceptions. And in London the departure of Johnny (for whatever reason) will help them keep to this goal. They have, however, spent a huge amount of money on TV/big concerts to do this.

What does not work is a re-name (rather than re-brand). Lite FM’s change to Connect or that conglomeration of stations’ move to Touch was a failure because:

1. The old product wasn’t very good – and the new product wasn’t much better (most of the ex-Heart’s were quite good and the new Heart was slick)
2. The new station didn’t have any/strong enough brand values
3. There was little marketing explaining the new station or why people should bother to sample it.

Er, that’s the end of the introduction. You still there?

The main reason that BRMB, Beacon, Wyvern and Mercia need to change are their audience figures.

These stations are not terrible radio stations. Of course there are things that could be changed – music, personalities, production etc. However, even if they changed them to the optimal mix it would not necessarily reverse the declines.

The problem isn’t what they’re doing today. The problem is what’s happened to ILR over the last eight years.

As I talked about above, the changing nature of consumers, the multi-platform competition and these stations being trapped in the middle and not being allowed to evolve are the combination of reasons that there needs to be a big change.

Being ‘BRMB’ is the baggage – not just what’s on those stations today.

A re-brand can return growth to these stations. However, doing it successfully is difficult. Product, brand and marketing need to be perfectly aligned. Because as Lite, Touch, Capital and Heart have found, when you press the button there really is no going back.

There will be discussion about cost-saving, TV advertising opportunities, new competitive market, it being easier to sell to advertisers… and all of these are valid things. However – at the core there’s just a need for ILR to move on.

7 thoughts on “Why changing the name of BRMB, Beacon, Wyvern and Mercia is the right thing to do”

  1. Matt,

    I agree with analysis about the phases of local commercial radio but I think you are probably wrong that the re-naming of Mercia, BRMB, Wyvern and Beacon is a good thing.

    * Unlike the quasi national networks such as Heart, Capital, Magic and so on Orion is merely a Midlands based group with less than 1 million listeners in total

    * If these local stations are underperforming (probably true) then merely renaming them will not fix the underlying problem. In fact it will make things worse because Free is only a word… not a brand… and has zero traction in any of the station’s markets.

    * A TV advertising campaign is promised, but ultimately will not fix station’s that are underperforming because editorially they are below parr.An Ad campaign may have some chance of re-trial, but if the product is inferior, trial will not convert into regular consumption.

    * Free is actually not a very good name. It will take a huge amount of cash to turn the word into a brand with saliency.

    * Cost savings are smart business, but you can’t cost save your way to success.

    But good to read your thoughts Matt as ever

    Cheers

    Paul Robinson
    Director PR Media Consulting pauln.robinson@gmail.com

  2. I’ve read through your article several times, and apart from it being far too long, you are wrong in your crass simplification of the ‘three ages of ILR’.

    Your comment on the years 1992-2002, “Some may call it uninspiring, but the explosion of research-led programming meant that ILR played the right kind of music – in decent quality – FM! (and generally) told the DJ to STFU” is a gross generalisation.

    I programmed the music on the East Midland’s from 1978 to 1994 and we had reaches of 28-34% on FM, and 23-24% on AM so we HAD BEEN playing ‘the right kind of music” for SIXTEEN years! The reason research was brought in was because the financially motivated companies who bought-up decent radio stations, such as the Midlands Radio ones, had no STAFF able to sensitively select the right music for each local AREA. (When we were taken over my immediate ‘superior’ was a former sport’s journalist who had never programmed music, but had produced one of the worst jingle packages I’d ever heard). So, they just blandified the music (using consultants and research), stopped using jingles (saving!!) they cut back to the AWFUL short, repetitive playlists that STILL dominate – hence the explosion in YouTube music listening, and on-line stations where you can get something fresh (if old..)

    Looking at your photograph I suspect you were still at school in 1973, and the early years of ILR, so your opinion is learnt from READING about it, not being part of the industry… Your comment “For the vast majority of ILR stations that haven’t re-branded, their 2011 product is the same as their 1994 one. But, amazingly, probably less tight and focused”…

    ….leads me to say HURRAH!

    THAT is why it’s sad BRMB et al have been re-branded – to many ‘radio people’ what Orion was doing was the equivalent of being the ‘good son’ in a troubled, financially motivated family, you’d never invite round for dinner.

    I won’t carry on at great length as you have done, but suffice to say your opinions are extreme, and your perception of the evolution of ILR far too generalised..

    You wrote: “The main reason that BRMB, Beacon, Wyvern and Mercia need to change is their audience figures”, yet they are all between 17% and 23% reach and Capital London (a station you clearly admire) has 20%, so that is NOT the reason.

    You used the word ‘brand’ in various ways 12 times, so clearly you do understand the MONEY side of radio. But you only used the word ‘passion’ ONCE… and PASSION is what radio ultimately HAS to be about – passion about the music, the presenters, the locality and, yes, the jingles…

    If you really LOVE radio (and maybe you do despite this piece) I’d advise you forget about ‘brands’… and increase the use of ‘passion…’

  3. Enjoyed Len’s comments…. I have listened to the Orion stations and frankly they are not very good… the music is predictable, high repeat rate and some of the DJs have nothing to say, but don’t know that and think that lots of words=personality. Wrong.

    Paul

  4. Great comments from Len.

    I didn’t feel it was right to generalise about time frames and disagree about stations which haven’t re-branded failing to stay fresh.

    In my experience of 1992-2002 – the supposed “told the DJs to STFU” era – I worked at a small fledgling ILR from launch, a regional station, a national station and then an oldies station and none had such a policy.

    Other parts I did agree with – and it was an interesting read.

  5. Paul:

    I completely agree that the product needs to be right and (for its audience) I have no idea whether it currently is or not. I would expect that the “everything’s staying the same” statement is unlikely to be true.

    I haven’t really talked about their choice of name, though i’m less concerned about whether we feel it’s right or not at the moment. Currently there’s no brand values associated with it, or indeed product. Until the station starts, we understand the product, and it gets it marketing out there, i’ll reserve judgement on whether it’s right or wrong.

    Len:

    I’ve read through your article several times, and apart from it being far too long, you are wrong in your crass simplification of the ‘three ages of ILR’. Your comment is a gross generalisation.

    Yep, happy to say it’s a generalisation. If I listed the exceptions (that proved the rule) the article would have beeen even longer.

    I programmed the music on the East Midland’s from 1978 to 1994 and we had reaches of 28-34% on FM, and 23-24% on AM so we HAD BEEN playing ‘the right kind of music” for SIXTEEN years!

    Whilst I don’t doubt your skill, i’d also suggest that getting great reach is perhaps a little easier when you’ve got a fraction of the radio and media competition that there is today.

    The reason research was brought in was because the financially motivated companies who bought-up decent radio stations, such as the Midlands Radio ones, had no STAFF able to sensitively select the right music for each local AREA.

    Yep – don’t disagree.

    So, they just blandified the music (using consultants and research), stopped using jingles (saving!!) they cut back to the AWFUL short, repetitive playlists that STILL dominate – hence the explosion in YouTube music listening, and on-line stations where you can get something fresh (if old..)

    I don’t agree that radio’s playlists caused YouTube to be successful and whilst I think online radio is great – the percentage of people who currently use it to listen to anything other than what they can get on their analogue radio – doesn’t really trouble me (or radio, to be honest). The blandification was less successful with some stations than others, similar to what Heart’s seen across their re-branded network.

    Looking at your photograph I suspect you were still at school in 1973, and the early years of ILR, so your opinion is learnt from READING about it, not being part of the industry.

    I am indeed a mere slip of a lad who wasn’t even born in 1973. I’ve worked alongside a whole selection of people who ran ILRs then and run them now. Indeed some who’ve done both. I’ve also worked with people who’ve got re-brands both right and wrong and have sat with hundreds of listeners to understand how they use the medium.

    You wrote: “The main reason that BRMB, Beacon, Wyvern and Mercia need to change is their audience figures”, yet they are all between 17% and 23% reach and Capital London (a station you clearly admire) has 20%, so that is NOT the reason.

    It’s about trends. ILR is trending down. Orion particularly. ILRs who’ve gone for a different strategy have seen audience growth.

    My thoughts about Capital and Heart are that they’ve made both a product and marketing shift to create stations of today, leaving the old ILR paradigm behind. At the same time the new product isn’t an anathema to their current listeners, plus, importantly it provides a new reason for people to trial. I could happily list a 1,000 things I don’t like about what Global have done to the radio industry.

    BRMB have had constantly declining audiences. Even if there product was perfect, the baggage of having been a product that hasn’t moved with the times, would mean they would be unlikely to attract new listeners to sample. This is the nub of the ILR problem.

    You used the word ‘brand’ in various ways 12 times, so clearly you do understand the MONEY side of radio. But you only used the word ‘passion’ ONCE… and PASSION is what radio ultimately HAS to be about – passion about the music, the presenters, the locality and, yes, the jingle…

    I’m a big believer in ‘passion’ – but it’s not the only answer. Both Radio 4, Magic and Radio Pembrokeshire can be successful doing very different things.

    If you really LOVE radio (and maybe you do despite this piece) I’d advise you forget about ‘brands’… and increase the use of ‘passion…’

    I have no problem with you strongly disagreeing with my views, but I don’t think it’s particularly fair that you come on my website and attack me about my connection with the medium when you clearly know nothing about me or what I do. Hey-ho…

  6. Oh my word. Len, just to clarify your comments, the reason why you had such a high reach in the 1970′s was because there was far less competition, had you been programming during the advent of the iPod and globally accessible internet radio then you would have new challenges programmers of your generation never faced.

    I think we can go as far to say you could have passed wind into the mic in the 1970′s and still got a 30% share!

    I am in no way a fan of some of the modern radio techniques, thing being I appreciate times change, industries change. However it is abundantly clear some people don’t.

    If we were still in your mind set we would still be singing the station name in 8 part harmonies while delivering a link sounding like we need some Sinex!

    It’s 2012 not 1973!

    Matt – keep up the good work..

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