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.
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.
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?
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.