Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Aug. 3, 2015, 10:50 a.m.

“It’s like seeing your grandpa in a nightclub”: The New York Times’ challenge in building a digital brand

“Relevance is the Times’ big problem, not awareness. Plenty of people know about The New York Times. But most of them think we’re not for them.”

Max Pfennighaus is executive creative director of brand and marketing at The New York Times; he was previously in a similar role at NPR. In those roles, he’s helped steward two of the preeminent brands in journalism, each of which has had its struggles moving from its traditional medium (print, radio) to digital.

This morning, he went on a riff on Twitter about the challenges of that transition — and of targeting a new audience while keeping your old one. (Especially if, as is true for both the Times and NPR, the old one is still paying the bills.) Here it is, lightly translated from Twittese (and swapping in one word I suspect he miswrote):

Relevance is the Times’ big problem, not awareness. Plenty of people know about The New York Times. But most of them think we’re not for them.

The Times doesn’t need to spend millions of dollars to shout I EXIST! to the world. Like NPR, the Times has an enviable branding problem. Both brands are beloved, even/mostly by those that don’t engage with them.

Being a beloved brand is a double-edged sword. When people love who you are, they don’t want you to change. If they love you as the Grey Lady, then they have a hard time seeing you nerding out with clever apps. It’s like seeing your grandpa at a nightclub.

I’m going to henceforth refer to our core brand challenge as the “grandpa in a nightclub” problem.

Every single thing we do as an organization should avoid the “nightclub grandpa” effect if we hope to survive the next decade. If you’re happy being and acting like a grandpa, don’t go to a nightclub. Otherwise…well, consciously work towards not being a grandpa.

(The late David Carr used to punctuate his movie-themed videos for the Times with a reminder: “They call it Times Square for a reason.”)

Early reaction from digital Times folk was positive.

POSTED     Aug. 3, 2015, 10:50 a.m.
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