WE LIVE IN a society where people have hysterics when confectioners ditch the foil wrapper on Kit-Kat bars.
Retired colonels foam at the mouth when the BBC says it’s scrapping a piece of music which 90 per cent of the population never hear because they’re asleep.
Bugger around with something really important — like their local newspaper — and you are likely to find an ugly mob outside wanting to stick something sharp somewhere painful.
I have been involved in several relaunches. This very magazine, never prone to exaggeration, once named me The Relaunch Man. But I’ve come to question their value. It’s spending an awful lot of money to piss off an awful lot of readers. Shouldn’t we be doing something more interesting?
The spin says we’re responding to the changing needs and lifestyles of readers. I suggest we’re often guilty of responding to bosses who just want us to ‘do something’ about the bloody circulation.
I can think of at least three recent high-profile evenings which all relaunched, we were told, with dazzling new design, ground-breaking content and innovative ways of ‘engaging with the reader’. Sales went down faster than Sunderland AFC.
In some cases they were attempting something brave — or mad — like trying for an entirely different market. In at least one case, senior management lost its nerve when traditional readers deserted in droves. It raises the question: can you ever attract a new audience by tarting up an old brand? When it comes to regional evenings, I think the answer is no.
Relaunches only seem to work when there is a compelling reason for change, such as a broadsheetto- tabloid conversion driven by readers. Even then it’s a tough act.
Simply shuffling the old content, reinstating platforms they couldn’t sell ads into five years ago and then changing the design so radically that your loyal customers no longer recognise you, doesn’t seem like a winning formula.
You might as well give every staffer a tenner a week to spend on buying extra copies. (Actually, I think they tried something like that many years ago in Birmingham… long before my time).
Often it goes wrong from the start. Picture the sticky exec meeting to discuss the latest sales debacle. The creep from circulation shrugs his shoulders and tells the MD: "You can’t polish a turd, boss… the product just ain’t right."
The MD nods sagely (they always do) and launches into one of his tirades about not knowing our readers and not understanding the market. God, will he never shut up?
Inevitably the spotlight turns on the editor. As the temperature rises, the old rascal has one final, motheaten rabbit to pull from the hat.
"Relaunch," he declares. "New thinking, modern approach, innovative platforms, bold design. Radical!
And, of course: "Engage with the reader." Ah yes, we must engage with that elusive little bleeder at all costs.
Suddenly everyone is excited and the heat is off the editor for at least six months. More importantly, the heat is off the MD and that’s the sort of head office heat that melts your fillings.
Jocasta and Tiffany, the lasses from marketing, find their empty lives now have meaning and buzz around organising meetings with ad agency twisters and market research shysters, often in nice wine bars.
The editor has never met so many men who always wear suits but never ties. And they all have shaven heads and those funny square specs — obligatory if you run a men’s lifestyle magazine.
Focus groups, hall tests, street interviews: countless pieces of largely useless information are presented back to you and with every presentation you can almost hear the "Ka-ching!" as some consultant clocks up another ten grand.
The market research is fascinating… in the way basket-weaving is fascinating.
Younger people want more national and international news. Older people want less. Women want less sport. Men want more sport. Women would like more lifestyle features. Men wouldn’t know a lifestyle feature if one bit them on the arse.
And, of course, everyone wants more local news in the paper because someone with a clipboard has said: "Would you like more local news in the paper?" and what are they going to reply? "No, I’d like to see more modern French philosophy, please."
And one dimmo in a hall test has asked: "Why don’t they ever follow up stories?" Suddenly this becomes the big issue and the more you sob "We do, we do!" the less everyone believes you.
Focus group findings are equally enlightening.
Some loud Neanderthal who downed the permitted two cans of Carlsberg in the first five minutes of the session is now the alpha male leading this troupe of monkeys by the nose.
Would you really want the future of your business decided by people whose lives are so sad they will swap the hearth on a winter’s night for a dubioussmelling room behind a two-way mirror, all for two cans of supermarket lager and a Boots voucher?
But it’s a bold editor who ignores the research. If it all goes tits up you have nowhere to hide. Follow it to the letter and someone else is to blame.
The wise ones will fudge it — largely doing what the research tells them while quietly filleting out the most ludicrous crap. The result is usually the same: lost sales.
So why spend all that cash doing it in the first place? Most of the regional evening papers I see are pretty good products fighting hard in a naturally declining market.
Perhaps we should just accept that fact and use the relaunch millions more wisely. Every time you stage a ‘radical’ relaunch you piss off your most loyal readers, the people who stand by you when the crossword clues are wrong and the racecards are upside down.
So stop buggering about with their paper. Yes, keep improving it, keep innovating, keep making it brilliant, but do it gradually, not with a frighteningly big bang.
As the core product declines, you do need more and younger readers. That means using that relaunch pot to produce new, vibrant publications, which will attract that elusive audience and help maintain your share of the market. Don’t dilute the old product — create some new ones.
It’s not cheap and it’s not an overnight fix. But the days of one-size-fits-all evenings are numbered.
Interests are so diverse you can never relaunch a big or medium-sized evening that is going to satisfy everyone. So don’t even try!
And if your company is desperate for a relaunch, why not relaunch the circulation department, the Cinderellas of the regional media?
Many have been hit much harder than editorial by cost-cutting, so no wonder sales are down. The quality of your newspapers is irrelevant if you haven’t got a slick team of hungry street-fighters who will prowl the streets doing the basics and more.
My local paper shop recently had the same bill outside for almost a fortnight — some bizarre story about a kid being scalded by custard. Dog-eared old bills don’t tempt in the casual reader. Not even me — and, hey, I like hot custard stories.
Roger Borrell was involved in relaunching the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, the Lancashire Evening Post and the Birmingham Evening Mail, which he left last year. He is now planning to relaunch his life in North Yorkshire.