The Hindu aims to position itself as ‘a national player with a Southern accent’ even as it strategizes a pan India presence and takes on tough competition on home turf
The Hindu aims to position itself as ‘a national player with a Southern accent’ even as it strategizes a pan India presence and takes on tough competition on home turf
BY SIMRAN SABHERWAL
There is a sense of history that overwhelms you as you step into the Chennai offices of Kasturi and Sons Limited – publishers of The Hindu and other titles – situated on the arterial Mount Road. Founded in 1878, the company, popularly known as the Hindu Group, and its flagship products had come to be associated with the words ‘conservative’ and ‘staid’. But now, the Group is sending out the message that The Hindu is changing, in tune with the digital era, and has evolved to be an integrated media marketing solutions provider, while remaining true to its core proposition of serving its reader. The Group has now taken a more aggressive stance while reaching out to brands and media planners.
The focus is also on profitability, as just a few years back, the Hindu Group was in the news for sudden management changes and internal disputes post which the profitable company’s balance sheet turned red in FY 2014, as per media reports. For Rajiv Lochan, who took over as CEO & MD of The Hindu Group in 2014, the first plan of action was therefore “clinical focus on financial turnaround”. “We were in the midst of a crisis. The first year saw clinical, financially-oriented efforts to actually ensure that we become financially robust again. In the next couple of years, once that turnaround was achieved, the stage was set for us to get into growth mode,” recalls Lochan. Now, the company’s focus is on improving EBIDTA, profits and driving value with the flagship product being the big driver and Hindu Tamil and business newspaper Business Line’s share going up. Industry sources estimate The Hindu Group’s overall advertising revenues to be in the range of Rs 1,200-1,300 crore in the last fiscal.
HOW THE NUMBERS STACK UP IN THE SOUTH AND PAN INDIA
Talking of numbers, The Hindu has an average circulation figure of 16,17,147 copies pan India, including non-qualified or discounted copies, as of July-December 2016, according to Audit Bureau of Circulation data. Outside its home bastion of Chennai and Tamil Nadu, the paper is battling it out with publications such as the Times of India (ToI), Deccan Herald, Deccan Chronicle and the New Indian Express across various States in South India to be the market leader. In fact, one got to see an aggressive side of The Hindu when it took on The Times of India head-on with sharply targeted communication at the time ToI entered its stronghold, Chennai, in 2008. Today, in terms of market-share, Lochan claims that in Chennai, The Hindu has a 60% share of copies and Adex, while the share is higher for the entire State of Tamil Nadu. He also claims that The Hindu’s market-share in Kerala is around 65-70%, in Andhra Pradesh around 55-60% and in South India as a whole, the market-share is around 50-55%. According to Lochan, “Tamil Nadu is our home and we are solid leaders. We are No. 1 in Kerala, Andhra and Telangana, but lag behind a little in Hyderabad. We entered Bangalore 40 years back, but the focus was just not there. Over the last two years, we have been growing in Bangalore aggressively, and Bangalore is a big thrust area for us.”
As for readership, according to the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) data 2014 (the last available readership data in India), The Hindu is at No. 3 in the overall pan India consideration of English newspapers, with Times of India at No. 1 and Hindustan Times at No. 2. Sources in the industry confirm that with the exception of Karnataka and Telangana, The Hindu is No. 1 in the South, i.e., the market leader in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. It remains to be seen how The Hindu emerges when the new IRS is released later this year.
THE GROWTH STRATEGY: ACCENT ON ‘PREMIUM’
With the thrust being on Southern markets, particularly Bangalore, the company’s pricing strategy has positioned The Hindu and the Group’s business paper, Business Line, at a premium compared to their peers across all markets. The Hindu started to raise its cover price in 2015, and also stopped the popular ‘scheme’ route for discounted copies - usually adopted to drive growth or when entering a new market. “Bangalore is the only market where we now run a scheme. However, even in Bangalore, we have taken the scheme price up,” says Lochan, adding, “The signal we want to send to the reader is that we do want to give them a discount as an invitation to sample a product, but guess what - this is a premium product.”
‘SUB-BRANDS, NOT SUPPLEMENTS’
The Hindu Group’s proposition for its thematic content pages/sections that tap into niche segments such as Health, Travel, Technology, etc., is that each sub-brand should have the potential to be spun off later as a stand-alone brand. An example of this is Young World, which started as a children’s features supplement, but in 2014 it was turned into a subscription-based product.
According to Mukund Padmanabhan, Editor, The Hindu, who led the shaping of the content for the Hindu Metro Plus, distributed along with the newspaper in Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, most city supplements principally have cinema or celebrity-related content, which is not always city-specific. “The two things that were important to us was retaining engagement for the city and making a part of the supplement of national interest,” Padmanabhan says.
Sridhar Aranala, AVP, Circulation, The Hindu Group, says, “We are probably the boldest in the industry to systematically embark on the cover price changes over the last two years. We haven’t really changed the margin structure, but the absolutes have gone up. No one else in the industry has even looked at the last mile stakeholders – distributors and vendors, etc., - and their welfare. The price increase also helps them realize better value for their effort.”
Aranala also says that the Group has a very strong process of renewals, and claims that the renewal rate in Bangalore is about 78-80%. “The CAGR over the last three years is at double-digits, in the 10-20% range, in terms of subscription revenue. This year, we are gunning for 15% growth. The thrust is not just on volume growth but also on the realization per copy,” Lochan adds, explaining that 25% of the revenues come from subscription, and the aim is to ensure that subscription revenues grow faster than advertising revenues. The Group has also refrained from bundling any of its other products with The Hindu at one price point. For example, when The Hindu Tamil was launched, the modus operandi adopted was to see what numbers the brand pulls in by itself. However, there were specific markets, like Coimbatore, where the coupling strategy was attempted with a limit on the number of such copies.
‘I hope execution lives up to the design standard of the new IRS’
A fourth-generation reader of The Hindu, Rajiv Lochan, CEO & MD, Kasturi and Sons Ltd describes his journey at the company “as character building to reflect all the changes that we have had to deal with and execute”. A former partner at McKinsey, Lochan’s first year in the company was focused on turning it around financially and once that was achieved, the stage was set to drive growth. Here, Lochan talks to Simran Sabherwal about the growth avenues for The Hindu Group, his take on the Times of India and more....
How would you want to drive growth – organically, or are mergers and acquisitions on the agenda?
On these two, we want to embrace the genius of ‘and’. We don’t want to say organic ‘or’ inorganic, but do what is right for the reader and the shareholder. On organic growth, we have a very clear road map. Inorganic, by definition, is driven by availability and is opportunistic in nature. We will always keep our eyes open for new capabilities that we don’t have and we are quite actively scouting around for capabilities in the Digital space. There also might be a piece of technology that we would want to pick up.
Are you looking at entering other media verticals such as Radio, Television, etc., in future?
As part of our Vision 2020 exercise, we took a very deep look at all media verticals. We evaluated Radio quite closely, looked at TV, both GEC and non-GEC, and also Outdoor as a category. We concluded that given our strengths, our aspirations and given what it takes to get into these businesses, it doesn’t make sense for us to get in there. The one space we looked at quite closely and have invested in is the Events, Expos and Activation space. We have set up a separate business now for organizing Expos in Real Estate, Education, Auto, etc., where we bring together large manufacturers and audiences. We also organize events, concerts and book readings, etc. Then there are our ‘marquee’ or curated events to position our brands, such as Theatre Fest, Music November Fest, Lit For Life and The Huddle. This year, we are looking to launch a fairly big event for Business Line. There is also a whole pillar of Activations, which we are curating and establishing quite strongly.
How is the sales alliance OneIndia with ABP and HT Media working?
It’s been three years in the running. We are growing at high double-digits, year on year. The three of us - Rajiv Verma, CEO, HT Media, DD Purkayastha, MD & CEO of ABP and I – review the progress every month with our respective teams. We are seeing a greater understanding and acceptance of a pan India footprint, from advertisers and media agencies, that this alternative works as a counter offering to what was the only offering in the market. Like every other alliance, there is a requirement of aligning on multiple fronts as we belong to three different organizations. It’s to the credit of the three organizations that we managed to stick together, grow and show results. This can actually be quite a game-changer for each stakeholder and drive more value for the advertiser.
What are your expectations from the new IRS?
I expect that this time the process, the technology, and the checks and balances will be far more robust. This was the objective with which the new IRS was set out. It is moving along fine, but the reality is that there is a little bit of a cloud on this. I do hope that the cloud shifts and everything is hunky-dory. We live in an era where it is critical that we have sound measurement, but it’s also critical that it is objective, unbiased and completely impartial. I joined the technical committee of the Readership Studies Council of India (RSCI) to ensure that the methodology would be as robust as possible, test the technology and put in place the checks and balances. So, design was quite well thought through with experienced minds invested in creating the design. Now between the design and the execution is where the rubber meets the road. The one big shift is that there is a lot more transparent communication this time, compared to last time, and updates come quite regularly. Hopefully, the on-ground execution is also meeting the design standard.
How do you assess your competitor, the Times of India?
We see Times of India as a peer, not necessarily a competitor. I have a great deal of respect for their business acumen. The big distinction between them and us is important to highlight, and I will do this using their words and ours. A member of TOI’s senior management has been quoted as saying that they are in the ‘business of advertising’ and that characterizes them very well. We, by choice, are in the profession of journalism. There is a big difference between the two. We will let the readers and the market decide what works.
MINING THE ARCHIVES
The Hindu Group has archives dating back to 1881, and its Special Publications unit is looking to find thematic topics that could be mined from the archives and monetized. For example, for the birth centenary of classical singer MS Subbulakshmi, a special volume was curated by mining content from the archives. The mandate to the team is to identify a million titles.
“The Hindu is now becoming more open to conversation on innovations, earlier they were more strict. They are changing because the world is becoming a more competitive place for them. They have a very strong Digital footprint. If they are able to build a strong audience based on Digital as a platform, they will certainly be relevant to me.”
Managing Partner, Maxus India
“The Hindu used to go by their rule book, but now they understand and act according to the market requirement. On innovations, the editorial still has more to say than a sales person. They make sure that whatever is proposed doesn’t disrupt the reader experience. However, a client gets his money’s worth after paying a premium as they do not clutter the paper with innovations.”
Senior Business Director, Dentsu X
“For categories which are Print-driven, such as Retail, Consumer Durables, Auto, Banking and Finance, The Hindu becomes an important vehicle as it reaches the right audience and has huge numbers in TN. You cannot do a launch campaign without The Hindu in the media mix.”
VP (Chennai), Omnicom Media Group
Meanwhile, as the reader’s user experience is of paramount importance to the company, it has done away with a number of disruptive or intrusive ad formats as also ads that are in conflict with the design. Says PM Balakrishna, Vice President, Advertising Sales (National Accounts), The Hindu Group, “The reader of The Hindu pays a premium to read us and this clearly reflects in that they appreciate our content. Any brand which is part of this content gets the rub-off credibility, which is what we are telling brands.” According to media planners we contacted, The Hindu has the highest share of NCCS A readers, about 86%, which makes it a must for any media plan in the South, particularly Tamil Nadu.
AN ALL-INDIA EDITION FUELS THE AMBITION
In November 2015, The Hindu entered the highly lucrative Mumbai market with a low-key launch. Commenting on how the Mumbai edition has fared, Lochan says, “We have steadily seen it grow. We were clear that we didn’t want to be a large scale newspaper competing on volumes, but wanted to compete on value and we signalled that very clearly with our cover price of Rs 8 on weekdays.” He then delivers the punchline: “We want to be India’s national voice with a Southern accent.” The strategy the company has adopted is an all-India edition for the ‘North of the Vindhyas’ market, which gives it flexibility to print in multiple locations and enter new cities in addition to the 17 editions it currently has. It is estimated that in Delhi the circulation for The Hindu is around two lakh copies and in Mumbai, it is around 40,000-50,000.
Aranala says, “This year, a key imperative is to get into Tier II towns. The only challenge we see is that we don’t have direct distribution there, but we have a very strong agent network that distributes the paper on the second or third day. Now with the single all-India edition, we can give them the paper at daybreak.” This quarter, The Hindu plans to deliver copies to readers at daybreak in Pune, Cuttack and Patna, and other cities on the radar are Rajkot, Jaipur, Surat, Bhubaneshwar, Bhopal and Guwahati.
As for the regional space, the Hindu Tamil launched in 2013 and has a circulation of around 2.5 lakh copies today. It is at No. 4 behind Daily Thanthi, Dinakaran and Dinamalar in Tamil Nadu. Shankar Subramaniam – Business Head, The Hindu Tamil & Vice President, Advertising Sales (South Accounts), The Hindu Group says the paper has still managed to grab a share of the advertiser’s wallet. “Our positioning has helped us create a dent in the advertising pie of the competition.
What added to this conversation with the client was the negligible duplication between the mother brand and this new brand of ours,” he adds, mentioning that there is scope for the English newspaper to grow on the back of Tamil as areas neglected earlier because of low demand can now be targeted.
The Hindu Business Line has 17 editions, and to boost its digital presence, a revamped website is expected to be up and running by October. In line with the Group’s strategy, new products or content are also being curated for its targeted audience. An example of this is Business Line on Campus (BLOC), a freemium digital product specifically targeting business school students and aspirants with a pay-wall for premium content. “We have more than 7,000 subscribers and 250 institutions and business schools who see value and pay for BLOC,” Raghavan Srinivasan – Editor, The Hindu Business Line says.
LOOKING AHEAD: INVESTMENTS IN DIGITAL AND TECHNOLOGY
The Hindu was among the first Indian publications to start a website way back in 1995, but it wasn’t long before competition caught on and raced ahead with The Hindu not “paying much attention by way of investments and taking a cautious approach to digital properties”. That has changed in the last three years, with the group systematically investing in technology, product development capability and user understanding to grow its digital properties. Taking its app upgrade a notch ahead of its peers, The Hindu added a personalized home screen feature that allows readers to customize their home screen based on region and news preferences.
As part of its Vision 2020, the Group plans to bring into the market a continuous pipeline of new products catering to new segments, be it Digital or Print, and also in its Events and Activation divisions. An important focus area is also to build relevance and scale for magazines. A separate unit has already been created under Circulation, called ‘Magazines and Special Publications’, and its mandate is to identify sub-segments and hyper-local requirements, understand their needs and serve them. “About 70% of our readers are young and as we go thematic, we are focusing on target segments,” affirms Sathya Sriram, AVP, Strategy & Marketing, The Hindu Group.
The Vision 2020 exercise also saw new printing units being set up in Bangalore and Tirupati, and the one in Hyderabad being upgraded, with further investments proposed for Delhi and Tamil Nadu. The Group is also focusing on the content management system, user platform and technology upgradation, and the total capex outlay over the next three years for this is around Rs 200-250 crore.
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