Gannett ad marks shift in marketing strategy, biz focus – a mistake?

This is from a blog post on my MediaTrope site:

I have never heard a Gannett ad on television before, but today for the first time I listened to my former employer tout its corporate brand — as opposed to any of its sub-brands like USAToday. I had heard about this new marketing strategy, but this was the first I had seen of it (probably because I was stuck this summer in a place without television). I understand that Gannett wants to raise brand awareness, but I’m not sure it’s the best strategy for them right now, in this market.

I doubt people outside the profession of journalism or finance know that Gannett is the largest newspaper chain, operates one of the only national newspapers, or is ranked in the 2011 Fortune 500. (By the way, while you visit this link from CNN, check out Gannett’s 65% increase in annual profits during 2010! Course it’s average annual growth rate for the last decade has been a stunning NEGATIVE 9.2%. Ouch. Still, I’m struck by how much it has recovered in just a few months, and find myself hoping the growth is indicative of a fundamental turnaround for newspapers specifically even as I realize it’s probably just a byproduct of the advertising industry rebound.) And I suspect few know the chain has also been building to its digital-marketing company holdings, positioning itself as an information marketer and not just an information provider.

The ad — which was fairly general in content — is meant merely to make more people aware of Gannett’s name, but I can’t help but wonder if this television ad marks a subtle in shift in mega-marketing for news organizations in general, refocusing on the parent company rather than the local brands.

When I was working for Gannett newspaper (2000-2006), there were rumors the parent company was going to begin packaging its local products under an umbrella USAToday. Thus a newspaper reader in, say, Vermont, would gain access not only to The Gannett property The Burlington Free Press but also the “Nation’s Newspaper,” USAToday. I thought that was a great idea, actually, because it offered clients value add and also represented a chance for struggling local papers (not necessary for the Free Press, of course, which was a cash cow) to gain renewed vigor through its attachment to a successful and well-known product. The marketing plan — if it ever existed at all!! These kinds of rumors were always swirling around the newsroom — did not materialize while I was there.

Then last spring Gannett announced its “It’s all within reach” marketing campaign. From the press release about the strategy:

The new identity will be rolled out across all Gannett properties to create a stronger association between the Gannett corporate brand and its portfolio of properties. All Gannett businesses will identify themselves as Gannett companies.

However, such a shift to the parent company of Gannett is a mistake, I think, at least for the local news organizations. The niche news segment of local and also hyperlocal could be a key market for corporations, whose entrenched community presence tends to offer a significant advantage as an easily identified, familiar information provider for citizens during a time of overwhelming information overload from blogs, aggregators, Twitter and Facebook. To turn away from community-organization branding would be a lost opportunity, in my opinion. Right now is exactly when Gannett might want to re-emphasize its local-local ties via its sub-brands — during the this era of incredible digital noise. Its community properties could be framed as a familiar neighbor who knows everything, rather than as a mere arm of some unknown outsider.