"ABP News has become even stronger after Star" :MCCS CEO ASHOK VENKATRAMANI

For long Indian media was agog with the news that the Rupert Murdoch-owned Star India was going to part ways with its long time Star News joint venture partner the Anandabazar Patrika (ABP) group. And when it finally did happen the split made headlines. Several questions popped up in the minds of media observers: Would losing the Star brand tag lead to an erosion of audiences? Would the little known Kolkata-based ABP group be able to sustain a national TV broadcast news operations on its own? The ABP group, led by the Sarkar brothers - Arup and Aveek babu (as they are known) - did not let the naysayers get to them. They dug their heels in and mandated CEO Ashok Venkatramani to do whatsoever was needed to keep the news channel operations going.

Venkatramani - a former Lever India maanger - chose to maintain the status quo, keeping the branding and packaging the same; only changing the channel’s sobriquet from Star News to ABP News. In hindsight, that decision seemed to be a wise one as ABP News has retained its prime place amongst Hindi news channels even a year after the name change, and it is seen to be as strong a player as it was perceived to be under the avatar of Star News.

Venkatramani spoke to’s Vishaka Chakrapani, recalling the challenges he and his team faced while doing the makeover and how they overcame them to create a new name that smoothly replaced the old one. Not just physically, but also in the minds of its TV viewers.


What was the biggest challenge you faced when you became aware that the Star association was going away and you would have to go it alone as ABP News?

The biggest challenge for us was that for a news channel everything is deposited in the channel’s credibility encapsulated in the brand name. So the brand name of our erstwhile brand was Star so the word Star was very actively there in our brand name and it carried all that it stood for. With Star going away, our biggest challenge was: how do we make sure our entire equity and credibility is transferred from the old brand name to new brand name. Along with the fact that the name will go, there was the risk of losing not just the credibility, but also the business, because everything was linked to our brand name.

Who all would you credit the handling of the whole rebranding of Star to ABP process to?

I think credit goes to the entire team in the company. It also goes to our partners who helped us in this, namely, Lowe Lintas that worked on the creative, Mindshare, that worked on media plan, and all our vendors, customers, partners, consumers. They helped us manage this transition by supporting us through this tough phase. So we got unequivocal support from all.

What do you say ABP has achieved that Star could not manage to get?

These are very big brands and we can’t compare 'A' brand with 'B' brand because by definition each stands for something unique. Each has been loved by consumers and viewers for something special. Just like Star, ABP is also loved. However, I think what has happened is that if you see the last year we’ve become stronger than before and a lot of it goes to the effort people have put to make ABP stand alone as an independent news brand. What has differentiated ABP is not the brand but the effort behind the brand.

Why the decision to do only a name and identity change?

The decision to change only the name and keep everything constant was deliberate because we were facing a tough challenge migrating the equity and we didn’t want to complicate the task with a relaunch because any relaunch shows shift in brand promise. As the communicating story was that ‘the brand is the same, only the name is changed’ we didn’t want to complicate it by adding a relaunch or anything new.

The whole parting was amicable and even now Star continues to distribute our channels abroad as we both found it convenient. These are business decisions and they have already explained why they wanted to part ways. Their point of view was respected

Tell us about codename ‘anamika’.

It was an internal project because we were losing our name and we did not know what our name was going to be so that’s how the word anamika came - something that does not have a name. It was our way of identifying all the work associated with this project. It was more an internal nomenclature. The fact that our name was changing was not in the public domain, it was not known to all the employees. Only a few people knew so it was an identification codename.

Would you say that things had already soured between the two company months before the split?

Actually nothing had soured. Relations have always been cordial. The whole parting was amicable and even now Star continues to distribute our channels abroad as we both found it convenient. These are business decisions and they have already explained why they wanted to part ways. Their point of view was respected.

Why did you stick to an existing idea of giving a three letter name?

Given the time and risk we had, if this process had gone terribly wrong we would have had to wind up. Our revenues would have been badly hit; our ratings would have been hit and rebranding takes a lot of money. ABP is a household name amongst advertisers, buyers, newsmakers and the entire eastern part knows the name so the task becomes familiar if there is familiarity with brand and also we own the brand, most importantly.

What was the effect of the rebranding of Star to ABP on the employees of the company?

The employees rose to the occasion magnificently. Everyone understood the threat and they put in their best. Our attrition rates this previous year have gone down compared to industry rates as well as our previous rates. The fact that everyone contributed to its resurrection and success proved the point that employees helped the company. We continue to attract good talent. Wherever we had vacancy and wanted people, we didn’t have any difficulty. People who left us have also come back. We had realistic expectations. We did not have the ambition or desire to be the hottest company.

Could you tell us the process that was undertaken to retain the look and feel of the channel?

We went through all our key programs and weekly shows. We made sure that the look and feel in terms of music, graphics does not change for a while. Anchors were the same. Even the tone, tenor and language of our news remained same. We didn’t want people to miss out on anything due to logo change. Maintaining status quo was imperative and we did that.

What about the similarity of the logo to the old one?

Attachment to ABP does not happen because of the logo but of the overall colour, look, feel, sound, editorial twist, shows and so on. Our logo is very different. It may seem like it is similar in terms of colour and all but that was deliberate.

How did you market the new name?

We had a proper media plan. Every conceivable media platform was used to communicate change. It was a multi channel media plan - TV, print, outdoor, radio, internet and social media. We advertised this change like any major brand would do. Our aim was to reach 90 per cent of our news viewing audience in the shortest possible time. Consumers interact with news everywhere and we communicated everywhere that our channel was going. We were distributed across 22 countries in the world.

Now, after a year what are the changes that you have seen after the rebranding and marketing that you did?

There’s no big change. Life is continuing. The channel has become better and stronger. All three channels have done better than prior according to ratings. Absolute viewership as well as viewership numbers have gone up.

Until last year ABP was known only in Bengal and Star was known countrywide. How did you plan and implement your strategy to make ABP as a national name?

The fact that we were known as a news channel across the country and even outside of it meant that all we had to do was a seamless migration while holding on to our consumer base. That’s just what we did.

We were clear that we will not lower our rates even if business does not come. The advertisers were extremely supportive. They understood our communication. If we are able to maintain the same reach in terms of reach, audience and news quality then there is not reason why anybody should pay us less

What were the difficulties or hurdles that came in the process?

I think the difficulties were many. First was that we did not have much time to do research and so a lot of the decision making was based on our own knowledge. Second was that we had to make the logo change in a way that we had to not lose some of the values which our channel had prior and carry forward those values. Thirdly we had to make sure the brand promise had to be delivered so everyone in the company had to be doing the same kind of work as before. Fourth was the physical challenge that in a very short window of time we had to change the name everywhere it appears - print, videos, historical archives, mic ids. Then next hurdle was communicating to our shareholders, media planners and buyers, newspaper vendors and consumers. We wrote to them and explained why we were opting for this change. This was a mammoth task that was to be completed in a short amount of time. We made sure the look and feel of the channel does not change.

What are your future plans for marketing/promoting ABP?

The plan is to build a brand. We started a new campaign a month back to strengthen the brand, its core credentials in the news domain. .

Star has a different culture compared to ABP, would you agree? Has the organisation too evolved in its culture with the evolution into ABP News?

Our company had a culture unique to both our parents. Just as a child is not necessarily a replica of mother or father. It has a unique personality. Our company was born out of an association of two parents and our culture is unique.

Your background as one of the finest consumer organisations in India must be helping you a great deal? What insights do you bring to ABP News even today with your Lever experience?

Experience does help. What I bring to ABP is not just marketing insights but the whole gamut of business, administration, finance and people management.

What was the effect of the rebranding on the advertisers? Did you have to change ad rates or have issues with anyone with regard to the change?

We were clear that we will not lower our rates even if business does not come. The advertisers were extremely supportive. They understood our communication. If we are able to maintain the same reach in terms of reach, audience and news quality then there is not reason why anybody should pay us less.

Do you think you have been successful? What indicators tell you that you have?

The whole name change exercise has become a part of history and is also a case study now in IIM Ahmedabad. The fact that we are now consistently delivering, better market share, confidence of advertisers, buyers, trade partners and newsmakers show we have been successful.

What are other initiatives we can expect from ABP going forward? New channels? What kind?

We are looking at growth and expansion. Now that we are on a firm footing it allows us to launch newer and better initiatives.

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