Change is vital to Sun, Province

When The Vancouver Sun transformed itself into a morning paper on Sept. 16, 1991, the skeptics went crazy.Why, they asked, would the publisher of the broadsheet Sun - who was also publisher of the city's morning tabloid, The Province - allow...

When The Vancouver Sun transformed itself into a morning paper on Sept. 16, 1991, the skeptics went crazy.

Why, they asked, would the publisher of the broadsheet Sun – who was also publisher of the city’s morning tabloid, The Province – allow both papers to compete directly for readers and advertisers?

Was this some sort of sadistic plot perpetrated by the vast network of Vancouver weeklies? Had someone lost his mind? Did this spell the demise of one of the two papers?

Fear and deep suspicion seem to be the automatic response to change in our industry – where for too long we have clung to the false security of old ways and familiar habits.

Change essential

But here is my message from the Western Front: continuous change is not only possible, it is essential. Especially in the newspaper business.

The Vancouver CMA market is a hotbed for the printed medium. With a population of 1.6 million people, it has 34 community newspapers and two dailies.

In spite of the plethora of printed competition, The Vancouver Sun and The Province continue to be dominant.

Combined, they are read in an average week by 1.1 million adults (which is 87% of all the over-18-year-olds) and have maintained a major share of the print advertising revenue.

But in the late 1980s, it appeared as though the once-successful Sun was gradually losing touch with its franchise.

And, at the same time, the feisty tabloid Province seemed stalled.

The situation called for some dramatic action.

The first step in the road to renewed growth was to approach the problem in a true marketing context.


First, research the market, identifying its key attributes.

Second, research the two products, determining consumers’ needs and preferences.

Third, redesign both products with a clear vision and strategy of differentiation.

And, fourth, promote the dickens out of both in an aggressive and fresh way.

The results?

Moving The Vancouver Sun to mornings, together with a major graphic and editorial makeover transformed a tired broadsheet into the fastest-growing daily newspaper in Canada.

Supported by a successful direct response tv campaign, the paper increased its paid circulation by 26,000 in slightly more than 90 days.

No decline

At the same time, The Province did not suffer the circulation decline direly predicted – a testament to the loyalty of its franchise.

Not content to rest on our laurels with this success, in 1992 we conducted yet more in-depth research.

And, armed with new data, The Vancouver Sun developed a number of key positioning strategies aimed to appeal to its key demographic of adults aged 25-44.

These included: a renewed editorial focus on local news; more emphasis on business; and increased lively arts and entertainment coverage.

Here is how we described our brand character: contemporary, urban, involved, intelligent and vibrant. And, from that, our new positioning statement emerged – ‘Something to say everyday.’

We launched a new ad campaign, created by McKim Baker Lovick/BBDO in Vancouver and we have followed it in 1993 with another direct response tv campaign. The objective is to increase paid circulation by another 20,000.

(Incidentally, sophisticated response tracking allows us to fine tune our media buys, so we can reduce our cost per order. We know exactly which stations, which programs and which time slots are most effective for us.)


Meanwhile, over at The Province, the research has demonstrated that the Lower Mainland has a voracious appetite for sports.

Perhaps our gutsiest and most controversial decision was moving the sports section so that it started on the outside back page.

Although commonplace in Europe, only one other major newspaper in North America has made this dramatic change.

But extensive research clearly pointed out that readers loved the idea, and we delivered it.

Ad campaign

All of these changes were wrapped in perhaps the freshest ad campaign any newspaper has undertaken.

Steve Brooks at McKim Baker Lovick/ BBDO, Vancouver, created, Vinnie our newspaper icon – a newspaper box character complete with ‘Blues Brothers’ sunglasses.

We flooded the tv and radio airwaves with Vinnie and spun off all kinds of Vinnie promotional items – sweatshirts, umbrellas and sunglasses – and coming soon to sporting events and concerts, a full-size mascot.

‘Paper With Attitude’

The Province’s positioning statement became, ‘The Paper With Attitude.’

Now there is absolutely no mistaking the positioning of The Vancouver Sun versus The Province.

But the change has not stopped yet. Today we are exploring ways in which technology can help us become more relevant to readers and advertisers.

Both papers have now launched their own interactive telephone promotions in which the player participates using a telephone keypad.

The Sun is now running a business game – Portfolio Challenge – with the grand prize of an Acura Integra. At The Province, there is the Labatt’s Call The Winners promotion.

Here a major newspaper, a major tv station (bctv) and a major brewery are all working as partners to develop a extensive consumer database while providing readers with a fun contest.

What does it do for us? Well, recently, The Province used the database to identify frequent players who were not subscribers.

Now these 3,8000 names will be direct marketed with a unique subscription offer. What’s more, this robust database can be marketed to other interested parties, truly providing a value-added service.

In fact, when it comes to databases, even more exciting opportunities emerge.

Take our subscriber list, for example. Each daily has an extensive list, although, at present, all they contain are names, addresses and subscription patterns. But enrich this information, and a whole new world of direct marketing awaits.

We are exploring doing exactly that, with the anticipated launch of a Loyalty Club.

By offering a plethora of premiums, discounts and unique services, we will build membership in the club.

(The positioning philosophy would be: ‘Membership has its reward.’)

Then we would market this database to hungry direct marketing advertisers and businesses.

The more participating direct marketers, the more benefits flowing to the members, the more we will be able to enlarge and enrich the database, and on and on.

The Loyalty Club would allow us to increase two key elements of our business: our paid subscriber base and advertising revenues.

So, in this brave new world of constant change, what have we learned?

We have learned there is nothing so magical about newspapers that they have a divine right to success. It is a tough competitive business – sort of like most other businesses.

At The Vancouver Sun and The Province we have learned to stay relevant, to stay in touch, to anticipate changing appetites, to stay on top of changing times, and to keep changing ourselves.

We have learned: if it ain’t broke, fix it anyway.

Ron Clark is vice-president of marketing at Vancouver-based Pacific Press, publisher of The Vancouver Sun and The Province.