Thoughts :Rajiv Beotra, Executive Director, and Rajan Bhalla, Group CMO, HT Media Ltd. Presenter : Dipali Banka Source : Exchange4media

Certainly, COVID-19 has disrupted all business and industries, but we have all adapted and pivoted well as an industry and overall economy as well. The discretion to undertake a large scale consumer research and therefore customise our product was initiated much before the pandemic.

Going through a re-design and re-launch at a time of a pandemic is significant. HT Media, which had initiated the research and background work for an overhaul of its flagship English newspaper Hindustan Times about a year ago, unveiled the new look and design last month. The paper now comes with a multi-platform shareable format. Mario Garcia, global newspaper and magazine designer, worked closely with the HT team throughout this product change. We catch up with Rajiv Beotra, Executive Director, HT Media Ltd., and Rajan Bhalla, Group CMO, HT Media Ltd., on the insights behind re-design, challenges on the way and the outlook going forward.


How has the response been in the last few days? Are there any teething problems that you have faced post the launch of the new design and digital integration?

Rajeev Beotra: It’s been less than a week and we’ve had an outstanding response to our initiative. The changes and paper is trending across social media and among the fraternity. We are getting good response overall. We were hoping for this because we had done a lot of consumer research behind this and the digital and print integration has been of the biggest takes.

Rajan Bhalla: We launched it on 31st of August, and within three days of the launch, we managed to reach roughly about 22 million people. More than 200 influencers posted about it on social media with 92.6% positive sentiments, 25% neutral and barely any negative sentiments or comments. We were trending on Twitter at number 5 for two hours on the day we launched. On Facebook, we got about 18.2 million hits. The launch and positioning has given us overwhelming response.

Can you elaborate on key insights based on which you re-designed the newspaper and what are the key objectives for the brand going ahead?

Rajan Bhalla: It’s a cliché to say this but it’s a reality, that it all starts with the consumer and going deep into the skin of the consumer and understanding where they are today. The total time taken for this launch is about a year and the first six months were only spent in understanding consumer insights. And when we looked at the consumer, when we looked at their consumption habits, (we found) as opposed to conventional wisdom where people think that millennials are only into digital platforms, there is a pretty large chunk of millennials who are into Print as well. Equally, there are large chunks of millennials who are into Digital. And of course, our older readers are also very important.

When we went deep into understanding, a few pieces came through. One was obviously Digital, which is an important source of information, engagement for them, and it was not a surprise. However, when we looked at how they were looking at Print, they said the whole world has moved, the generation has moved, the consumption habits and lifestyle had moved but the newspapers in India are still from the times of their dads and granddads. This is true, not just for us but also our competitors and the entire ecosystem. The third interesting piece that came through was the hierarchy of content; what do I want to consume both on Print and Digital. And all of that became very interesting insights for us. Therefore, the need for brands and platforms is to provide credibility and trust, and that is not just for the Print platform but also Digital. So that is how we tried to bring all this together.

The other interesting piece that came through was that there was higher trust in Print in the COVID landscape. But the legacy of a brand had a role to play. So when you put all of these together, we started challenging the orthodoxies of why can’t Print and Digital get integrated. Why do they have to be two separate platforms? At the end of the day, the consumer is consuming a brand not a certain medium and therefore we led to a product that today is extremely connected to digital platforms.

Just doing a visual change is different, and integrating a new positioning within the team and employee is different. How have you approached this digital integration and what were the key points you kept in mind for this?

Rajan Bhalla: Actually, the foundation for this was laid about two to three years ago when we had digital-first newsrooms. Perhaps it will be amongst the top newsrooms in the world. And what that did was that it brought the Print and Digital teams together; the entire mapping of what are the stories that are trending, what are the stories that are the ones that need to be built on, what are the interest areas, what kind of news will find its way into the front page, into sports, is what was already enabled. What was required was to bring together a positioning that gives people, including the edit folks, a very clear path to tread on. Because otherwise in the absence of that, you can have a frivolous positioning which can be sounding very nice, but it doesn’t give a broader sense of purpose and direction.

From the business point of view, what are going to be synergies between the print and digital teams?

Rajeev Beotra: As far as our business side is concerned, we started a Print and Digital integrated approach to market in March itself, just around the time of COVID-19 outbreak. And it just so happened that this pandemic was a prolonged one and therefore it has stood us in good stride. Given the market trends, the fact that advertisers and brands are now looking at the overall integrated brand plans and several of them had given us briefs for problem solving which included all mediums, we thought that the integrated approach is the best. One team eventually services all the needs for the brand. We’ve made good progress so far.

Going through a re-designing and re-launch during a lockdown of a health crisis can raise its own kind of challenges. What were the challenges that you had to face in the entire process?

Rajeev Beotra: Certainly, COVID-19 has disrupted all business and industries, but we have all adapted and pivoted well as an industry and overall economy as well. The discretion to undertake a large scale consumer research and therefore customise our product was initiated much before the pandemic. So that was something that we had to go ahead with. Also the pandemic has turned out to be a boon in a way. One collateral benefit of pandemic is that the credibility of brands such as ours has actually come out in the fore, even more than ever before in these times. And our news consumption and traffic on our sites have gone up. The launch has happened at the most appropriate time.

Rajan Bhalla: The pandemic has forced us to drive innovative approaches. In the current limitations, we need to put the best face in front of our customers and that is very challenging. But that is what pivoting is all about. Organisation’s pivot in terms of collaborative working, agility and passion made it happen and enabled seamless execution. Some had to venture out to get the dummies done once or twice. But the pandemic has taught us a lot. Of course, there was a dilemma of whether we should launch at this time or later, but we believed in our product and our customers and went ahead with it.

Newspapers have their back against the wall. However, the market scenario in India is different than rest of the world as far as Print is concerned. How do you see the industry going forward?

Rajeev Beotra: Yes, there are headwinds for the print industry. The industry needs to pivot, re-invent itself and find its own narrative. Incidentally our vernacular business is doing well. Distribution is pretty much where it was. Of course, first few months were challenging. But at the same time, we are no longer looking at silos within our own organisation- Print or Digital. We are looking at an overall integrated approach. Our digital business has done superlatively well in the last three months. We are very pleased as to where we are today and will continue to invest in it. We also believe that Print has its own space and will continue to invest in it.