A cautionary tale of changing your brand name without doing your homework

When Australian Family Physician changed its name to The Australian Journal of General Practice, it seemed like a logical move. Here, Jeremy Knibbs explains why it wasn't.

At 10am last Friday, in a small meeting room of the Australian Medical Publishing Company, on the 23rd floor of Town Hall Tower in Sydney’s CBD, the cream of Australian medical publishers were meeting for their annual reveal of their syndicated readership research results.

As if resisting the march of time and technology, these publishers and their print publications (digital too) are still a major vehicle for pharmaceutical marketers, and the readership results technically set the bar on how they share their money out in the following year. Tightly targeted print distribution and regulations surrounding display advertising for pharmaceuticals has kept print as the most effective way to do branding in this market.

Most years this meeting is a very banal ritual. Usually each publication might shift their overall readership figure by a percent or even less and nothing really changes. The publishers have a quick whinge about market conditions, exchange a few war stories, and leave. Same as it ever was.

But this year there was a lot of tension in the room. For the last three years, the market brand gorilla, the weekly newspaper Australian Doctor, had been sliding slowly in readership, and one of the medical journals owned by the Royal Australian College of GPs (RACGP) had been gaining to the point where now the leader only had the slimmest of margins, at 71.7% to 71.4%.

Although statistically the 0.3% was well within the error margin on the readership research, and therefore there was technically no difference in readership between the titles, Australian Doctor had been number one for the best part of 30 years. It was in their DNA and it was a cornerstone of all their branding. Losing the lead could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars shifting out of one publication into the new leader.

The most tense person in the room at the beginning of the meeting had to be the publisher of Australian Doctor. Losing meant a lot. But in retrospect, it was the sales director of the RACGP journal who should have been the worried one. Although the RACGP journal was trending in every way to take the crown this year, for reasons which seemed to many in the college completely sensible, the RACGP had changed the name of its publication in February, just three months before the three-month annual syndicated readership research period started.

The RACGP journal sales director has been selling the RACGP journal for many years now, and doing an increasingly good job as its readership marched up. His best year was this past year.

So when he opened his research pack to take a peek at the top line of this year’s results, he must have gone pale. The RACGP journal, which had been named Australian Family Physician (AFP), from 1971 until February this year, and had been redesigned and renamed to The Australian Journal of General Practice (AJGP), had suffered the worst single drop in readership history by a factor of two. They had lost 22% of their readers. They had dropped from 71.4% to 55.6% in readership.

The mood around the room became disturbingly eery as everyone realised what had happened. No casual banter about market conditions or colourful client stories were exchanged. It was mostly silent. Australian Doctor was saved, but was not about to boast about it. And the other major clinical journal, Medicine Today, was suddenly a strong number one clinical journal at 68%, and the next possible contender to the crown at only two points behind Australian Doctor, which, as the trends predicted, had slipped again in its readership from 71.7% down to 71%.

Given the trend of the last three years, it seemed entirely likely that if the RACGP had left AFP alone, it would have been number one this year. That might have meant a huge shift in marketing dollars to the title. When I was publisher of Australian Doctor a few years back, we calculated that if we were beaten by just 0.1% and could not claim that number one title, we may have lost as much as $2 million in one year to the challenger.

But it’s worse than that for the RACGP.

Now they have to face off with media buyers with the stark reality that their name change has meant that 22% of their past readers and members do not recognise them any more.

Fortunately for the RACGP, most of the medical buyers are savvy. They realise the RACGP journal was nearly at number one and that the college is a hugely powerful influence in the market. They aren’t likely to abandon them in relative terms to this drop in readership. But it is likely that some hit is coming, as it is apparent that the drop in terms of actual eyeballs on publication page is very real.

Technically, the difference between keeping the journal with its old name and hitting number one without any of the promotional costs of changing the name, versus losing 22% of your readership, amortised over, say, the next three to four years, is a figure most likely well into the multi-millions for the RACGP.

Looking back, the RACGP’s decision seems mad. What were they thinking would happen?

When we all heard Australian Family Physician was changing its name to The Australian Journal of General Practice, the new branding came with a lot of logic to it. The word physician isn’t used to describe GPs in Australia. It’s used in the US. GP is a specialisation and the RACGP had done much in terms of consumer branding to push this message and the GP brand, especially with their campaign, ‘Not Just A GP’, which you might have seen on TV or on airport billboards. In addition, physician is the term used to describe another speciality – physicians – who have a separate medical college, The Royal Australian College of Physicians (RACP).

Adding the word journal to the name seemed like a good idea, too. It would add credibility to the publication among doctors, put it up in the more esteemed branding league of the AMA’s much more academically cited Medical Journal of Australia, and lift the credibility of the journal overseas where it is distributed to 2000 libraries and institutions, and is cited by major global medical journal indexes.

That was not terrible logic.

But it seems there wasn’t much thought or even research on the potential downside of the change.

When a company changes a brand name you will usually see a very critical reason underlying the decision – a merger, an acquisition, or a major strategy product change – and a tonne of research and organisational re-positioning. The RACGP did virtually none of this. They didn’t check properly. They didn’t market that heavily. They just thought it was a good idea. On spec, it seemed to be.

The RACGP, perhaps optimistically, seems to be planning a fast comeback. Maybe they will come back quickly. Maybe it’s “just a blip”, as one RACGP insider said to me. But if it’s not, it should serve as a cautionary tale for company or brand who thinks a brand name change is a walk in the park.

Jeremy Knibbs is the ex CEO of Reed Business Information, ex publisher of Australian Doctor and Medical Observer, and founder of the new medical newspaper, The Medical Republic.


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