Tuning up the brand

Several radio stations are relaunching to face the challenges of the digital era, and strong branding is their first line of attack, says David Benady

Radio station rebranding is going off the dial. This week Virgin Radio relaunches as Absolute Radio, and that old favourite Jazz FM is updating its headphone-clad chameleon logo as it revs back to life after a three-year absence. Dozens of local stations are to be rebranded as Heart, while XFM Scotland and Power FM in Bristol are being brought under the Galaxy brand.

Much of this is the result of consolidation following a relaxation of ownership rules by regulator Ofcom, while the prospect of a digital switchover and the increase in online listening is making station owners look afresh at their logos.

But some fear this autumn’s rebranding wave could result in a profusion of bland and meaningless logos, which fail to capture the imagination of the listening public.

The powerful Virgin Radio brand is being axed. Indian media owner the Times of India Group bought the station earlier this year for £53m, but Virgin – one of the world’s most listened-to online radio stations – declined to lease its brand name to the group.

Times of India drafted in radio consultancy Absolute to run the station and create new branding and, after toying with a few ideas, it decided to use its own name for the rebrand. The logo and branding were created by digital group Albion. Absolute brand director Chris Lawson says it has been a ‘high-speed journey’ to rebrand the station in the six weeks since he joined the company from media owner Bauer.

‘We wanted to reposition ourselves as the music and entertainment brand of the future, and we had a blank canvas,’ he says. ‘The defining line is “delivering real music”. The brand needs to be unapologetic and absolute in its ambitions for a core group of people and not to be middle of the road without standing for anything.’

Albion managing director Jason Goodman adds, ‘The brand is multimedia, and not just local but international – a brand that will live as much online as offline. If you own the trade marks and domain names for Absolute globally, that is a real key driver.’

Design observers find the logo somewhat cold and uninspiring. ‘It looks like an internal memo, a rough piece of design that found its way into the advertising,’ says one. ‘It doesn’t say anything,’ says another. But most agree that the real test will lie in how the logo is used in communications. ‘It will take a very distinctive and clever campaign to overcome the powerful heritage of the Virgin brand,’ says an observer. ‘These things don’t happen overnight.’

At the other end of the musical spectrum, Jazz FM is going back to its roots as it relaunches on 6 October using the original chameleon branding created by sales promotions and direct marketing group WARL. Confusingly, the station won’t be available on FM but only via digital radio, the Internet and on Sky.

Jazz FM launch director Tim Nice says, ‘FM is synonymous with radio, and previously Jazz FM was a very successful brand name. Not to bring it back under that banner would be foolish.’ He points out that when analogue radio is switched off within ten years, radio will only be available digitally.

The chameleon device was originally developed for an advertising campaign, but was then adopted as a logo. Chris Ambler, managing director of WARL, says the use of the multicoloured lizard was intended to overcome ‘myths’ people have about jazz being something black and white, with endless saxophone solos wailing out from dingy basements. The Listen in Colour strapline aims to show the station has a rich musical palette, playing blues, soul and a wide range of jazz-related music.

‘The chameleon really struck a chord with people. So many media brands do not attempt to convey a benefit in their communications. They are just an exercise in typography and not a lot more,’ says Ambler.

There will be more activity this autumn as Global Radio rebrands XFM Scotland and Power FM under its Galaxy brand. This follows its buyout of GCap, the UK’s biggest radio station owner, earlier this year.

The Galaxy branding, created in April by Manchester group Creative Spark, has been criticised for lacking passion. However, the Heart logo – which will be imposed on 42 of Global’s local radio stations around the country – has attracted plaudits from designers for simply expressing warmth and emotion.

The commercial radio industry spends a lot of time complaining about the dominance of the BBC and the difficulties the sector has in struggling against the state-controlled leviathan. They may have a point, as the BBC has the money to hire big names such as Jonathan Ross and Chris Moyles, who have become brands in their own right.

But it is incumbent on station owners to spice up their offer and get away from indistinguishable middle-of-the-road offerings. Creating distinctive branding that stands out from the crowd is also essential in attracting the right sorts of listeners.

SWITCH OVERHAUL

• Analogue radio is expected to be switched off around the middle of the next decade. All radio listening will then be on digital radios or via the Internet

• A key task of station branding – to communicate where the station can be found on the dial – will vanish

• Commercial radio is measured through Rajar figures. The two key measures are reach (the number of people who have listened to the station) and hours (how long they listened for)

• Global Radio dominates the UK after its purchase this year of GCap Media – owner of Classic FM, Capital and XFM. Last year, Global bought Chrysalis radio stations Heart, Galaxy and LBC

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