Our Opinion (Yankton Press & Dakotan): A newspaper’s brand and political tricks

Like any other business, one of the essential ingredients in creating a successful newspaper is bonding with your customers. You cultivate a level of trust with those who purchase your product, meaning they will know what to expect from you in each edition.

This is something that's hard-earned, and it is never taken lightly.

As such, we can't blame the publisher of the Dakota Dunes/North Sioux City Times for becoming upset when, just before last week's election, the Union County Republican Party put out a publication titled the "Lincoln Union County Times" that looked a lot like the actual newspaper, but its content was devoted to promoting GOP candidates and positions.

According to Dakota Dunes/North Sioux City publisher Bruce Odson, several of his readers were confused by the lookalike publication, creating what he called "mass confusion."

"We got calls saying, 'I can't believe you did that,' and I explained it wasn't us," he told the Press & Dakotan.

Odson devoted a part of the front page of last week's edition to highlight the incident and set the record straight.

He added that he believed the local party "knew that they were creating that confusion when they were sending it out."

Not so, said District 16 State Sen. Dan Lederman, who is the county party's chairman. He said the product was not a copycat publication. The name was "completely different" and had a disclaimer on it stating it was from the Union County GOP.

"I think Bruce Odson thinks people are stupid …," Lederman told the P&D.

Given the feedback and complaints Odson said he had, one must wonder what Lederman thinks of those people.

The GOP publication was clearly intended to confuse people. No, it wasn't an exact replica, so Lederman can justify the effort in that way, but it looked close enough to the actual newspaper — using a serif font in all caps for the "Times" name and employing many of the same design elements, albeit slightly altered — that it had to be designed to closely resemble a real and familiar publication.

Lederman has a point in that the name was different and there was a disclaimer, but this explanation is a technicality that glosses over the very important concept of branding. The brand — in this case, the nameplate — is what the readers see, day after day or week after week, and they become completely familiar with it visually. It's really no different than a logo for a soft drink or a chain store. As such, consumers might not notice the small but important tweaks that distinguish a copycat from the genuine article. That doesn't make the readers stupid; instead, it indicates in this case how effectively the real newspaper has branded itself visually. It also shows how carefully the copycat publication worked to mimic the real deal.

Lederman added that the party publication was called "Times" because it was a "name that was synonymous with newspapers." Well, so are such names as Journal, Press, Herald, Post, News, Gazette, Chronicle and Tribune. Of course, none of those titles sound like the Dakota Dunes/North Sioux City Times, which again was most certainly the point.

The faux publication's purpose in terms of its design was to function like a curveball that its creators hoped to throw by enough people to perhaps sway some votes. You can't fool all of the people all of the time, but if you can fool some of them once, on the eve of an election …

There are probably just enough differences in the GOP?publication's look — coupled with the disclaimer — that allow the makers of the copycat to legally get away with what they did. Perhaps that can be chalked up to crafty politics.

But the maneuver also willfully strays into unethical territory. It played on the market's familiarity with a local brand and tried to dress up campaign copy as real news. It was a calculated and devious ploy, and Odson has every right to be upset that his publication's brand could be mimicked in such a way.

At the very least, Lederman owes Odson and the readers of the Dakota Dunes/North Sioux City Times an apology.

kmh

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