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By: Joe Nicholson

‘The Press-Enterprise,’ ‘San Bernardino County Sun’ Battle It Out

California’s San Bernardino County has become a battleground between the dominant San Bernardino County Sun and an invading neighbor, Riverside’s The Press-Enterprise, which is employing “ambush marketing” tactics to try to boost its circulation.

The Press-Enterprise’s tactics, referred to variously as “ambush marketing” or “guerrilla promotion,” involve efforts to offset a rival’s sponsorship of an important promotional event by creating a public impression that the nonsponsor is actually the sponsor.

“You surround the event with various advertising and promotional activities to the point where people think you are the sponsor,” explained Jack Trout, a renowned marketing expert and president of Greenwich, Conn.-based Trout & Partners. Trout, whose firm advises clients on marketing strategy, said Nike used this sort of “ambush marketing” with the Olympics. Trout referred to Nike’s multimillion-dollar ad campaign using top Olympic stars to grab the spotlight from Reebok, an official sponsor of the 1996 Olympics.

In San Bernardino County, The Press-Enterprise began its new edition with an invasion plan that called for promotional support from sponsorships to help build circulation. The county’s most coveted sponsorship event is a six-day bicycle race that begins in the city of Redlands and is known as the Redlands Bicycle Classic. The race draws more than 50,000 spectators, and some fans regard it as America’s closest imitation of the Tour de France.

The Press-Enterprise failed in repeated attempts to replace the Sun as the race’s official newspaper sponsor. Race promoter and founder Carole Beswick told E&P that event officials had “a certain loyalty” to the Sun and felt The Press-Enterprise “circulation until recently hasn’t had any real numbers that made sense in our county.” Over the last three years, San Bernardino circulation in the county has grown from 4,000 to 14,000, according to The Press-Enterprise.

Frustrated Press-Enterprise executives met and decided, “‘No’ doesn’t have to be a final answer,” recalled Joe Frederickson, the paper’s vice president for marketing and immediate past president of the Dallas-based International Newspaper Marketing Association. “In my experience, entirely too many newspaper marketers take ‘no’ for an answer and walk away,” said Frederickson.

Press-Enterprise executives threw resources into coverage and promotions to try to become the race’s newspaper of record for this year’s March 7-12 race. Among other things, The Press-Enterprise:

Published editions with special wrap-around covers about the race, and had hawkers sell them.

Expanded race coverage by increasing the sports section with two added full-color pages and a blizzard of race photographs.

Published a 20-page race guide, and deployed 30 to 40 college students to hand out 4,000 copies of the free guide.

Rented a lot within sight of the race starting line and parked a big delivery truck with a 28-foot-long ad for the paper on the side facing the crowd.

Set up a booth at the first turn in the race to give away guides, sell the paper, and sign up subscribers.

The Press-Enterprise blitzkrieg worked, according to attacking field general Frederickson, who said a remark by one of his staffers summed up the group’s feeling: “We were successful in creating the impression that we were the official newspaper sponsor, which, of course, we weren’t.”

Even Beswick, the race official who has supported keeping the Sun as its sponsor, said the Sun needs to remind county residents that it, not The Press-Enterprise, is still the official sponsor. “It will behoove the Sun to make that more of a point in the things that they print,” she suggested.

Press-Enterprise Editor, Publisher, and President Marcia McQuern, who masterminded the strategy, said that so far the public has been “bemused” by what she called her paper’s occasional “guerrilla promotions.” McQuern emphasized that “guerrilla” tactics represent only a tiny fraction of her promotion efforts and added that she was selective about using “guerrilla” tactics because “you can be nasty to your competition in ways that you don’t [keep] the public with you.”

So far, war seems to be healthy for all involved. The latest Audit Bureau of Circulations Fas-Fax shows that The Press-Enterprise, which has more than twice the total circulation of its rival, and the Sun both gained circulation. The Press-Enterprise’s daily circulation is 173,132; the Sun’s daily circulation is 77,672.

While McQuern may be right that the public has been “bemused” by her tactics, her rivals at the Sun are by no means amused.

William Dean Singleton, whose MediaNews Group Inc. runs the Sun, derided McQuern’s “guerrilla” tactics as ineffective. “The Press-Enterprise is trying to sell a few newspapers [in San Bernardino County], and they are run by a publisher who is a big ball of hot air, and you would expect this kind of silly thing from her,” declared Singleton, who is known as a ferocious competitor.

Asked if he objected to McQuern’s tactics, Singleton insisted, “I don’t have any problem” with her tactics. Asked what sort of tactic might constitute going too far, Singleton said, “I don’t know.

“We own the market, and they are trying to get a little piece of it, and none of these things sounds like they would be very effective,” declared Singleton. “As long as their company wants to waste that money, Godspeed!”

Singleton said he wouldn’t stop one of his publishers from using “guerrilla” or “ambush” tactics,

explaining: “If they wanted to do that, they could. Most of our publishers are smarter than that.” The best way to build circulation is by bolstering local news coverage, he said.

Referring to Dallas-based Belo, which owns The Press-Enterprise, Singleton said, “They’ve got a playpen over at The Press-Enterprise, and they’re having fun playing with the parent company’s money, but that won’t last forever. … It baffles my mind why Belo allows their publisher to do some of the silly things she does.”

Trout, the marketing expert, said McQuern should not worry about infuriating Sun officials because, “The angrier [a rival] gets, the more successful you’ve been.”

Joe Nicholson (jnicholson@editorandpublisher.com is an associate editor for E&P.

Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.

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