For the half-year to 31 December 2014, the IPKat's regular team is supplemented by contributions from guest bloggers Rebecca Gulbul, Lucas Michels and Marie-Andrée Weiss.

Regular round-ups of the previous week's blogposts are kindly compiled by Alberto Bellan.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Does Good Content Matter? Google's Challenge and Frommer's Dilemma

First, a bit of Kat nostalgia. When this Kat first set foot in Europe in February 1970, his first (air)port of call was Vienna. Then, as now, luggage was a single backpack, which held the usual necessities for that time of year. There was only one book in the backpack and it was there for very practical reasons. This Kat had no idea of what to see, where to eat or, more importantly, where to lodge. And so it was that Frommer's Europe on (I don't remember how many) Dollars a Day served as my lifeline. The Frommer's name and goodwill merged with the reliable Frommer's content. It was an early lesson in the symbiotic relationship between trade marks and copyright.

I thought about those days in reading about the recent apparent flip-flop by Google in connection with its 2012 acquisition and then its April 2013 sale-back of the Frommer's brand and name, together with licensing of certain travel contents, to founder Arthur Frommer. Back in August 2012, Google boldly announced that it was purchasing the Frommer's brand and contents from its owner, John Wiley & Sons. The transaction was described as a potential watershed event in the evolution of Google from being not merely a neutral conduit for contents, but a creator of content as well. As stated by Claire Cain Miller on August 13, 2012, on the Media Decoder blog of newyorktimes.com here, "it is also the latest evidence that Google is trying to transform itself into a media company." But Google was also very coy at that time about whether the acquisition was more about the Frommer brand or its travel-related content. As reported on the Media Decoder report, "Google did not say whether it would maintain the Frommer's brand or continue to publish print Frommer's books."

The answer is now a clear and resounding "no". There is simply no room at Google for the Frommer's trade mark and brand. Thus the Frommer's content is reported as being integrated into Google+ Local business listings and other Google services. These contents are now being consolidated under the name ZagatTravel (Google purchased the Zagat brand and publications, most notably its restaurant guides, in 2011). Moreover, it is reported that various social media accounts in connection with Frommer's, such as Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, are in fact remaining with Google. But as for the Frommer's mark itself, it has been sold back to Mr Frommer. The symbiosis of contents and branding, trade mark and copyright, that characterized Frommer's publications a generation or two, has been irrevocably severed.

And so now comes the question—is there any value left in the Frommer's brand? In the view of Pauline Frommer, the daughter of Arthur Frommer, who will serve as a co-editor with her father in the projected publication program, the answer is "yes".
"… [W]e hope to fill a niche. We know there is an abundance of travel information out there, but we still believe that expert, curated information written by passionate journalists who know their destinations inside and out has a place and a value." 
And the platform for providing this "premium" content will be the Frommer's brand.

One wonders—just how plausible are Ms Frommer's assertions? Why should a user of travel information prefer the Frommer's brand for both print and online content in favour of the ZagatTravel brand (associated with Google) for strictly online content? On the one hand, there is an argument that news organizations, such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, have a reasonable chance of surviving in mixed print and online form because the strength of their respective brands enables them to stand out in an otherwise undifferentiated ocean of commoditized news content (in Ms Frommer's words—"expert, curated information written by passionate journalists"). But here the New York Times and Wall Street Journal brands still maintained much of their traditional lustre; it is precisely the fact that these brands are still robust that may enable them to convince readers that they still stand for quality content. Stated otherwise, there is a symbiosis of content and brand, copyright and trade mark.

The publication plans now being laid out by the father and daughter Frommer (as reported, 40 new titles, half available in both print and digital form and half available only in print) does not seem to enjoy that luxury. Google's decision to go with the Zagat name, rather than the Frommer's name, suggests the value of the Frommer's brand is in doubt. If this be true, then the Frommers need to reestablish the symbiosis of content and brand strength that they previously enjoyed. No matter how good the content, that will be a tall order. It will be most interesting to see how this plays out.

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