As Axel Springer Expands, Its US Identity Remains a Question

The German media company has some brand awareness challenges

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The German media company Axel Springer SE announced plans in February to shift its commercial focus toward the U.S. and its lucrative advertising market. But it will need to more clearly define its identity and the value of its portfolio of publishers in order to realize its goals, according to interviews with media buyers and analysts.

The company owns two of the largest publishers in Germany, Bild and Welt, and its U.S. holdings include Insider, Politico and an ownership stake in the business newsletter Morning Brew. 

As part of its expansion into the U.S., Springer has invested significant resources into Politico, which it acquired in August 2021 for more than $1 billion. In the last year, the company has hired 400 journalists across its U.S. newsrooms, with a particular focus on California, according to The Wall Street Journal.

As the company grows, however, it will have to contend with the challenges that inevitably face a foreign brand whose domestic portfolio came together via a string of acquisitions. 

Springer is profitable, and its U.S. properties have weathered the economic downturn largely unscathed—Politico and Insider have yet to lay off staff amid an industry-wide culling. But media buyers are unfamiliar with the Springer brand, and they are unsure of how—or if—its portfolio of titles aims to function as a cohesive unit or a federation of loosely related titles. 

“They only became a proper portfolio after acquiring Politico,” said one senior sales executive who was familiar with its business but unauthorized to speak with the press. “Now the question becomes: What are you pitching beyond ‘more than one site’?”

At Cannes Lions, Springer will debut its Power Haus, the first time the company has invited media buyers to consider the company as a house of brands, according to an invitation obtained by Adweek. 

The siren song of the American market 

Springer is far from the only European media company with an eye on the massive U.S. market. Publishers from Western Europe have sought to make inroads in the American market with varying degrees of success. 

Springer has taken a different approach, acquiring American brands rather than importing its own, a strategy that reduces the headwinds posed by cultural differences. 

But if the company hopes to flourish as an American media company, it will need to acclimate to the distinct ecosystem of the U.S. market.

“The U.S. market is too big, too deep and hyper-competitive, and in the past European publishers have brought butter knives to a gunfight,” said media analyst Brian Morrissey. “What makes Springer interesting is that they could actually pull it off.”

Low brand awareness

Despite entering into the U.S. in 2015 with its acquisition of Business Insider, Springer has yet to develop a substantive relationship of its own with prominent media agencies, according to a buy-side executive who spoke on background to discuss sensitive matters.

In many instances, media buyers are far more familiar with the U.S. publishers owned by Springer, particularly Politico and Insider, than with the holding company itself.

This lack of brand familiarity is not disastrous on its own, but Springer will need to cultivate stronger bonds with the buying community if it hopes to evolve its appeal from a provider of audiences to a content partner, said one of the executives.

Springer could hire a chairman for its U.S. business, as well as other senior sales talent, to shepherd those relationships. The company could also seek to enhance or build off of the existing relationships Insider and Politico executives have crafted, said the executive. 

An uneven portfolio 

Another challenge facing Springer comes from the diversity of its publisher portfolio, whose three properties serve distinct readers and advertising categories.

Insider reaches a general interest audience, Politico serves political insiders and Morning Brew caters to young professionals, meaning few brands will want to buy inventory across all three. Unless Springer adds more titles to the mix—and the company has expressed interest in doing just that—the publishers gain little from being a part of the Springer bundle. 

Springer has also yet to take advantage of certain operational efficiencies, as its U.S. publishers work out of different buildings, use different content management systems and manage their own sales teams. 

In its investment strategy, Springer has furthered the trend, dedicating the majority of its resources to just one of the titles, Politico, leaving buyers unsure of what the company plans to do with Morning Brew and Insider. 

The pattern suggests a strategy of letting its publishers operate independently, a sensible approach from a cautious owner but one that forfeits many of the benefits of shared resources. 

But if the company wants advertisers to view Springer as a complementary collection of publishers, it will first have to treat them as such.

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