Is Berliner Guardian a winner?

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 25 November 2005 12:00AM

Has The Guardian's Berliner relaunch delivered the goods, Alasdair Reid asks.

It is fortunate that the publishers of the major national newspapers in this country appear to have absolutely bottomless pockets, given that some of them have determined rather generously to help us all build substantial DVD libraries. In fact, it has reached the stage where it is easier to see the market in terms of the choice of free newspapers you are offered when you go for your weekly DVD at the newsagent's on a Saturday morning.

The theory, of course, is that all this promotional activity is good for the medium as a whole. It stimulates trial purchase and sampling, with the prospect of attracting new, younger consumers to the medium.

It's no accident, naturally, that this activity coincided with The Guardian's relaunch in Berliner format back in September. It must have known as soon as it set out its elegantly redesigned stall that ferocious mud-slinging would break out all around.

Which makes The Guardian's October sales performance pretty respectable, all things considered. Its sales are up 6 per cent year on year, keeping it above the 400,000 mark, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations figures.

Unfortunately, from a morale point of view, one of its rivals - The Times (which had nothing new to shout about, aside from DVDs) - did even better, turning in a year-on-year increase of 7 per cent.

The Guardian's relaunch goals were straightforward: first, revitalise the product (and brand) as a 21st-century publication, with the compactness and colour this entails; second, entice back defectors who had been lured away to The Times and The Independent when they went tabloid in 2003.

Has it delivered? Of course it has, Carolyn McCall, the chief executive of Guardian Newspapers, says: "Our circulation is way above the target we set ourselves - and our sale is a clean sale. We're very keen on that and our long-term strategic goal is all about developing and maintaining our full-price sale. In contrast to other titles in the market, we are also putting editorial investment in place for the long term and we have exceeded the plan without turning The Guardian into a mid-market paper. We have plenty to shout about."

She adds: "In the nine-week period since (the Berliner relaunch), both The Times and The Independent have put out five DVDs each, and I get the feeling The Times in particular is rattled."

Fighting talk. Not surprisingly, they do not exactly see it that way at The Times. Ian Clark, the director of advertising at Times Newspapers, says: "The Times has not only added sales to take it to more than 700,000 copies, but it has increased its sale faster than The Guardian. That has got to be good for advertisers. The Times is now 80,000 ahead of when it was a broadsheet (in November 2003). Since that date, The Guardian has put on fewer than 20,000 copies. The question, surely, is should The Guardian have reacted sooner?"

Steve Goodman, the group press director at MediaCom, would go further.

He says he is somewhat disappointed with The Guardian's performance. He states: "Editorially, from day one, it looked fantastic and it has continued to do so. I think the format is ideal - it maintains a point of difference while still being ergonomically suited to the way we read when travelling.

Colour is well utilised. It could have been garish but it certainly isn't - it's used sparingly and tastefully. I particularly like Eyewitness (a topical photograph occupying the whole centre spread)."

But he adds: "However, in circulation terms, it hasn't paid off as well as they might have hoped. If you look at The Guardian's six-month figure from May to October, year on year it is not particularly good news. We were looking for a more consistent level of improvement."

But Alison Brolls, the global marketing and media manager of Nokia, does not agree. She says the situation looks encouraging and adds the new format is an attractive proposition for advertisers. She states: "The package is vibrant, well-engineered, full of colour and, dare I say it, sexy.

They have executed the new format with considerable thought, without hastily jumping on to the compacts bandwagon. In the long run, this should pay off."

And Brolls, like many in the market, has little enthusiasm for the kind of short-term promotional tactics many other publishers favour. She concludes: "History has taught us these devices breed promiscuity and do comparatively little to retain long-term circulation stability and eventual growth."

YES - Carolyn McCall, chief executive, Guardian Newspapers

"We have stayed above 400,000 for two months and I'm confident we'll do it for a third. In display advertising, the final quarter is likely to be up 10 per cent year on year. We're bucking the trend in a tough market."

MAYBE - Ian Clark, director of advertising, Times Newspapers

"The Guardian has certainly delivered an improved product and this has put a focus on the qualities. If it had changed when The Times did and had seen similar success, would it now be selling closer to 450,000?"

NO - Steve Goodman, group press director, MediaCom

"September's circulation was encouraging, as you would expect after a relaunch, but overall, the sale still isn't back to the levels it was even between 2001 and 2003. We would have wanted to see signs of a continuing growth in sales."

YES - Alison Brolls, global marketing and media manager, Nokia

"Recent months aside, in the past couple of decades, The Guardian has always been the newspaper least prone to notable circulation fluctuation and there's every chance this could herald a return to form."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haynet.com.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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