CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - FINANCIAL TIMES. Financial Times struggles to please old and new audience

By diluting its brand, the FT risks losing its original readers.

Last week saw the Financial Times make the latest in a series of structural and editorial changes to combat a flagging financial market.

The departure of its global marketing chief, Gordon Willoughby, part of a "streamlining" of marketing operations that now leaves the paper without an officially designated marketing chief or global marketing budget, shows that the changes to date have not been enough. So what's going on with the UK's historically most respected financial newspaper?

Joanna Manning-Cooper, the FT's director of communications, denies that scaling down its marketing department is linked to the success or failure of the FT's recent efforts to boost circulation. "To say that because we no longer have a global marketing director, we no longer have any marketing expertise at board level, is absolute nonsense. Zach Leonard, the managing director for EMEA, comes from a marketing background himself as do others who sit on the board and the FT continues to take its marketing extremely seriously," she argues.

In the FT's defence, Manning-Cooper says the changes are paying off as circulation was up 9 per cent in May and 6 per cent in June year on year compared with April's figures, pre-revamp. The editor, Andrew Gowers, who has been in the role for two years, introduced the changes.

"The paper looks better and it's easier to navigate, with sharper design. We have more UK-led news than ever before, because we know how important that market is to the FT, with features and a full daily page of sport. The weekend section has three new sections and a new magazine, The FT Magazine. Weekend sales are now higher than the dailies," she says.

However, it's too early to quantify whether circulation will rise enough to make a difference.

On first viewing, the FT's net ABC figure reveals a year-on-year decrease of 5 per cent from January to June 2003 compared with its competitors, where circulation is 3 per cent down year on year across all UK newspapers.

But if you break those figures down, circulation for that period is 461,000, which includes 314,000 newspapers sold abroad. This means that UK circulation from the January to June ABC is 155,000, down 12.1 per cent year on year.

Figures also reveal that while discounted sales are up by 19,179 from 359,000, full-rate UK sales have plummeted from 131,000 to 103,000 year on year. So the circulation decline is far worse than the top-line figures reveal because they include international figures and the FT relies heavily on discounted sales.

Undoubtedly, the FT is in an unfortunate position and not one that's entirely of its own making. The stock market is down 40 per cent, so the newspaper's core audience has significantly diminished. With 30,000 jobs lost in the Square Mile over the past 18 months, the paper needed to take drastic measures to reach out beyond its core City readership. The nature of financial news is changing, as is the way it's consumed. "It's no longer fashionable to talk about finance. People don't want to talk about stocks and shares in a depressed market over dinner. The punters aren't interested in that information anymore," Duncan Sillence, the business director at Starcom Motive, observes.

There's also increasing pressure from other media channels to take into account and the City is able to get most of its information about stocks and shares online. The FT also invested heavily in the dotcom market. "Although in 1999, it proved to be one of the most successful dotcoms, it's not been a long-term financial success, as with most dotcom ventures. It also distracts people from the original product, the newspaper itself," Guy Abrahams, the strategy director of Carat, says. As if the picture wasn't black enough, corporate advertising has plummeted and the newspaper had a poor start to the year with ad revenue down 18 per cent on the same period last year.

Against such a bleak backdrop, it comes as no surprise to learn that circulation has taken a battering and the FT had no choice but to revamp its product in April.

Despite attempts to modernise the paper, media observers view the FT's new editorial strategy with suspicion.

While the magazine was revamped to broaden readership, the changes have been met with fierce criticism from some of its most loyal readers who don't want to see the paper dilute its contents. "The relaunch is a good idea, but it's obviously trying to go for younger readers and make it more accessible when it's fundamentally about the financial market," Abrahams says.

Chris Macdonald, the managing partner of The Times' agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/ Y&R, agrees: "Introducing sports may alienate its original audience. If I am a finance director, I want finance news or comment, not news about Beckham or Bush. Can they really start pitching against the already crowded weekend market?"

Others believe rival broadsheets have adapted to the times and offer more user-friendly business sections than the FT.

The Guardian, for example, has changed its finance section and called it "Business". It's now seen as an extension of news, not a separate entity.

When all's said and done, the FT may be struggling with tight marketing budgets, impoverished ad revenue and a revamp that's yet to be wholeheartedly acknowledged by the business community, but what it has got is a strong, established brand that's instantly recognisable. This, according to media experts, needs to be preserved. "They mustn't brutalise the brand by reacting too quickly when much of their situation is dependent on global markets," Sillence warns. "But things can only get better."

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