MEDIA FORUM: How will other Sundays react to the Star's entry? The Sunday Star may have been regarded as a joke at first, but are its red-top rivals ready for a bloody readership battle?

It's not often that we're accused of asking a witty, droll and sophisticated Forum question. Last week, we caught one marketing director just back from an early Easter break in a part of the world where access to media gossip is limited. "We're doing a piece on the launch of the Sunday Star,

we said. There was a brief yet awkward silence, then a dry laugh. "I get it,

they said. "I get it ... this is for your April Fool's issue. It is, isn't it?"

No, actually. But we can sympathise with the response. It was a common reaction as the news leaked out - whatever way you looked at it, this had to be more or less amusing in a surreal sort of a way. Richard Desmond, eh? What is he like? This had to be a spoof. Part of a post-modern, ambient, guerrilla branding campaign for his Express Group. An exercise in proving that they're just about as bonkers as we always thought they were.

The plain fact of the matter is that the Sunday market has been contracting for years and that contraction has been felt most painfully at the red-top end of the market. It has been haemorrhaging sales for decades - in the last six months alone the decline has been 2.17 per cent. For years there has been talk that there will eventually be a casualty, probably the Sunday People - which, incidentally, Desmond allegedly tried to buy from the Mirror Group a few weeks back. Some mischief-makers even suggested, before it became apparent that Desmond is serious about the Sunday Star, that talk of its launch was a ruse to force through the sale of the Sunday People.

One thing is for sure, though - there isn't room for another title. Is there? The Express Group was predictably shy and retiring when it came to the blowing of its own trumpet. In particular, the advertising director, Stan Myerson, was unwilling to talk up the potential of his new baby. But, rival publishers say, the Express Group should not be ashamed to admit it has genuine ambitions in this market.

Neil Hurman, the advertising director of Trinity Mirror, points out that the Sunday market is not exactly suffering from under-population, but he believes it would be a mistake to dismiss the Sunday Star. He states: "I don't see a nice gap for it to slot into so on the face of it this is a bold call. You'd be barking mad to start from scratch, but they're not and I suspect that Desmond can produce the paper at a modest cost and carry through his (Daily Star) readership - assuming an incentivised price point - to make a profit on fewer copy sales than we may suppose.

"They will probably find it easier to convert the readership than the advertiser base though. In terms of its effect on the rest of the market, I think that we will see an increase in multiple purchase that will account for most of the Sunday Star sale - with the News of the World, the Star reader's favourite Sunday tipple potentially suffering the most."

But the big question, Hurman adds, is what all this says about Desmond's commitment to the Express titles. "At best this is a distraction from confronting the pretty awful state of those titles. At worst it's a drain on resources that puts them further away from a solution. If I was an advertiser that would be my primary reflection on this development," he concludes.

This is certainly one of the thoughts to cross the mind of Sheila Lamport, the media controller of Barclays. She comments: "It's certainly an interesting move. There is probably already one too many red-tops in the Sunday market as it stands but that doesn't mean the Sunday Star won't find a niche. From their point of view it will be cost-effective and low risk and it could get a circulation of around 400,000 or 500,000 and bring younger readers into the market, which would be a good thing."

Lamport says that the broad principle for advertisers is always the same - that more competition tends to be a good thing. "For advertisers, the potential to buy extra frequency on a cost-effective basis will be welcomed. I don't know how much concern the new title will give to other publishers but it will certainly help to keep them on their mettle."

According to well-placed sources, the launch date has now been set for 19 May. It will come with a glossy magazine and there has been talk of an initial price point of 40p, an attractive differential to the News of the World and the Sunday People.

Moray MacLennan, the joint chief executive of M&C Saatchi, has plenty of experience working in the red-top market. He reckons they'll go down the promotional route, trying to convert as many readers of the daily product as possible. He states: "They will use the advantage of the brand they already have. They have a pretty clear idea about what that's about and the product is pretty focused. The calculation is then how much of a niche they can achieve with that on a Sunday.

"The problem, of course, is that Sunday is traditionally more of a family read - and they have to work out to what extent they hold fast to the approach they've developed in the Daily Star. And if they do go down a slightly different route on a Sunday, what effect will that have on the daily? There is obviously a market for gossip and sauciness but don't the Sunday People and the News of the World already cover that off? It will be interesting to see."

Paul Thomas, the press director of MindShare, is also bullish. In particular he points to the fact that the Daily Star's Saturday sale - which has traditionally been weak - is now up to the level of the weekday circulation.

That's thanks to a Saturday magazine and to a slightly subtler editorial approach. It's a lesson well learned, he believes.

He says: "The problem the Daily Star has had is that it's the builder's paper - is it the sort of paper you'd want to take home with you? But I think they're getting over that hurdle on a Saturday.

"They'll be doing well if they get a Sunday sale of three-quarters of the through-the-week sale (which currently stands at just over 617,000) but I think they'll be aiming for that. I think it will have an impact - and actually I think it will have more of an impact (in sales terms) on the News of the World than on the Mirror Group titles.

"But also I reckon it will entice new readership into the Sunday market. Pricing will be the key but cost will not be an issue from their point of view because you're looking at basically paper costs plus a few bits and bobs. I think it will do well."

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