Media Forum: Can The Economist expand?

Is the title's brand new publishing strategy workable, Alasdair Reid asks.

"Red wires", The Economist's brand spanking new 70-second ad, which hit UK cinema screens last week, is heralded by the publisher not only as a creative departure, but also as the launch of a brand new publishing strategy.

The magazine wants to attract a bigger and more diverse audience - it reckons that, thanks to the advent of more widespread university education, there are now more than three million people in the UK with "high levels of curiosity about the world".

Not enough of these people think of themselves as natural Economist readers - but, if "red wires" (and its invitation to "let your mind wander") works its magic, the magazine will begin dipping into an untapped market of rich potential.

Actually, this is less of a departure than the current management team is making out. The foundations were laid in September 2007, when the classic white-out-of-red poster campaign was replaced (in the UK at least) for a creative philosophy that was less aggressively elitist.

Since then, however, circulation has edged up only marginally, from just under 173,000 to almost 187,000. And if The Economist's own pages are anything to go by (classified ads featuring Learjets, swanky watches in display), the audience hasn't really been diluted.

However, much has happened on the management side since 2007. The Economist's then chief executive, Helen Alexander, departed in 2008; as did her marketing team. This latest initiative comes under the new chief executive, Andrew Rashbass, and UK strategy is fronted by the publisher, Yvonne Ossman.

Ossman hails the new campaign as an important departure. She says: "There have been significant changes to society and our research showed that non-readers didn't see the title as existing readers do. For existing readers, enjoyment is a key part of reading The Economist but this feeling was lacking among non-readers, so cinema seemed a great place to build emotion and enjoyment around the brand. It's an intriguing ad and not what you'd necessarily expect from us."

Using cinema will certainly take the brand into genuinely fresh territory. But is The Economist in danger of diluting its appeal? After all, the publication has traditionally been cherished by advertisers as a phenomenally efficient means of tapping into a business elite.

Alison Brolls, the head of marketing planning, global marketing services, at Nokia, agrees that this is a worry. But she argues that, like any other business, it can't just stand still. "And arguably," she adds, "given recent global economic events impacting on everyone's lives, its subject matter is more relevant than ever to an audience that's wider than its traditional readership base.

"The big question will be if it can bring in new readers without alienating that existing audience. If this is really only about a repositioning and branding exercise to get over negative image hurdles, then I see a real opportunity for it to tap into a bubbling new audience." However, Brolls states, if it succeeds, the magazine could see an expansion of the types of advertisers choosing to include it on schedules.

In any case, Vanessa Clifford, a managing partner of Mindshare, argues there are plenty of upmarket readers outside of a narrowly defined business audience. "It can be something broader than that. It embraces the professions - doctors and lawyers as well as the City. So, The Economist is absolutely right to go after that wider definition of its audience. I don't think we'll ever see the magazine become a mass-market weekly," she says.

Mark Gallagher, the executive director of Manning Gottlieb OMD, tends to agree. He concludes: "I suppose (the new strategy is) targeting people such as me. Previously, I hadn't thought of myself as being in The Economist's demographic, which I'd have regarded as far too elitist - the magazine might have felt too high end and too difficult to consume."

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YES - Yvonne Ossman, UK publisher, The Economist

"There is now an element of inclusiveness in what we do. The 'white-out-of-red' work was amazing but I learned the saying 'never look for a new job when you're not happy' so we looked to change things when we were happy and successful."

MAYBE - Alison Brolls, head of marketing planning, global marketing services, Nokia

"Expanding the audience beyond a clear business demographic will muddy the waters. It may be less clear-cut what the rationale is for having The Economist on schedules."

YES - Vanessa Clifford, managing partner, Mindshare

"You might worry it's chasing circulation figures over quality of audience. But you don't need to worry because the audience is almost self-defining."

YES - Mark Gallagher, executive director, Manning Gottlieb OMD

"It might mean the average salary of the readership will drop slightly - but even so, it's likely to remain at least three times higher than the national average. That's not the sort of thing The Economist will get wrong - it's just far too savvy."