The Economist Tends Its Sophisticate Garden
Its fire-engine-red logo peeks out of fashionable handbags and from the back pockets of designer jeans. Bankers read it in first-class seats. Hipsters read it on the subway on their way to work.
It’s The Economist.
The newsweekly, a bible of global affairs for those who wear aspirations of worldliness on their sleeves, did not become a status symbol overnight. It took 25 years of clever advertising that tugs at the insecurities and ambitions of the status-seeking reader to help the magazine get there.
A standout among its less successful peers in the shrinking world of weekly news magazines, the true genius of The Economist, in fact, may have as much to do with its marketing as with its authoritative and often sardonic tone on exotic subjects, like a constitutional referendum in Kenya and the history of the vice presidency in Brazil.
Selling a publication with a title that conjures painful memories of college social science requirements can’t be easy. But the brand officers at The Economist and the advertising firm BBDO have devised a marketing strategy that makes people think reading the magazine will make them smarter and more sophisticated.
Their approach has been anything but subtle.
“Once upon a time, there was an ambitious young man who didn’t read The Economist. The End,” read one particularly audacious ad from 2004. Another, from 1988 said, “I never read The Economist — Management Trainee. Age 42.” One from 2001 said, “Look forward to class reunions.”
The magazine’s latest advertising campaign in the United States, being introduced in 11 cities with well-off, well-educated populations, includes two slides that riff on the theme of social advancement. In one, an ostrich has his head buried in the ground. In the second, the bird’s head pops up through the ground right under the words “Get a world view. Read The Economist.”
“They’ve always implied that if you read The Economist, you’ll be just a little bit wiser and smarter than the average guy,” said Joseph Plummer, an adjunct professor of marketing at Columbia Business School and a former executive at McCann Worldgroup. “People want to get better most of the time. And I think in the case of The Economist, what they’re doing is adding a little bit of a wrinkle by appealing to a second emotion: competitiveness.”
Americans seem to be responding. Since the magazine first began printing a North American edition in early 1981, its circulation has increased more than tenfold. (It has published in Britain, where it has its headquarters, since 1843.)
When The Economist began reporting figures to the Audit Bureau of Circulations in 1982, it printed about 80,000 copies and sold fewer than 8,300 on the newsstand each week. As of its last accounting, for the first half of 2010, the magazine sold an average of about 52,000 on the newsstand each week and had a total weekly circulation of just under 823,000. Newsstand sales, however, are off 9 percent from more than 57,200 in the last six months of 2009, and the number of short-term subscribers is high.
Over the years, other newsweeklies have lost huge blocks of their readerships (Newsweek and Time), reduced the frequency of publication (U.S. News & World Report) or stopped producing a regular print edition altogether (Life).
Newsweek, which was sold last week to a 92-year-old stereo equipment tycoon for virtually nothing after The Washington Post Company said it could no longer afford to keep losing money on the magazine, has slashed its circulation to 1.6 million from about 3.1 million in 2000. Time’s circulation has been cut to about 3.3 million from 4.1 million in 2000.
But The Economist has always been a different kind of newsweekly. For one, it is more expensive than most American weeklies, adding to its status-symbol appeal. A yearlong subscription is generally at least $100, versus $39 for Newsweek and $20 for Time.
It is also edited in Britain, giving it a foreign flavor that marketing experts said many readers found alluring.
“This is something that’s been written mostly outside the United States,” said Lars Perner, an assistant professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California, who noted the magazine’s use of British spellings — programme and globalisation — even in its American editions. “That presumably adds a certain level of sophistication that readers find attractive.”
Despite its success in reaching American readers, The Economist’s executives felt there were more buyers to be found.
About four years ago they began focusing on large urban areas like Austin, Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, places that also happen to have well-educated populations that are likely to find The Economist’s global perspective appealing.
The magazine’s branding executives have also carefully selected what stores can carry it, and not just any supermarket or general merchandise store will suffice. Two they selected were Whole Foods, the high-end, high-price organic food chain, and Costco, a warehouse club.
“Whole Foods is actually a psychographic, not a demographic, said Paul Rossi, The Economist’s managing director and executive vice president for the Americas. “One of the things people say is, ‘You go after an affluent audience.’ But we don’t define our audience by their demographic. We define our audience based on what they think.”
He said that above all else the magazine’s marketing tries to stir intellectual curiosity. But he acknowledged that some will inevitably see The Economist as a status symbol. “For some people it will be a badge, for some it won’t,” he said, adding that the magazine does not intentionally shoot for that image. “If we ever started to market ourselves to be cool, it would fail.”
But it has clearly become a hip product in some circles. Until recently, The Economist could be bought at, of all places, Freemans Sporting Club, a high-end Greenwich Village boutique that sells $189 plaid button-downs and $396 suede boots. Explained the store’s manager, Jesse Johnson, “We started carrying it because we just felt it was relevant to have.” The store stopped carrying it, Mr. Johnson added, because it was not selling as well as he had hoped.
The Economist may be one of the biggest success stories among news magazines in the United States in the last 25 years, but its trajectory has slowed lately. Newsstand sales, an important indicator of a magazine’s success and a big profit center, have been in sharp decline in recent years — falling 27 percent from more than 71,000 in 2008.
And 45 percent of Economist subscribers are customers for six months or less, according to the latest circulation figures.
Among its competitors, however, The Economist is hardly alone in losing customers at the newsstand. Single copy sales of The Week, for example, averaged about 3,800 in 2009 but have dipped well below 2,000 for several weeks this year, according to the most recent figures available.
But managers at The Economist do not seem very concerned. John Micklethwait, the editor, said the magazine’s long-term success and relevance are only getting stronger in a world that is becoming increasingly global.
“It’s much easier to sell a magazine that’s as global as what we do in an era when if you live in Detroit, your life can get changed by something that happens in Delhi,” he said.
As for The Economist’s hip factor, Mr. Micklethwait said it had nothing to do with how the magazine was edited. “Once you start trying to segment and work out what people might want to see, I think that would be a journey to some type of psychological hell.”
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