Why some brands can’t be reinvented
Some brands can’t be reinvented. Indeed, mortality as well as vitality lie at the heart of branding. Take Playboy, which, in the space of a few months, has dropped the nude models that made it famous in the early 70s (selling 7 million plus), then, last week, plonked them back on the newsstand (total sales: around one-fourteenth of those glory days).
I liked the comment of one analyst, Samir Husni. “Nudes were the brand, so if one day you remove them, then you technically kill the brand image. Playboy with no nudes was an oxymoron.” But the brute problem is that Playboy with nudes is a dead loss too.
Just look at the latest round of UK magazine sales and ask yourself what happened to the likes of Zoo and Nuts, which once dominated the men’s mag market. They’re gone – to the internet, to Instagram (where a whole new world of “models” awaits), to Twitter and the social rest. The market has simply moved on. With or without bare bunnies, Playboy has run out of road.
But that, in turn, tells you something special about the overall magazine market itself. Sales in Britain may be down around 6% overall year-on-year on the latest ABC audit (cue another pat homily on the death of print). But the details of that broad decline are full of particular surprises.
There are 367 titles on this list. A full 130 of them went up year-on-year, not down. Magazines that rose by 10% or more include Garden Answers (up 41%), the Times Literary Supplement (up 27.6%), Peppa Pig Bag o Fun (up 17.6%), the Spectator (up 15.2%), Country Living (up 12.5%), the Big Issue in Wales (11.6%) and Elle Decoration (up 10.1%). An eclectic collection.
And down below, in the blasted basement? There’s Glamour, down 25.6%; Look, down 22.2%; Star, down 17.6%, Heat, down 16.5%; Hello!, down 15.5%, and Now, down 17.3%. Other prime victims include World of Cars (down 46.8%), Dr Who Adventures (down 41.5%), Healthy for Men (down a panting 27.4%) and the erstwhile rock of Mr Richard Desmond’s empire, OK! magazine (down 31.4%).
There are disparate lessons here. If you ram up the price too sharply, readers turn away. If you have a lively new editor full of bright ideas, readers respond.
Old heroes – like the Doctor, for instance – lose their clout over time. Niche publication is great if the niche is big enough and new enough. Fresh ideas – such as the Mr Porter Post, a kind of glossy catalogue for top fashion offers on the web – have their place in the sun. Meanwhile, down the Playboy memorial trail, other brands can catch a terrible cold.
The celebrity market, for instance, is an ailing arena of tat and waning interest. Maybe there aren’t any superstars left worth following; maybe the whole game has become too boring. But, then, that’s magazines: just as, much of the time, it’s the essence of websites too. Brands carved out to fit the concerns of the moment are licensed to fade in another moment. What goes up can one day go right out of business. Unless, that is, their creators have had a better idea in the meantime.
• Readers are beginning to flex their muscles in the Fleet Street market too as one Sunday paper, alone among the crowd, manages a clear – 1.39% – January sales rise year on year. Yes: the Observer is bucking the trend, and received wisdom, again.
US media needs to tone down the self-importance
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The problem with Trump presidential press conferences, it rapidly becomes clear, is that they will be much like Trump campaign-trail press conferences – very long, rambling, combative, defensive, flaky on detail, lacking all focus. Oh! and wholly scathing about his foes in the press. Yes, but … how, over at least four years, do you report such inchoate events? Especially if, like CNN, you’re number one on the Trump hate list?
The one thing you absolutely don’t do is what CNN did in the minutes after Trump finally stalked from the stage: assemble six talking heads from your political staff and watch them solemnly agree that what we’d just seen was rambling, combative, flaky et al. The besetting sin of American journalism is self-importance. Aggrieved, pompous self-importance won’t do this job. But a full term of it will surely appear to confirm the one thing Trump devotees believe: that he’s getting a raw deal from an antagonistic press. That a spew of facts and a torrent of adjectives don’t matter much. That fine-tuning is an east coast liberal obsession. That this rambling, combative, 45th president can’t be as bad as these men in suits say he is.