The Guardian rebrand: will the tabloid relaunch revitalise the newspaper's dwindling fortunes?

The Guardian's first tabloid edition

The Guardian today landed on newsstands in its new-look tabloid format, a size reduction accompanied by a brand-wide redesign that has shaken up both its print and online offerings.

This is not the first time the Guardian has made a size shift in print. In 2005, it changed from broadsheet to the slimmer and full-colour Berliner format that was popular in Europe. After 13 years, it has now downsized to the tabloid dimensions popularised by the likes of the Sun and the Mirror that are more suited to on-the-move reading and newsstand display. It will also be printed by the latter's Trinity Mirror presses in a move designed to reduce the overheads from the costly Berliner presses.

Introducing the new format, the Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner said that after “an exhilarating period of creativity, imagination and focus” designers delivered a “new paper that feels bold, striking and beautiful, and still unmistakably the Guardian”.

First impressions from readers could make or break the move as the Guardian looks to turn around a financial deficit which at close of the financial year ending July 2017 saw £45m in losses recorded. Newspaper sales are also in steady decline. In the 11 months between December 2016 and November 2017, there was a 9% drop in sales from 161,191 to 146,753 according to official ABC figures. This drop off has been widely replicated across the industry.

As a means of cutting costs and creating a product that again appeals to readers, the publication unveiled the rebrand last week.

Relaunching the newspaper so dramatically looks like a bold choice in the wake of the Independent last year ditching its print product altogether to deliver an online only proposition and Trinity Mirror's The New Day opening and shuttering its doors in just 10 weeks after sales failed to impress.

We asked designers and media buyers to take a look through the new paper and weigh in on its look and whether it will turn things around for the ailing Guardian Media Group.

Goodbye Berliner

Terry Watson, design consultant at Palmer Watson, a firm that has designed newspapers including the Irish Times, the Scotsman and Le Monde, said the new look was “smart and contemporary, but also somehow safe”. Although it remains by some distance the best-designed of the London-based titles, “there is nothing in the downsized Guardian that is surprising, or even unfamiliar”, said Watson.

Opinion and column content is now published in a supplement called The Journal. Watson branded this supplement as a “little flimsy" and expressed distaste for the pink wash colour of the pages.

He concluded: "If the money that is saved by downsizing from Berliner helps preserve the Guardian’s writing and reporting then it can only be a good thing. What it isn’t any more is distinctive. That was the prime advantage of its Berliner format, and for it to have retained that distinctiveness would have required a much more daring approach.”

The Guardian blue is gone

Lewis Jones, managing director of design firm CBA, said it was a risk to launch a new wordmark, format and change in brand colour all at once. Consumers may feel less familiar with the brand now it has ditched its “distinctive and ownable asset, the iconic blue headline style”.

Further muddling this identity was the fact that the Guardian had failed to update its app with the new visual assets at the time of publication. “They have introduced a level of inconsistency to the brand that could confuse,” Jones said.

Putting the changes into the context of the Guardian's wider business, Jones concluded: “At a time when digital platforms are where most of the opportunities lie, I wonder if changing format size will even matter all that much? Perhaps the more interesting question is how the new brand identity has been created to work across print and digital platforms, and how this might affect consumers' perception of the brand.”

Lee Fasciani, founder and creative director of Territory Projects, said the “new design feels stronger and more confident,” adding “the finer details and contrasting weight of the logotype adheres to the Guardian's typography sensibilities”.

Fasciani disagreed with Jones on the removal of the Guardian blue masthead and headlines however. “It now allows the layer of secondary colours to feel more vibrant and serve their purpose to denote content type, whilst the black and white logo can now be used more freely on various background.”

One criticism was that the G icon looks to have been “forcibly squashed into a circular format feels at odds to the overall design update”.

Doesn't jump off the news stands?

Dan Pimm, founder of media planning and buying agency December 19, said the new product did not jump off the newsstands. "Revamps of national newspapers tend to take time to bed in… the layout and running order of stories may well change in the coming weeks, as editors tinker with ideas," he said.

From the media buyer’s perspective, Pimm questioned the wisdom in no longer having a separate sports supplement during the week: “I think advertisers would have preferred that”. Dulling this issue, the supplement will run at weekends.

While today's issue carries ads from major brands such as DFS, Emirates, Vodafone, Aldi and Volkswagen, the loss of the back and front outside advertising pages will not be welcomed by the sales team according to Pimm. He also expressed surprise that there were no ads running in The Journal supplement.

Pimm concluded that the changes will be broadly welcomed by advertisers: “The Guardian may take a short-term hit from losing ad revenues from a reduction in ad pages but this will no doubt be made up from the millions it makes from selling off the Berliner presses.”

Delivering the ad copy will become easier

Graham Martin, head of publisher at Total Media, said the change in format makes little difference for media buyers but will make life easier for designers who will benefit from the standardised look. He said: "Delivering the ad copy will become easier."

Martin doubted that the changes would turnaround the paper’s fortunes in the long term but believed the newfound interest could maintain current readership.

He said: “I get a really positive first impression from the new layout. It’s easy to navigate and remains true to the Guardian editorial and design principles

“If we accept that reaching quality audiences is about the brand, not the platform, then changing the shape of the newspaper alone won’t be a game changer. Instead, it serves as a clever move as part of a longer term business model to encourage readers to invest in the Guardian as a new brand.”

Warren Johnson, founder of public relations firm W, said the move would have had more impact if the tabloid was rolled out when the Independent ceased its print edition in March 2016. “This would have provided the perfect opportunity to pick up the Indy's suddenly ‘homeless’ print readers," Johnson said.

Johnson was critical of the 2003 move to the Berliner format. “Not for the first time, the Guardian's timing seems to have missed the mark. After the Independent's successful move to tabloid format in 2003, the Guardian's then editor Alan Rusbridger spent nearly two years and tens of millions of pounds moving to the ultimately ill-fated Berliner format, which delivered little increase in circulation and only fuelled the company's huge losses.”

He said that the paper has relaunched with “minimal marketing support”. “It's hardly revolutionary, and in places feels especially colourless. Indeed, the whole exercise smacks of cost-cutting rather than innovation.”

W worked to launch the i newspaper back in 2010. This paper was “able to bring hundreds of thousands of people who were not being served by any other title back into the market,” said Johnson, who concluded that its recent sale to Johnston Press for £25m came on the back of “genuine print innovation, underpinned with real insight and executed with agility”.

Whether the new-look Guardian will be hailed as a similar success story remains to be seen.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.