Why The Economist swapped its famous elitist marketing for emotional messaging

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

The Economist is taking a series of steps to bring more emotion to its brand after research revealed that it was seen as lacking in humanity and accessibility.

In a concerted response, the 175-year-old business and cultural institution is expanding its activities in filmmaking, launching new podcasts and using young actors as brand ambassadors to sell subscriptions in stations and shopping malls. It is also introducing more graphics and illustration to its famous weekly ‘newspaper’ (as the magazine is known internally).

This month, The Economist produced its first branded television campaign in a decade and gave it a decidedly human interest narrative, featuring a young woman of colour as she follows her inquisitive nature to pursue a career in teaching.

The creative is a long way from The Economist’s classic red-out-of-white, out-of-home work, which is best-remembered for David Abbott’s “‘I never read The Economist.’ Management Trainee. Aged 42.”, one of the great moments in 1980s advertising. It was a winning approach, designed to demonstrate intellectual superiority, but it led to snooty follow-ups, from “Voted Best Mortgage Provider 2004.” to “You can so tell the people who like don’t read The Economist.”

The lingering memory of such distinctive messaging has not always been helpful to a modern media brand which wants to reach out to a young global audience. “The historic communications has created a legacy of inaccessibility and that is what we are trying to overcome,” says Mark Cripps, The Economist’s chief marketing officer, explaining his current strategy to The Drum.

"We have undertaken a lot of research related to the old white-out-of-red ads and they certainly did come across as being a bit elite and a bit inaccessible, and that you had to be part of a club to be in-the-know in order to participate,” he says.

The new TV campaign, called Never Stop Questioning and made by Proximity London, is designed to address this. “What we have spotted is that we index relatively low on being human or being accessible, so we wanted to upweight the emotional connection,” Cripps says. “The rational connection is already there – I wanted to get emotional reaction and win hearts as well as minds.”

It is part of a co-ordinated approach across multiple platforms.

On Tuesday, The Economist introduced a new current affairs podcast, The Intelligence, which will be produced daily by an eight-strong team and sit alongside the brand’s three weekly podcasts. The dedicated Economist film unit has produced 66 mini-documentaries and 395 editions of its Daily Watch five-minute video series, racking up 420m views in total.

The Open Future initiative, which editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes launched in April to make the case for the paper’s “classic liberal values” in the face of rising authoritarianism around the world, has generated half a billion 'touches’ with Economist content and brought to the website 2 million unique visitors who had never previously engaged with it.

A majority of these “newbies” (9,000 of which have become Economist subscribers) were women, and the largest demographic was 16-24s. The Open Future project included live events in London, Hong Kong and New York (the last being highly controversial because Breitbart founder Steve Bannon was invited to defend his views on stage) and looks set for a second year. “It has been such a success that we don’t doubt that it will be repeated”, Cripps says.

The concept of being ‘open’ applies not just to the paper’s views on trade and individual rights, it also underpins editorial strategy. Potential readers are no longer perceived as being dim for not having embraced The Economist’s more traditional long reads. “For those who still don’t want to consume long-form text content we do have lots of different choices, channels and vehicles for them to consume our content,” Cripps says.

The Economist newspaper remains its “most visible product” and it was this wish to be more open and inclusive that informed its redesign in October, the first in 17 years. We have opened it up and although it is still long-form content there are a lot more pictures in there and different colourways; different design cues, different signposting,” says Cripps. “That has researched very well, people are finding that a lot more accessible and open which is great.”

With “elites” increasingly under fire around the world, there’s no value in elitist marketing for a news outlet that seeks global scale. “There is so much choice out there that we have to move away from being positioned as inaccessible because we don’t want to give people any excuses not to consume our content.”

Alongside a more human look to the messaging there is also a different voice. “We are changing the tonality. The white out of red ads were something quite didactic; we were imposing our views on people. Talking at people is not the future, so we are starting to talk with people and become more dialogical.” The Economist’s recent direct response TV campaigns have been characterised by questions posed to the audience, and offers of a free magazine to go in search of answers.

The most personal element of all The Economist’s marketing is its deployment of more than 80 “brand ambassadors”, many of them actors, to spread the word to prospective subscribers at key locations in London, Manchester, Sydney, and New York (including Wall Street and the new Oculus hub). “They get trained on the content and how to approach people sensitively – the last thing we want is for people to think we are being intrusive,” says Cripps. “We use a company that employs out of work actors and they are very empathetic to the audience. They don’t necessarily have a script but keep it quite open and genuine.”

These ambassadors have experiential props to work with, including digital posters and carts laden with odd-shaped vegetables. “It’s talking about wasted food and how a wonky carrot tastes just as nice and is as good for you as a straight one, so why are we throwing away all these wonky carrots?”

It appears to be working. The Economist is profitable, with global circulation up 1.5% to 1.4 million, according to its last ABC, and digital circulation up 15% year-on-year. The gender split in readers is skewed around 70-30 towards men, although the strong female response to Open Future (which was gender neutral in editorial approach) might help address this. “It’s no secret that we are trying to get more women readers and the content appeals, as we know from research, to both genders,” Cripps says.

A further sub-brand has also been established in the World Ahead initiative, currently on the newsstand as The World in 2019. This predictive series began 33 years ago and has built a 1 million circulation across its print and app editions, being on sale from November through to March. The brand is made year-round by the more hypothetical sister title The World If…, which publishes in summer but also takes the form of live events, films and podcasts. The Economist Group will further extend this portfolio this year with a newsletter, The World Ahead.

The world is changing and so is The Economist, even if it remains classically liberal to its core.

The move away from those sometimes preachy two-tone messages, has already won it effectiveness awards from the IPA and in Cannes. But even in the latest TV work, the ‘Never Stop Questioning” end line reverts to the familiar red and white of the paper’s famous masthead. “It’s very recognisable as our brand,” says Cripps. “I wouldn’t say we own white-out-of red but we certainly have high connections with that style – and we wouldn’t want to throw that away.”

For all the turmoil of The World in 2019, some things must stay the same.

Read more from Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, and follow him on Twitter @iburrell

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