Check, Please! Gourmet Mag Gets Just Desserts After Losing Its Brand Compass.

Well, the per­ils of re-Branding with­out a License may be appar­ent in October’s announce­ment that Condé-Nast will shut­ter Gourmet mag­a­zine after 60+ years of existence.


The mag­a­zine had been attempt­ing a trans­for­ma­tion of sorts over the last year or so, with mul­ti­ple new lay­outs, over­sat­u­rated pho­tog­ra­phy, Mil­lenial and Gen-X mod­els and a strange mix of fea­tures and voice.  Many of the loyal read­ers had objected to these changes, and even KJ him­self opened a can of Brand Expe­ri­ence whup-ass for Edi­tor Ruth Reichl and team, as she notes in her edi­to­r­ial in the Octo­ber 2008 issue.

And over the 4+ years that we had a sub­scrip­tion, we saw the mag­a­zine drift to-and-fro, as they grap­pled with their iden­tity some­what schiz­o­phreni­cally.   So what went wrong?

Many claim that it was the bone-crushing hard times or the basic eco­nom­ics of the print mag­a­zine busi­ness.  But Condé-Nast didn’t shut­ter their whole busi­ness, rather, they shut­tered what I would argue is one of the most ven­er­a­ble titles in their port­fo­lio.  Let’s take a look at the num­bers — here are some sim­ple demo­graph­ics of Gourmet and sev­eral other food mags:

  • Gourmet Mag­a­zine: Median Age: 49.5, Median House­hold Income:$77,899.00, Male/Female: 26%/74%
  • Bon Appetit: Median Age: 50.5, Median House­hold Income:$81,278.00, Male/Female: 25%/75% (also owned by Condé-Nast)
  • Food & Wine: Median Age: 45.8, Median House­hold Income:$74,930.00, Male/Female: 37%/63%
  • Saveur: Median Age: 51, Median House­hold Income:$152,666.00, Male/Female: 47%/53%

The top three had roughly the same cir­cu­la­tion, with Food & Wine top­ping the list at about 1.3mn read­ers.  Saveur has a cir­cu­la­tion of about 300k from what I can tell.  So why nuke Gourmet?  As chance would have it, I bought copies of all of these mag­a­zines in Sep­tem­ber in prepa­ra­tions to aban­don Gourmet when our sub­scrip­tion lapsed at the end of this year.  And I am, strangely enough, right in the mid­dle of the demo­graph­ics above…an old guy who likes (okay, loves) food and is not afraid to spend money on glossy pic­tures of same.  Food porn.

So what did I see?  I can tell you that I almost filled out the mail-in card for Saveur within the first 5 min­utes.  The mag­a­zine “gets it” and deliv­ers the goods, with a clas­sic and well-though out for­mat and a great selec­tion of revis­ited clas­sics and new culi­nary adven­tures.  Food & Wine was almost as good, and I think Mrs. KJ has prob­a­bly signed us up for both of these already.  Again, great arti­cles, lay­out, voice and focus.  Bon Appetit was a lit­tle less dialed in, maybe expe­ri­enc­ing some of the drift that had plagued it’s sis­ter pub­li­ca­tion, but still bet­ter than Gourmet.

So either they just drifted away from their key demographic…or maybe some­one at Condé-Nast fig­ured out that they had two mag­a­zines that were almost exactly the same and given the gray­ing of their respec­tive audi­ences, it might be a reeeaaaly good time to find some new audi­ences.  And let’s assume that it was Gourmet that they chose to do that with.  If we work back­wards from that assump­tion and do a sort-of “Brand Reflec­tion” exer­cise using the inside con­tents of a few issues (we’ll come back to the cover in a sec), my read is that they were try­ing to go after a “Kim­berly” per­sona.  This would be women who are roughly young Gen-X or older Mil­lenials, mar­ried, some­what career-engaged, very fash­ion con­scious, urban-but-rural-nostalgic (numer­ous images of rus­tic meals in rus­tic set­tings with folks in their 30’s and 70’s — grand­par­ents, no par­ents), back-to-basics (seemed like every issue had a rutabaga or parsnip recipe), and addi­tional nos­tal­gia for the com­mu­nity of friends (a la The Big Chill), and (judg­ing from the adver­tis­ing) they likely have kids…which then has the unex­pected impli­ca­tion that the recipes are more aspi­ra­tional than prac­ti­cal — Kim­berly doesn’t have time for recipes that span 24 hours and involve cook­ing the same piece of food three dif­fer­ent ways.  But she has time to read about what she might have (once?) done.

Here is an exam­ple of the new look that they were using for arti­cle images:


Frankly, it isn’t half-bad psy­cho­graphic tar­get­ing on their part.  It isn’t me they’re going after, but the con­tents actu­ally have some coher­ence if you view them from the Kim­berly per­spec­tive, and I think that they might have been on to some­thing.  And that brings me to where I think that they failed: the brand.  What does Gourmet (the brand) stand for?  The demo­graph­ics above sug­gest that the 1mn exist­ing read­ers may not have shared much of Kimberly’s per­spec­tive, and most impor­tant, when one looks at the cover (the brand sig­nal) and what it speaks of…well, you make the call.  Here are four from the recent style of the magazine:

Gourmet Mag Cover 1Gourmet Mag Cover 2Gourmet Mag Cover 4Gourmet Mag Cover 3

So what do these cov­ers say?  I think they say “Clas­sic Gourmet Food”.  Com­bine that with the Logo Type and I get “Classy Clas­sic Gourmet Food”.  Food for 50-year-olds who have “made it”.  And inside?  Lifestyle, travel, fash­ion, rus­tic cuisines and coor­di­nates, all with  rural-retro-romance for Kimberly…none of which are appar­ent from the cover.  They had a well-established brand and they changed the brand expe­ri­ence, and they did noth­ing to repo­si­tion expectations.

Did this lead to the demise of Gourmet?  Prob­a­bly not directly — the fash­ion police do exist, but they don’t close mag­a­zines.  More likely, I think, and I thank the many read­ers who com­mented on this, is that the McK­in­sey con­sul­tants who spent three months doing a review of Conde-Nast’s oper­a­tions said that it made no sense to have two of the same mag­a­zine (based on sub­ject, focus and tar­get cus­tomer) fight­ing over adver­tis­ers bud­gets.  And that some­one must chose.  In fact, they may have cho­sen.  Given the choice between a pub­li­ca­tion that was veer­ing towards a younger, less print-intensive, green sen­si­tive, online sort of con­sumer, and a pub­li­ca­tion that was, well, stay­ing more on-focus,…let’s just say that’s about as sim­ple a prob­lem and answer as the inter­view case stud­ies that McK­in­sey uses for its new hires.  Sim­pler, actually.

If you read Ruth Reichl’s edi­to­r­ial fully, you’ll see that they were wan­der­ing in focus a year ago: “Your let­ters, which told us so much about the way that you use the mag­a­zine.…”, as if chang­ing the brand expe­ri­ence is an effec­tive way to learn about your cus­tomer.   Sad to read now, Ruth goes on some­what iron­i­cally, “…but we’re tired of the lat­est, the hippest, the coolest.” — and since when was that part of Gourmet? — end­ing prophet­i­cally, “In times like these you want to remem­ber that some things do last.…”  If only.

Farewell Gourmet mag­a­zine.  We’ll miss you.

You can see the sad, final moments at the Gourmet offices here.

(This post has been slightly updated from reader feed­back — thanks again!)

(Note: If you had a sub­scrip­tion remain­ing, you’ll get Bon Appetit instead.)


Comments are disabled for this post