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:
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.)