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Nov. 28, 2011, 2 p.m.

The personal(ized) brand: Yet another reason The Economist is trouncing competitors

The weekly “newspaper” may be reinventing the brand for the digital age.

Over at The Guardian, media critic Roy Gleenslade has a great interview with Andrew Rashbass, CEO of The Economist Group.

The conversation is worth a read in its entirety — Rashbass has good info and analysis to share about The Economist’s now-legendary reversal of the typical, horrible “newsweekly magazine” fortune — but I was particularly interested in Rashbass’s thoughts on The Economist’s success as a function of media culture overall. That success, Rashbass suggests, can be attributed to — and is, in its way, proof of — “the mega-trend of mass intelligence”: an overall “smarting up” rather than “dumbing down” of people’s information consumption habits.

While that may be an optimistic read on things (Kardashians, cats, etc., etc.), what’s even more interesting is his explanation of why that general intellectual upswing is occurring. As Greenslade puts it, summing up Rashbass’ point: “There are no longer elite media and mass media.” Instead of sharp categories, and instead of stratification, there’s a hodgepodge. People are, Rashbass notes, “going to art-house movies and Spiderman,” blending high and low, pop and niche, into personalized — and specialized — experiences.

As a result, as Greenslade sums up: “People are no longer easily categorized.”

What Rashbass is hinting at is the disruption of personalization itself.

Not that they ever were. Still, though, there used to be a degree of fatalism when it came to branded news consumption: You subscribed to, maybe, a couple different newspapers and magazines, you watched or listened to maybe a couple different channels…and those consumption choices — choices made within a highly limited universe of options, relative to today — came, to some extent, to define you. George W. S. Trow, reflecting on his family’s news consumption habits in the 1950s, noted that, in the New York City of the time, there were Times people and there were Herald Tribune people. And the Trows were, for their part, “in our souls a Herald Tribune family.”

In our souls. This is what we tend to forget when we talk about journalism’s evolution: The news brand, in the past — for all its exclusivity, for all its anonymity — was much more than a brand, with all the corporateness and cravenness that that term can imply. It was also an identity. It was a purchased proxy for a personal worldview. A subscription to the Times — even a newsstand purchase of the Times — meant something both public and, even more importantly, intimate. The news brand was, in its way, an externalized self, a reflection — often aspirational — of the way its consumers took part in the tumult of human events.

What Rashbass is highlighting in the Guardian interview is not just the clichéd-because-true idea that the digital age is a golden age for personalized information consumption; what he’s also getting at, I think, is the disruption of personalization itself — from something that’s reliant on the news brand to something that lives beyond it. And from something that’s default private — you read the paper in the privacy of your own home — to something that’s effortlessly public. All of the sudden, with social media and other digital tools — with sharing both intentional and “frictionless” — we can define ourselves not just by what we read, but by how we read. We understand the world, and ourselves within it, through the amalgams of content we create for ourselves. What we share on Twitter, what we comment on on Facebook — that is new the proxy for identity.

To get the tablet experience, consumers first have to care enough about The Economist to download the app and subscribe to its content.

What The Economist has managed to capture — to recapture — is, I think, the sense of self and self-containment that defined media brands before those brands became social. It is not just clever content, cleverly packaged. It is also an outsourced worldview.

In that, it is a decidedly singular worldview, to be sure: The Economist sells a self-image that’s high-class, high-culture, high-end. Depending on where you stand, it is either congratulatory or aspirational. But, even then, it’s inviting. As Paul Rossi, The Economist’s managing director, told the Times’ Jeremy Peters last year: “One of the things people say is, ‘You go after an affluent audience.’ But we don’t define our audience by their demographic. We define our audience based on what they think.” The magazine — or “newspaper,” as it calls itself — seeks psychographics as much as demographics. It cares about who its readers are as much as what they are.

And that’s important, in particular, considering the strategy Rashbass shared in his interview with Greenslade: The Economist, based on user surveys that anticipate a decline in their readers’ preference for print, seems to be doubling down on the tablet. “Rashbass clearly expects the tablet platform to become the dominant form in future,” Greenslade notes.

What that means is that The Economist has an interest in shaping itself as a kind of imagined community, a social space where fellow-thinkers are implied if not actually seen. The magazine famously eschews bylines in its print pages, based on “a belief that what is written is more important than who writes it.” During a time when journalism is increasingly focusing on individual voices and individual perspectives, The Economist’s approach — unapologetically institutional, purposely collective — may well mark a return to an older, time-tested concept of the media brand: one based on loyalty, one based on identity, one based on intimacy. The “lean-back, immersive, ritual pleasure” Rashbass believes consumers take from the tablet experience is predicated on an old-fashioned notion of brand identity. It requires that consumers know enough, and care enough, about The Economist to download the app and subscribe to its content in the first place. It requires that they be, on some level, “Economist people.” And that is a big requirement. A new slogan for the magazine, launched last year, is telling: “Get a world view. Read The Economist.”

Image via Matt Price.

POSTED     Nov. 28, 2011, 2 p.m.
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