Insight. Antics.

Condé Nasty.

In Advertising, Media on October 9, 2009 at 4:50 am

Gourmet Cover - August 2008

There’s nothing in the realm of media I associate more (fondly) with my mother than Gourmet magazine. For my whole life, it’s been an unfinished cookbook revealing new pages of recipes each month. They’re cut out and cooked up, tasted and tabulated: “Keeper? So-so? Garbage?” I couldn’t count on a centipede’s legs how many of its creations have become staples of my family upbringing and holidays.

I say this not merely for the sentimentality, but to demonstrate the power of a brand.

All of which makes the decision to shut it down a bummer. It was a magazine whose cover could make your stomach growl.

Kudos to those who saw this coming, but it’s a shame. And there’s a lot to unpack in its demise.

First is the paradox that it is falling even as we live in the “Era of the Foodie,” a time when more than ever the average person has the easiest access and most interest in the culinary upscale. As the eulogies poured in, the head of the Culinary Institute for America, Tim Ryan, echoed that:

“I am very surprised and saddened by the announcement. Gourmet was a high quality magazine and an iconic brand. Its demise is certainly not reflective of the public’s interest in food & wine, which is at an all time high; but more about the challenge of a print based business model in a digital age. Gourmet is just one of many print business dominos which are likely to fall in the next few years.”

His comment leads into the chief reason for the production halt: like all other print publishers, Condé Nast is struggling. It was losing money and ad revenue was down: “At [its] two food publications, Gourmet saw a 46.9% drop in ad revenue and a 50% decline in ad pages in the second quarter from last year’s April-June period, while Bon Appétit’s revenue fell 36% and ad pages declined 40%, according to Publishers Information Bureau.”

So, Condé Nast brought in McKinsey to arrive at these decisions. I’ve worked with McKinsey consultants before. They are smart, efficient, and focused.

Contrary to stereotype, I would not say they are cold and distant in demeanor. Yet in some ways, they are detached, in good and bad ways. There is something to be said for “The importance of not knowing,” for coming into a place with few preconceived notions and then evaluating. It’s just that this analysis seems to table Gourmet’s brand, its strongest asset.

Also counter to trendy belief, I would argue that print media is not dying; it’s finding its niche in a world of more options. Paper is not going away as a medium. In a sense, each magazine that fails makes the remaining ones safer. The term that stock market pundits use when the Dow drops 230 points seems apt: the industry is correcting itself.

Gourmet was a cornerstone for the larger corporate entity; its removal dilutes the Condé Nast brand. If it can be scrapped, what can’t? Everything but Vogue of course, since nobody has the stones to break the news to Anna Wintour, like Raquel Welch in Scarsdale Surprise.

Further, has Condé Nast heard of the term loss leader? It props up your company’s overall brand. At the very least, even if you are killing printing, why treat so poorly a brand you have spent 70 years cementing?

The comparison with Bon Appétit does yield a lot of commonality, but Gourmet has that je ne sais quoi which accounts for its fiercely loyal readership as the oldest food magazine in America. It was approachable sophistication: aspirational, not elitist. As put by NPR, it “showed us the real possibilities of food.” As I depicted up top, emotion is the strongest connection you can have to a brand. It defies rationality. It wards off a high price. And Gourmet has it. Plus, Ruth Reichl, its editor-in-chief, is the anti-Wintour. She’s lovely, has a great palette, and has the sense of humor to do this:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

If anything fun can come from this, maybe it’s the two splendid anecdotes that emerged in the wake. “One of the first things Reichl did after telling her staff… was to lock up the library with its landmark collection of 70 years of cookbooks and typewritten recipes.” This foremost concern for the craft and the archive is touching. Second, I love how that night, after they found out the bad news, the staff got boozy and engorged with all their office samples.

Anna Wintour ≠ Ruth Reichl in 4/09 - Richard Drew / Associated Press

Next, this episode is a failed exercise in crisis communications. The news broke Monday morning of the magazine’s fate, as well as that of CookieModern Bride, and Elegant Bride. Redundant and undifferentiated, they were begging for the shredder. So, word spread, but a press release was not easily discoverable. What it says on the right of the site now is pretty stiff. And here is what the CEO emailed internally, and of course leaked:

“Gourmet magazine will cease monthly publication, but we will remain committed to the brand, retaining Gourmet’s book publishing and television programming, and Gourmet recipes on Epicurious.com. We will concentrate our publishing activities in the epicurean category on Bon Appétit.”

Empathize, don’t alienate. Many of your readers have subscribed for a few decades; many of your editors have been there a while too. In addition, the announcement felt rushed. If they had formulated a more holistic strategy it might have dulled the bite. Consider instead:

“As you know, the economy is still very unforgiving, especially for print magazines. It brings me no pleasure to tell you, our valued readers, cooks, diners, and travelers, that we’ve been faced with the wrenching decision to halt production of Gourmet. However, this is not the end of Gourmet. We intend to enhance the website, publish more books, and produce more live and television events to keep the spirit and enthusiasm of good living alive that has propelled us for 69 years.”

Such a substantial, public, non-lip service-y commitment would assuage those who now see a stranded brand. After all, Hearst’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer painfully but publicly became an online-only publication this year and it’s still kicking. It’s also stupid to imply Gourmet subscribers will matriculate to Bon Appétit now. That would be like telling diehard Sam Adams drinkers to switch to Bud.

Gourmet Office - Gawker

Other postmortems have stuck out. The editor of Julia Child’s first book, Judith Jones, depicted in Julie and Julia seemed to twist the steak knife a bit: “Gourmet got away from the things that are going on in people’s homes, and seemed to be for an elite that got smaller and smaller.”

Finally, the publisher of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, Christopher Kimball offered a longer take in Wednesday’s New York Times. His magazine, like Gourmet, was acquired by Condé Nast and then canceled. (Buy your competitors and then let them wane until their subscribers join your remaining publication: Condé Nast best practice?!) But Kimball pulled off a resurrection. He “abandoned advertising in 1993 for a 100-percent subscriber-financed model, including a thriving paid Web site,” emphasizing that brands must flex their value via the expertise of their editorial staff. He urges defiance of a world with “million instant pundits,” a refusal “to climb aboard this ship of fools, the one where everyone has an equal voice.”

I am truly torn asunder by his articulate points and his ultimate conclusions on expertise and value, as they meet the philosophy of Philip Tetlock’s foxes and hedgehogs head-on. For sure, there will always be some people out there full of fluff and bunk; that doesn’t render the rest meritless. As Kimball alludes, this is a debate that extends well beyond cooking magazines.

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