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IPA Effectiveness Awards


Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, 44 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8QS, UK
Tel: +44 (0)171 235 7020  Fax: +44 (0)171 245 9904

Agency: Abbot Mead Vickers AMVBBDO Authors: Annabelle Watson and Clare Phillips


The Economist

The importance of selling a brand not next weeks issue 



A revolution has taken place in the media. Since 1985 there have been over 1500 magazine launches, over 300 new TV channels, more than 200 new radio stations and the number of websites has increased from zero to millions. (1) This dramatic fragmentation has left media owners needing to fight even harder for consumers' time and money. This paper shows how a media brand established in 1843 can compete successfully in today's increasingly competitive media market.


When establishing a brand identity, a key question media businesses face is whether their communications should be brand- or content-led. Should they be judged by what they stand for or what they contain? Media brands often choose to make their communications content-led because of the pressure of short-term targets and the need for an immediate return on investment.

The Economist was ahead of its time when, in 1988, it decided to invest in the brand rather than week-by-week content. The award-winning 'White out of Red' advertising campaign established a positioning in people's minds, but more than that, a role for the brand in their lives.

As a result of its brand-building advertising, The Economist has enjoyed circulation and ad revenue success that outstrips its competitors; competitors who adopted content-led advertising hoping to achieve these very goals. Building the brand has also led to broader business benefits such as a huge increase in customer loyalty and scope for additional revenue streams through brand extension and expansion. All this has been achieved on a modest annual advertising budget of c. �1 million.

The Economist won an IPA award in 1992 by proving the substantial advertising payback over the first four years of the campaign. This paper looks at the long-term effects of advertising and provides new learning by showing how:


The advertising problem

In 1988, Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO and The Economist recognised the need for a new advertising campaign. People's choice of media was expanding (Figure 1). However, people's time to consume this expanding media remained unchanged.

'We are unlikely to spend much more of our leisure time or money on the media in 2003 than we did in 1986.'
Source: The Henley Centre, Your Money Your Time 1998

As a result, The Economist, with its traditional positioning as a weekly newspaper, was competing for share in a highly aggressive marketplace. A publication with a worthy and rather intellectual image could easily be driven out of readers' repertoires, as was the case for the weekly Business Magazine, forced to close in the recessionary early 1990s.

The advertising objective and strategy

The objective was to encourage more people to read The Economist by positioning it as an essential weekly read and a brand with which they wanted to be associated.

The campaign's target audience was ambitious, busy business people. The campaign needed to both consolidate the customer base and acquire new readers.

Qualitative research conducted by AMV.BBDO provided the key that unlocked the new strategy. When people spoke about the publication, even if they found it hard-going, they almost all revered it. They did so because of what it said about them.

'You don't want to be seen on the tube reading the Mail but you'd be rather pleased if you were spotted with a copy of The Economist under your arm.'
Source: AMV.BBDO Qualitative Research 1988

We found that there was a link between The Economist and success. An emotional link that would prove to be extraordinarily powerful.

'There's always something in there which you can use to drop into conversations which make you seem really clever. I wouldn't admit it but it's great for impressing people.'
Source: AMV�BBDO Qualitative Research 1988

Rather than advertising content as most of our competitors did, we decided to dramatise the emotional benefit of reading The Economist. The creative strategy was to play on the cachet of reading The Economist � if you were a reader, you were part of an exclusive club of successful people. The price of admission was the price of the magazine. The creative guidelines insisted that the tone of the advertising reflect the personality of the successful club � clever, urbane � with an undercurrent of wit to move the brand away from its somewhat stuffy image (Figure 2).

The media strategy

It is now impossible to imagine a time when any medium other than outdoor might have been considered for this campaign. Yet other media had competing claims, and it is important to take note of what might have happened, as well as what did.

It would have been cost-effective to have targeted business people more accurately and with minimal 'wastage' by identifying media that specifically reach that audience. Three such options were:

So why posters?

The use of posters supported the creative insight of suggesting that readers are an exclusive 'club' of successful people. If exclusivity is defined as much by those who are not members of the club as by those who are, then using a broadcast medium was vital to bringing the creative strategy to life.

This loyalty to posters also created a point of difference in its competitive set � no other newspaper or magazine has made significant use of the medium, allowing The Economist to 'own' the news category in outdoor (Figure 3 and Figure 4).

A further benefit of using posters was the creative opportunity built on the characteristics of poster exposure:

Finally, the medium formed a vital part of the message and the two mutually reinforced the brand communication (Figure 5 and Figure 6). Poster sites at airports and train stations exploited the environment to witty effect (Figure 7 and Figure 8).

Consistency has been key to the success

Not only have the media and advertising strategies remained consistent over time, but the campaign creative has been consistent through the line. Everything from direct mail and point-of-sale material, to corporate gifts such as eye masks and matchboxes, have a consistent look and tone (Figure 9).

The campaign has been constantly refreshed

The creative strategy and the look and feel of the campaign have remained consistent because the thinking behind them is updated continually. The brand proposition has evolved over the past 14 years to reflect the changing business, social and economic climates.

In the late 1980s, the advertising focused on business success and the conspicuous consumption of the Thatcher era with the proposition: 'The Economist gives you the edge in business'. (Figure 10)

The early 1990s saw John Major's struggle against recession. Success was all about hanging on to your job. The proposition changed to 'Don't get caught out' in order to tap into that uncertainty (Figure 11).

At the end of the 1990s with 'Cool Britannia' and the quest for a more inclusive society, the proposition was changed once more to reflect the shift towards more inwardly focused 'personal' success (Figure 12).

The fact that the campaign continues to win creative awards year after year is testament to the continuous 'fresh thinking' (Table 1).




1988 Campaign poster: 2 x Silver
1989 Campaign press: 1 x Silver
Campaign poster:  2x Gold and 2 x Silver
1990 Campaign press: 1x Silver
Campaign poster: 1 x Silver
Creative circle: 2 x Bronze
1991 Campaign poster: 1 x Gold and 2 x Silver
One show (New York): 1 x Silver and 2 x Bronze
1992  Campaign press 1 x Silver
Campaign poster: 1 x Silver
D&AD: 2 x Silver
EPICA: 1 x Winner
1993 National Newspaper Campaign Awards: 1 x Winner
Campaign press: 2 x Best of Category
Campaign poster: 2 x Silver
1994 Creative circle: 1 x Bronze
National Newspaper Campaigning Awards: 2 x Winner
One show: 1 x Gold and 1 x Silver
Campaign press: 1 x Gold and 2 x Silver
Campaign poster: 1 x Silver and 1 x Special Commendation
1995 National Newspapers Campaign Awards: 1 x Winner
One show (New York): 1 x Bronze
Campaign poster: Silver
1996 One show (New York: 1 x Bronze
1997 Campaign press: 1 x Bronze
Campaign poster: Best Use of Bus Advertising and Best Media or Entertainment
1998  Cannes: 1 x Gold, 1 x Silver and 1 x Bronze
1999 Creative circle: 1 x Silver and 1 x Bronze
One show: 1 x Gold
Cannes: 2 x Bronze
Campaign poster: 1 x Silver and 1 x Commendation
2000 Campaign poster: Silver
2001  Campaign press: 2 x Silver
D&AD: 1 x Silver
Clios: 2 x Silver and 1 x Bronze
Cannes: 1 x Silver
Campaign poster: 2 x Gold and 2 x Silver
London International Advertising: 3 x Winner

Media has also helped to refresh the campaign

Large format posters have formed the heart of the media schedule since the launch; however, additional media opportunities (Figure 13)  have been exploited which helps keep the campaign salient, (Figure 14, Figure 15 and Figure 16).

How the advertising works

We have developed a model which:


The consistency and continuity of The Economist brand campaign has paid dividends.

Increased circulation

During the campaign, The Economist increased its circulation by 64% (from 86,000 in 1988 to 141,000 in 2001). This is against a backdrop of decline in newspapers and magazines of 20% over the past 15 years. (2) Most of The Economist's 'competitors' the quality dailies and news magazines have suffered declines in circulation over the period: 40% decrease for The Independent; 10% decline for The FT (UK); 27% decrease for The Guardian; static circulation for Management Today. Indeed the only competitor to increase its circulation significantly during this period was The Times (62% increase), but this was accompanied by deep price-cutting, (Figure 18 and Figure 19).

Increased loyalty

In the case of The Economist, increasing customer loyalty means increasing the subscriber base. Over the 14-year campaign, the number of subscribers in the UK has increased, from 37,000 in 1988 to 72,000 in 2001 an increase of 95%. As a proportion of total circulation, this is an increase from below 50% in 1988 to 64% in 2001 (Figure 20). (3)

Strengthened readership profile

The Economist's ad revenues are dependent not only on circulation but also on the profile of its readership. So it was not enough just to increase readership. The Economist had to attract more of the right kind of readers. Since 1988 the magazine has increased the proportion of ABs by almost 10% (Figure 21).

Increased advertising revenues

Between 1988 and 2001 The Economist increased the cost of a single page advertisement at a faster rate than the competition. For confidentiality reasons, actual rates cannot be disclosed, but looking at the indices for mono and colour page increases versus the market average (Figure 22), the uplifts for The Economist are considerable.

Further evidence of The Economist's success is the fact that it doesn't discount off the rate card. This is in a market of increasingly greater discounting. Over the past 15 years, the average rate card discount for quality dailies has increased from 14% to almost 40% (Figure 23). It is worthy of note that, since 1988, there have been two media recessions, yet The Economist has never deviated from this policy.

Indeed if we apply the average discount to the average rate card for quality dailies, we can see that The Economist's performance versus the competition is even stronger (Figure 24).

How do we know it was the advertising that fuelled The Economist's success?

We have five key pieces of evidence:

  1. The direct effect of advertising on circulation and loyalty using econometric modelling.
  2. How this increase, along with advertising's strengthening of the readership profile, has led to a substantial ad rate card increase.
  3. How the creative and media strategy has enabled The Economist to achieve extremely high levels of advertising and brand awareness despite a decreasing share of voice.
  4. How the advertising has built the quality credentials of the brand.
  5. Finally, we will account for the contribution of other factors.

First, a note on the data

The Economist has a relatively small research budget. This, coupled with monitoring a brand over such a long time period, has inevitably created difficulties. The most obvious gap in the data is a lack of brand measures, as these were never captured on the advertising tracking used during the 1990s. However, a more comprehensive tracking study was put in place in 2001 to rectify these issues. (4) This is why in some cases we are able to look only at brand measures relative to the competition and not over time as well.


Econometric modelling shows a direct effect of advertising on circulation. Because news-stand sales and subscriptions behave differently, we developed a model for each. These models cover only the past five years (1997 to 2001) as there are not enough data available to cover the entire campaign period. Had we been able to model the 14-year effect of advertising, we would have seen a larger impact on circulation.

The models reveal that every 1000 spent on advertising generates 60 news-stand sales and 6.4 subscriptions. Each year we spend approximately 1 million on the brand campaign, so that figure generates 60,000 news-stand sales and 6400 subscriptions. This equates to 2.4% of news-stand sales and 5.7% of subscriptions.

Since The Economist has a very high base level of sales (c.80%), effectively only 20% of sales are 'influenceable'. (5) So when expressed as a proportion of influenceable sales, we can see that the advertising contribution is key to driving circulation growth: 12% of variable news-stand sales (Figure 25) and 29% of variable subscriptions (Figure 26 and Figure 27).


The advertising doesn't just generate new customers, it generates loyal customers. As the model illustrates, the campaign has twice the effect on subscriptions as it does on news-stand sales. It encourages people to form a relationship with The Economist, literally 'buying into' the brand by going straight to subscription. This is remarkable given no response mechanism or call to action is used in the brand advertising.

In addition, the model shows that the advertising has made a significant contribution to the base level sales of 80% over time. Advertising has increased base level sales by an estimated 1% for news-stands and 1.4% for subscriptions every year. (6)

Increasing the premium for ad space

Advertising revenue is dependent upon circulation and readership profile. We have already shown that advertising contributes to circulation uplift but it has also helped attract more upmarket readers. The advertising campaign positioned the brand as a badge of success with which successful, affluent people want to be associated. However, the advertising has not only affected The Economist readers, but it has also had a direct influence upon advertisers and media buyers. They want The Economist on their schedule because they believe it is a unique medium for reaching such a concentration of affluent and influential people. This demand is borne out by the fact that the increase in the ad rate card exceeds expectation, given circulation increases of 64% and AB readership increases of almost 10%.

'A key challenge for our advertising sales team is to positively differentiate The Economist as an advertising medium. The advertising campaign has consistently reinforced The Economist brand as being distinct from and superior to other media brands.'
David Hanger, Publisher, The Economist

Raising awareness

One of the first tasks of advertising is to get the brand noticed in order to successfully communicate its message. The data show that the campaign has achieved high levels of cut-through and raised ad and brand awareness despite the modest budget.

Ad awareness

Advertising awareness built rapidly in the early years of the campaign and has continued at its high levels ever since, despite a decreasing share of voice (Figure 28).

Examining it today, The Economist's ad awareness still outstrips the competition who have spent on average three-and-a-half times more on advertising (Figure 29). (7)

This pattern is mirrored when we look at brand awareness.

Brand awareness

Relative to the competition, The Economist has extremely high spontaneous brand awareness (Figure 30). There is strong evidence to suggest that the advertising is responsible for this. There are uplifts in brand awareness, particularly among our key target of occasional readers, following the autumn 2001 poster burst (Figure 31). (8)

The magnifier effect of a consistent creative and media approach

A testament to the campaign's consistency is its magnified effect on the advertising.

Econometric modelling shows that consistent advertising has led to a weekly adstock carry-over rate of 98% (Figure 32). This is incredible given that the norm for outdoor is 70 to 90%, and it is, to quote our econometrician, (9) 'far higher than any other advertising that's used the outdoor medium'.

With a media strategy of biannual two-week bursts, the remembering rate of one burst of advertising has never declined fully before the next burst begins, such that the effect of the advertising is building constantly without ever increasing ad spend (Figure 33).

Increasing quality perceptions

The advertising has also increased quality perceptions. Tracking shows that 'intelligence', 'cleverness', 'well informed' and 'witty' are the key communication take-outs from the advertising (Figure 34). These advertising messages have remained consistent during the campaign and over time have translated into brand image, as shown in the brand studies conducted among subscribers periodically through the 1990s (Table 2).


Subscriber survey




Base 1561 1523 1121
Valuable international perspective  Agree strongly % 54 65 85
Provides a global interpretation of world affairs Agree strongly % 48 62 n/a
More authoritative Agree strongly % n/a 50 58
Essential weekly reading Agree strongly % n/a 50 58
Source: Ipsos/RSL brand study

All this has contributed to The Economist's strong reputation today. Relative to a key 'quality' competitor such as the FT Weekend, (10) readers see The Economist as more prestigious, authoritative and intelligent (Figure 35 and Figure 36). Interestingly, this is even true among a base of regular FT Weekend readers (Figure 37).

We have shown that the advertising has improved the image of the brand but it also increases desire for the brand. The 2001 tracking shows a significant uplift in propensity to buy The Economist among the key target of occasional readers following the autumn burst of advertising (Figure 38).

What else could explain The Economist's success?

The advertising does not act in isolation. Other parts of the marketing mix PR, promotions and DM in particular all played an important part in the success story. However these and the other possible influential factors (listed below) remained relatively unchanged, or ,if anything, worked against The Economist. Furthermore, they are all accounted for in the modelling:

Payback to the business

Econometric modelling shows a revenue return on investment of 1:1.8. Over the 14-year campaign, this equates to a minimum return in revenue to The Economist of 25.2 million on an ad spend of 14 million. (13) Due to confidentiality reasons, the profit return is not disclosed, but it is considerable.

However, the advertising has paid back in more ways than this.

Securing future revenue by increasing customer loyalty

By driving subscriptions the advertising has secured The Economist's future revenue streams. On average, 54% of subscribers resubscribe in the first instance, 66% of those resubscribe a second time and 80% of those renew their subscription for a third time or more. (14) This means that the average life of a subscriber is 3.3 years. (15) When we account for this, the revenue return on investment becomes 1:5 which equates to a payback in revenue to The Economist of 70 million, for an investment of 14 million.

Creating an ad rate card premium

The Economist has generated significant extra ad revenue because its rate card has increased faster than the competition and it has a no discounting policy. The advertising is not wholly responsible for this success but it has played a significant part.  In the interests of confidentiality, actual revenues cannot be disclosed. However, using The Economist average annual advertising pagination for the UK edition, (16) and the proportion of mono pages versus colour, (17) we estimate that in 2001 alone, extra advertising revenues of 19.5 million were accrued. Over the life of the campaign, assuming the same average pagination and mono/colour split, this becomes 130 million. (18)

Opening up new revenue streams through brand extension

The advertising has helped to strengthen The Economist brand and consequently has enabled it to extend into other areas such as Economist conferences, rights and syndication, pocket books, 'The World In' series and The Economist shop on Regent Street.

'The strength of The Economist brand allows us to be active in commercial areas where many of our competitors cannot play or at least, it allows us to adopt a premium pricing policy and achieve higher margins than most.'
Des McSweeney, Director of Economist Enterprises

Furthermore, in recent years, The Economist has launched a very successful website, Economist.com, which is based on a business model that is funded partly by subscription, not just advertising revenues alone. Since mid-1997, UK traffic has grown from 120,000-page views a month to 1.2 million and registered users in the UK from 10,000 to 120,000. Advertising has played an important part in this success because of its role in building The Economist brand.

'We run a subscription model to complement the print product and it is a testament to the brand that users are prepared to pay, even for individual articles.'
Paul Rossi, Publisher of Economist.com

Opening up new revenue streams through brand expansion

The 'White out of Red' campaign has been adapted for a European audience (Figure 40) and is proven to be driving sales in Europe (Figure 41). There is an estimated potential Economist audience of 1.7 million in continental Europe and current circulation is 170,000, so there is huge future growth potential.

The Economist's long-term brand advertising has paid back more than a content-led approach. The return on advertising investment to The Economist is considerable and part of the reason is the decision in 1988 to invest in the brand, not week-by-week content. 

We can prove this because The Economist uses tactical press alongside the brand campaign to promote next week's survey editions and we monitored both in the econometric modelling (Figure 42 and Figure 43). The modelling results show that this tactical press actually generates less news-stand sales than brand advertising on a per 1000 basis, despite the tactical press containing a call to action (Table 3).


Economist outdoor spend

Economist  press spend

News-stand 60 53
Subscriptions 4.5 0
Subscriptions via news-stand sales 1.9 1.7
Source: ROI

This is because its effects are concentrated in the week of advertising and quickly die out. This tactical press has an adstock carry-over rate of 70% per week versus 98% per week for the brand advertising (Figure 44). This means it is more disposable and easily forgotten and thus ultimately doesn't work as hard as the brand advertising. That said, 70% adstock is still above average for press advertising (Figure 45).

Furthermore, we can see that the tactical activity does little to improve customer loyalty, as it has no direct effect on driving subscriptions. Subscribers are hugely valuable to The Economist because they provide guaranteed revenue. The brand advertising encourages people to invest in the brand long term, the tactical only asks them to buy The Economist that week.

This isn't to say that all tactical advertising should be abandoned; there is a clear role for it in boosting short-term sales. (19) However, The Economist's case demonstrates that if content-based advertising is the mainstay of a communications plan, as it is for many media brands, then the business can suffer in the longer term.


This paper shows that The Economist made a wise decision in 1988 to invest in brand advertising. It made an even wiser decision to continue doing so for the next 14 years, since it has resulted in an iconic brand and a stronger business.



1. Source: PHD.

2. Source: AA, decline in Newspaper and Magazine Circulation 1985-2000.

3. Source: The Economist proportion of subscribers excluding bulks from circulation.

4. Hall & Partners.

5. Base level sales are the modelled estimate of sales without marketing activity, stripping out the impacts of Economist-controllable activity (such as cover design or distribution),

6. Derived from a separate piece of analysis breaking down the five-year time span into sections and remodelling.

7. Source: PHD. Comparing total ATL media spend 1988 to 2001 for The Economist with the market of quality newspapers.

8. September 11 happened during the fieldwork period. However, this would have affected brand awareness for all newspapers and magazines.

9. Sally Dickerson, Managing Director, ROI.

10. FT Weekend and Time Magazine are the competitors against which we track quality perceptions and regular FT Weekend readers were the only base size big enough for this comparison to be made.

10. Technology Quarterly.

12. Source: PHD. Total ATL spend for quality newspapers.

13. ' Minimum' because based on modelling from the last five years of data (1997-2001). Had data been available from 1988 we would have seen a greater contribution of advertising to sales and thus a higher overall return.

14. Source: The Economist.

15. Source: ROI econometric modelling

16. Source: The Economist average of pagination data 1998-2001; fractional sizes have been excluded.

17. Source: The Economist average of colour/mono page data 1998-2001.

18. According to MMS Medialog, the annual number of full ad pages for The Economist has not changed.

19. The issue containing the Drugs Survey, advertised in the UK (Figure 43) was the eighth biggest selling issue of 2001.


IPA, Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, London 2002