When Branding Isn't Enough: The Demise of <em>Gourmet</em>

To quote my cousin Howard, "You can't eat prestige." If you're an executive looking at the bottom line in black and white, how do you monetize the meaning of a brand?
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I remember the day well:

I was working as an editor at a 150-year-old Manhattan book publisher. We all filed in to the editorial conference room for our Tuesday morning meeting. Once seated, a fixture in the group--an editor who had worked at the company for 48 years--suggested that we all go back to our desks and order ourselves copies of E.B. White's collected essays. Why?

Because, he announced, the company was putting it out of print.

We gasped.

I think someone blacked out.

Apparently, a team of consultants with virtually no contextual publishing experience had been called in to figure out what was "going wrong" during the publishing downturn of the mid-to-late 1990s. They had given the names of a handful of backlist titles to the publisher, and those titles were to be "killed" because it cost more money to print, warehouse, and distribute them then what they actually made back in a fiscal year. The upside was smaller than the downside, even for Andy White. And that just wasn't good business.

This is not rocket science; on a p&l, the numbers were plain enough.

Still, the response of the editorial team (myself included) was, to flip a recent quote from the CEO of Conde Nast, Charles Townsend, "emotional, not clinical." The consultants were accurate when it came down to dollars, but we were furious, and we pronounced the end of publishing as we knew it.

This oversimplified snapshot is the reason why, in a nutshell, Gourmet folded yesterday: it simply was no longer making money. Its ad pages were horrifically down, even relative to the environment. Moreover, when a publisher owns two affinity-similar publications (regardless of how different their readerships are) and one makes money and the other one doesn't, the latter is the one to go, no matter how well-known or culturally established it is. In the world of big media groups, this is exactly the point where the fact of emotionally-entrenched, iconic branding becomes irrelevant, and saleablity of content becomes king.

To quote my cousin Howard, "You can't eat prestige." He's right: ultimately, it mattered not one iota that Ruth Reichl is, as Media Decoder said, "powerful in the food world" or that she changed the face of the magazine at a critical juncture in its life. It doesn't matter at all that there are a lot of totally heartbroken Gourmet fanatics out there like me, who scour tag sales for leather-bound gold-stamped binders containing the missing years of the magazine that we need to complete our collections. It doesn't matter that Diary of a Foodie had a devoted following. It doesn't matter that brilliant editors like Doc Willoughby and Zanne Stewart and Kemp Minifie can rattle off what issue during what year of the Eisenhower administration contained the best version of cassoulet, and why.

Because, at the end of the day, what does matter was what, exactly, the Gourmet brand meant to the general consumer when McKinsey made its recommendation. And if you're an executive looking at the bottom line in black and white, how do you monetize the meaning of that brand? Sure, you can look at subscription rates and newsstand sales. But how do you monetize the cultural importance of the brand to the vast array of readers who picked up dog-earred copies of the magazine at book sales and were hooked for life? Or who bought 40-year-old copies on eBay? How is it possible to place a valuation on the meaning of Gourmet to millions of die-hard readers over the last (almost) 70 years? The same way you place a valuation on the work of E.B. White. You can't: there is no line on any p&l I've ever seen that weighs the value of cultural emotion in with sales figures and plant costs.

Like it or not (and I truly don't), at a time when popular food culture means Hell's Kitchen and the Food Network, Gourmet became a hollow brand to all but its most devoted readers, and in this economy, that was just not enough to muscle it past the competition which, ironically, was just across the hall.

So why Gourmet and not Bon Appetit? The question has an almost gruesome biblical air to it (like killing one would have been fairer, somehow, than killing the other) but the answer is simple: Bon Appetit appeals, undeniably, to the masses. It hits squarely on the current running trends that the busy home cook with a flock of children is interested in. It is recipe forward, meaning that its pages are literally packed from cover to cover with the sorts of home-style dishes one might tear out and shove in a card file. I know of no one who ever tore pages out of Gourmet, although I'm certain he or she exists. Bon Appetit has, over the years, focused long and hard on the usability of its printed content, and how to get that content into the hands of as many people as possible; that's the definition of mass marketing. Create the content, give a broad a group of readers exactly what they want, and they will continue to subscribe or buy off newsstand and advertisers will be (reasonably) happy.

Until they're not.

So, is there an answer to the killing of books like E.B. White's and of magazines like Gourmet? Yes. The day that massive media conglomerates stepped into the wood-paneled offices of an industry devoted to culture and the written word and held it to the same bottom line that they do mass market platforms like television, all hell broke loose.

Publishing--magazine or book--is a very different sort of animal, and when a publisher and its readership assume that it will be safe just because of its name and esteemed history, bad things happen. The truth is, in this environment, no one is safe.

Nothing to do but hunker down, pull up the blankets, and read.

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