When success is not so soaraway

At first sight, there may seem little to connect The Sun, Sainsbury’s and British Nuclear Fuels – other than that they figure prominently in this week’s magazine. But they are linked in at least one important respect: all are brands haunted by the spectre of decline. Each is currently embarking on a very different strategy to reverse that trend.

The Sun’s solution has been to ditch its editor and appoint a new one. On the face of it, David Yelland’s departure looks the result of mature reflection on his part and – who knows? – maybe it is. Yelland has done a decent stint, four and a half years, which exceeds his predecessor’s. In that time, he has realigned the tabloid with the times: made it less aggressive, less homophobic; in short, more New Labour. Superficially at least it’s paid off: at 3.45 million, circulation is up 4.24 per cent on the year, according to December’s ABCs. So why not quit while you’re ahead?

What’s wrong with this theory is it’s incomplete. Actually, the circulation record has been rather patchy and, like all tabloids, The Sun continues to face the prospect of long-term decline. What’s more, while Yelland may have won the battle of figures (so far) with the Daily Mirror, he has transparently lost the war of words with its editor Piers Morgan. Rebekah Wade promises (despite her personal media reticence) to be a more flamboyant editor, who will not only give Morgan a run for the punters’ money on populist issues, but will show more skill in gauging the political climate as disillusionment with Labour begins to bite.

For Sainsbury’s, the issue is brutally clear-cut. A successful bid for Safeway is a now-or-never opportunity for corporate recovery. Sainsbury’s marketing – particularly the Jamie Oliver-fronted advertising – has had a succès d’éstime which belies a more sluggish underlying performance. Nearly three years into chief executive Sir Peter Davis’s new regime, like-for-like figures should be a lot better. So, if organic development won’t do the trick, perhaps an aggressive acquisition will. Certainly the alternative – staying out of a bidding war that would leave Sainsbury’s indisputably weakened as a fourth player – is not appealing. On the other hand, the odds on success are long. Morrisons’ is a bid better calculated to please the competition authorities, while expected interference from the Wal-Mart/Asda camp may make the cost prohibitively expensive. Still, if Davis pulls this one off, he will walk on water for years – and so probably will the Sainsbury’s brand.

BNFL, by contrast, looks an absolute no-hoper. It is interesting to see how nuclear energy has, in a single generation, moved from iconic status at the leading edge of the ‘white heat of technology’ to being something of a leper. No doubt Chernobyl, films such as The China Syndrome and indeed the eponymous TV serial have brought a sinister ‘edge of darkness’ feel to the sector. Yet prejudice aside, it is still just about possible to make a case for nuclear power against its fossil-fuelled relatives. Alas, the same logic does not extend to the dirty end of the business, enshrined in BNFL’s reprocessing activities. It will be a brave agency that takes on a hardened, cynical public – and an even more remarkable one that succeeds in influencing it.

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