Scandal and controversy is no stranger to a tabloid title like The Sun. But beyond the brash headlines, whether launching a limited edition underwear collection, or more recently, deliberating a move into the drinks market with a branded beer (MW last week), it has come a long way from its humble print beginnings.
And while it has managed to maintain its crown as the top-selling daily newspaper, observers say its challenge now will be to ensure its investments deliver a complementary growth in revenue across all the media platforms it occupies.
Today, it is hard to believe the “Currant Bun” was in its first iteration a strike sheet for trade unionists back in 1911. Known as the Daily Herald, by 1933 it had achieved a market-leading position with a circulation of 2 million.
However, in the Sixties it struggled following a slump in sales. As a result its then owner, the International Publishing Company, decided that it was time to create a new title for the generation of affluent graduates who were products of that optimistic decade. Renamed The Sun, it hit news-stands in 1964 as a broadsheet with an initial circulation of 2 million and a cover price of 5d. But as Amelia Boothman, senior consultant at Value Engineers, observes, it was a resounding flop until Rupert Murdoch bought it for an estimated £800,000.
“He turned it into a tabloid and took a populist approach. It’s almost as if he used focus groups to discover what people liked to read and hit the nail right on the head,” she says.
In 1970 it featured its first Page 3 girl and progressed through the decade enjoying a continued circulation growth. In 1976 it overtook the Daily Mirror to become Britain’s largest-selling daily paper.
Roland Agambar, sales and marketing director for News Group Newspapers, says: “The interesting point from 1986 onwards came when we moved to Wapping and introduced things like lotto cards. By 1988 we reached 4.3 million [in circulation]. In the Nineties we did some cover price activity and in 1993 put on 4.4 million. That was the absolute height in circulation for The Sun.”
Boothman says one of the cleverest elements of its success is down to how “it sails incredibly close to the wind”. “We have debated whether or not it taps into the popular mood or whether it stirs up and leads the popular mood,” she says.
“The Sun doesn’t take such a hard line that people become infuriated with it, but it does get people revved up whether it’s about paedophilia or immigrants.”
She adds its infamous headlines such as “Gotcha” and “What a Scorcher” have also become well-worn phrases in popular culture. Then there are headlines like “Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster”, which many remember to this day.
Agambar maintains that The Sun will always be relevant because of its unashamedly populist approach. It has also used its website and mobile platform to extend its football coverage to the point where Agambar sees it rivaling the BBC, Sky Sports and Football365.com, rather than its newspaper siblings.
He claims its overall audience and scale on mobile and its website has continued to grow for the past six months. “I wish the Mirror, the Star and Express had the appetite we do to keep the category as strong and buoyant as we believe it to be,” he says.
John Ryan, deputy press director at Manning Gottlieb OMD, agrees that in the past 12 to 18 months The Sun has “evolved significantly” online and on mobile. “It has been brave in being the most vocal and most public about what it wants to do as a multiplatform operation.” However, he says there is a difference between the perception of what it wants its brand to be versus what it actually is.
In February, parent company News Corporation recorded a second quarter pre-tax profit of $1.39bn (£705m), up 9.2% year on year. And while advertising revenues for its UK newspaper business were slightly above last year’s, circulation revenues saw a slight decline. In spite of this, it remains the highest-circulating daily newspaper in the UK and was one of only two titles that managed to return growth in the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures in the six months to March, up 0.31% to 3.096 million.
Ryan says: “Its profits have taken a hit. From a media buying industry perspective it now needs to catch up with the promise. As a company it is effectively testing all other publishers to invest or get out.
“It’s a strong market-leading brand that’s going through a brave evolutionary stage. But only time will tell if it is repaid in return on investment.”
Timeline: The Sun
1964 IPC-owned The Daily Herald is relaunched as The Sun
1969 Rupert Murdoch buys the paper for an estimated £800,000 and relaunches it as a tabloid
1970 The first topless Page 3 girl appears in the paper
1978 The Sun overtakes the Daily Mirror to become Britain’s biggest-selling daily
1986 The paper moves to Wapping with other News International titles 1990 Full colour printing and computerised on-screen page make-up introduced
1998 The Sun takes its first steps onto the Web.