CUTTING ROOM: Rags and riches in celeb-watching; storm in a washing machine; why a larger EU is good for Britain; can economists shake off the dismal tag? Evan Davis at large

CUTTING ROOM: Rags and riches in celeb-watching; storm in a washing machine; why a larger EU is good for Britain; can economists shake off the dismal tag? Evan Davis at large - If you happen to be browsing through this copy of MT in a newsagent (and why h

by EVAN DAVIS, economics editor of the BBC
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

If you happen to be browsing through this copy of MT in a newsagent (and why haven't you bought it?), try this. Take a look at Heat, which is probably the biggest business success story you'll find amid the conspicuously thinning rags on the shelves at the moment. Its concept may not sound very original - page after page of celebrity pictures and gossip - but the execution of this formula makes the magazine a winner. Hats off to Emap, which invented it, invested in it and tweaked it so that the product works.

Now look at Hot Stars, the free supplement to OK. You might notice a similarity. Indeed, Hot Stars brazenly mimics Heat, and I recommend looking at the front cover, the inside back cover, the interview page and the main picture features in the two magazines to sample the evidence.

Of course, there's nothing new about also-ran products imitating quality ones in the hope of creaming off some of the profits that accrue to originality, risk-taking and enterprise. The life of the product innovator is never easy.

Which brings me to the subject of dissolvable sachets of pre-measured liquid washing detergent. Ariel Liqui-tabs and Persil Capsules were meant to be the big innovation in detergent technology last year, one that the Washington Post described as 'something to be grateful to the British for'.

Unfortunately for Ariel and Persil, the Co-op had its own brand of detergent sachet on the shelves ahead of the other two, making them look like followers not pioneers. One brand consultant said that the Co-op benefited from not having to invest so much time in marketing and developing a brand strategy as its big rivals.

I find myself in the minority position of feeling sorry for the brand developers. Much of what Procter & Gamble and Unilever invest in brand development is devoted to selling their innovations to the likes of the Co-op and other retail chains, persuading them to carry new products prominently.

Much as I admire the Co-op for beating P&G, I'll desist from complaining about the high prices brands charge. These guys have to make a bob or two somehow.

And yet I see little reason to worry about the pioneers. My prediction is that Heat will gain kudos from an unsubtle attempt to copy its formula; and the evidence is that Persil and Ariel already outsell the store brands of the dissolvable sachets by an order of magnitude. Brands may face annoying challenges from rivals, but they'll always be with us.

From the balance of power between brands and retailers, to the balance of power within the EU. Here is just a brief thought: when 10 new countries join it in just two years' time and we become a community of 25, who will benefit? The consensus seems to be that it is us Brits. Why? Well, put it this way: the Poles and Latvians are not going to be learning to speak French. The applicant countries are by and large keen on free trade, Nato, and, of course, the English language. In other words, they should be allies in supporting the values the British have tried to promote within the EU.

The other advantage of their entry is, of course, that Britain will suddenly look like a rich country in comparison with most of the rest of the Union, and our railway service won't compare nearly as badly as it has.

Anyone who follows these things knows that the discipline of economics is undergoing a crisis of confidence at the moment. For example, students at school and college have increasingly been opting for business studies instead. The public profile of the economics profession has been poor.

Now, to add to the humiliation, the Nobel prize for economics has been called into question. The Nobel family are reported to be uneasy at the prize, which was never provided for in Alfred Nobel's will, arriving 68 years after the other Nobel awards. Alfred was apparently sceptical about the virtues of business and economics, and wanted his prizes to be devoted to those 'who conferred the greatest benefit upon mankind'. Cynics suggest that economics - the 'dismal' science - has no place in advancing that lofty objective.

Oh dear. Economists will have to work hard at establishing the value of their subject. It was once suggested to me there should be a TV series dramatising the work of economists, along the lines of the various programmes devoted to vets, detectives and doctors. I doubt that the schedulers would be beating at the door for such a series.

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