Page last updated at 13:59 GMT, Thursday, 16 July 2009 14:59 UK

Rule Britannica?

By Jo-Anne Rowney
BBC News Magazine

Encyclopaedia Britannica has been ranked the 10th strongest consumer brand in the UK. With the internet dominated by free reference sites, what's its appeal?

Britannica in book form
In the top tome: Encyclopaedia Britannica

You're sitting at your desk trawling Google for a BA flight on your Microsoft desktop, sipping a Coca Cola, while wearing your Rolex and checking your Apple iPhone... with your old leather bound Encyclopaedia Britannica close to hand.

It's not hard to spot the odd one out in the above rundown of brands likely to have your average label junkie salivating at the mouth.

In a world where Wikipedia is THE first port of call for many millions of internet users, a paid-for encyclopaedia, such as Britannica, risks looking like an ageing and ailing relative.

But a poll of Britain's top consumer brands has placed Encyclopaedia Britannica in 10th place.

In the annual Superbrands survey, Britannica leapt a notable 19 places from last year, pitching it just below Apple, one rung above Virgin Atlantic.

How can its brand appeal be explained? And when internet users have become increasingly accustomed to getting information for free, who still pays for encyclopaedias?

Strong pedigree

Reputation and reliability are what people vote for when rating a brand, says Stephen Cheliotis, chairman of the Superbrands Expert Council. The council draws up a shortlist of 1,400 brands which the public is invited to vote for.

Britannica - Wikipedia
First published 1768 in Scotland
Oldest English language encyclopaedia still in print
Contains 40m words, approx on 500,000 topics
Time magazine dubbed the Britannica the "Patriarch of the Library"
Offices around the world
Launched January 2001
Biggest multi-national free encyclopaedia in world
13m articles, 2.9m in English
Run by 23 employees in California
Many users describe it as a starting point

"Britannica matches all the criteria for a 'superbrand'. Quality, reliability and distinction - it's different from its peers," says Mr Cheliotis. "It has been around a long time, and even with the challenge of newer online rivals it is still seen as more credible."

Britannica, which has a pedigree of more than 200 years, is confident that its information is worth paying for. Compiled by 4,000 experts and academics from around the world it has built its reputation on reliability.

The growth of the internet has seen the publisher shift its operation online. An annual subscription to the site comes in at just under £50 and it claims 40 million subscribers worldwide. The encyclopaedia is still published in book form, with 10,000 of the 32-volume sets sold each year, according to the company.

But while Britannica's subscriber base is still strong, its consumer profile is surely dwarfed by names such as Nintendo, Marks & Spencer and Duracell - which all rank below it in the Superbrands top 10.

Ian Grant, managing director of Britannica UK, says the company's recent marketing campaign - which stressed its difference from free web-based reference sites - has helped push it.

Crusty professor

"It's about personality. We've gone from a crusty old professor in a corner who woke up when poked, to an inspirational teacher.

"We're a paid service demonstrating value. Positioned in a world with Wikipedia, our slogan 'Know for sure' has been the focus," says Mr Grant. "People are just beginning to understand the difference between rigorously generated info and user-based. We talk about reliability a lot"

They're a chisel, we're a drill, and you need to have the correct tool for the job
Ian Grant on rival Wikipedia
MD for Britannica UK

But Britannica's reliability has been questioned - notably in a 2005 study by Nature magazine which claimed to have found almost as many inaccuracies in Britannica as in Wikipedia, based on a sample of articles. Britannica claimed the study was flawed and misleading.

In academic circles, where mention of Wikipedia as a source will likely meet with a heavily arched eyebrow, Britannica and other more traditional, and accountable, reference forms still hold sway.

"Wikipedia is a fun site to use and has a lot of interesting entries on there, but their approach wouldn't work for Encyclopaedia Britannica. They're a chisel, we're a drill, and you need to have the correct tool for the job."

Maybe the real reason for the Britannica's rise in the brand stakes lies in the falling fortunes of other traditionally dependable names like Nike (last year 9th, this year 29th) and Sony (10th last year, 22nd this year).

"Other brands have fallen down - Britannica has leapt over others who haven't done so well," explains Mr Cheliotis. "But really it's a combination of reputation and the poor performance of previously high ranking brands."

Jedi spoofing

"It's not as sexy or topical or in the news as often. But it makes its rise that much more impressive."

But not everyone is so convinced. A strong web presence does not explain the jump up the table, says Tim Alber, a leading branding and marketing expert.

"Britannica branching out [on to the internet] and taking on Wikipedia and other online sites may have affected the result but it's still very extreme."

"It reminds me of the census, when the public - as a joke - put their religion down as Jedi Knights," says Mr Alber, senior fellow at London Business School. "A group of individuals agreed to list their religion as Jedi in the last census, manipulating the results as a prank."

But Mr Cheliotis denies the survey, which invites the public to vote, online, has been spoofed.

"There is no chance to collaborate, and no one knows when it will happen," says Mr Cheliotis. "They wouldn't be able to fix the result as it goes through an independent council who check the brands."

Here is a selection of your comments.

I have fond memories of the smell and feel of the Britannica, and also its look, the way the type sat on those thin pages. I loved looking at them on the bookshelf and especially looked forward to the yearly updates. The atlas was simply the best around. And I would buy one for my kids - especially for those more aesthetic reasons. However the information in the Britannica is on the Web and often it's not just Wikipedia, but other types of site - even YouTube, providing information - I mean take for example the Periodic Table, there are wonderful sites on the Web (non-wiki) devoted to the table. You buy books because you want to sit and read somewhere, carry it around, feel it and so on.
Brett Fredericks, Darwin, Australia

The problem with online reference sites is they are not accountable. Wikipedia's pages, while very accessible, are written partly by people who are not an authority on the topic. Efforts are made by all online reference sources to link to credible external links, but can they be trusted? It comes down to trust of a brand, and Britannica is trusted.
Ian Ambrose, Wirral, United Kingdom

Wikipedia, with a 97% share of the online encyclopedia market, has forced Microsoft to shut down Encarta. How long will it be before Wikipedia claims the prize scalp of Encyclopaedia Britannica? Encyclopaedia Britannica did not think that an open source product like Wikipedia would significantly challenge the credibility of its brand. They were dead wrong and Encyclopaedia Britannica's staff seriously misread the global market. They are now very concerned about the widespread use of a free Wikipedia v their paid subscription model. It will be interesting to see if Encyclopaedia Britannica survives, but recent indications do not look good. It is the combination of a) the success of Wikipedia and b) improved search engines that has put financial pressure on Encyclopedia Britannica over recent years. Many libraries, schools and individuals are questioning the need to pay for sets of expensive books, or to subscribe to Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, when the content is free on the internet, and much more comprehensive.
P Morgan, Manchester, England

This looks like a rogue result to me. Why would anyone use Britannica for anything? Wikipedia is free, reasonably accurate, and great for general background; if I want more detail I can follow up the links from Wikipedia or use more specialised reference works.
Robert, London

The classic expose of Britannica's flaws is The Myth of the Britannica by Einbinder. That was published in 1964, and all the problems it exposes are still there 35 years later. There's very little British about "Britannica" by the way, it's compiled and published by staff employed by the University of Chicago.
Edward Vickery, London, UK

As a former Britannica rep (1959) I'm delighted to see it's still holding its own. What fascinating people I met unexpectedly through knocking on doors. They included the contributor of an article on coal, and the wife of a former Speaker of the House of Commons who asked me in for a cup of tea.
Mr CR Shaw, Dunstable, England

The problem with Wikipedia is that their average "editor" is a 13-year-old from Iowa.
Montague T, London

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