Tuesday, January 30, 2007
(Cattle) Branding The Magazine Industry
I recently read through "Kellogg on Branding: The Marketing Faculty of the Kellogg School of Management" (2005), a study on the effects of how brands position themselves in the marketplace and create for themselves a unique concept that brings customers back. Though most of the examples were popular brands many people use - Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Chevrolet, Louis Vuitton - it struck me that the same rules apply to magazines.
Last year, many popular magazines nosedived in circulation, and for a number of reasons: celebrity-driven magazines have blogs to compete with, newsmagazines have Salon and its ilk as competitors, sports magazines have their own sites - but it's not all technology that's to blame.
The iconic Popular Mechanics magazine, for example, took a strong hit in circulation, despite its strong online presence (In full disclosure, I used to work for the magazine). Is it because of competition from a classic competitor like Popular Science? No, PM has generally led PS for years. Is it because of new upstarts like Wired? Partially, but their reader bases are somewhat different in age and expertise.
What it really was, in my opinion, was a change in perception of the brand.
Popular Mechanics is seen as a jack-of-all-trades, do-it-yourself approach for (mostly) men to live better. In the last year or two, many of its cover stories that had political content swayed opposite those that preceded them. That is to say, for example, that old military articles approached the services with fairly unbreakable support, while newer articles approached the military with skepticism (but not cynicism, as many older readers exclaimed in letters).
I supported the new angle wholeheartedly - it kept PM relevant to me when I grew out of new cars but haven't yet grown into to new boats. Unfortunately, the change may have alienated a core part of the magazine's reader base.
Effectively, it seems PM confused its readers because it complicated its brand.
Similarly, former Seventeen EIC Atoosa Rubenstein (another former Hearst employee) left her magazine to establish her own brand - Big Momma Productions. Whether you think she will succeed or not - I, for one, certainly think she's worth keeping tabs on - Atoosa's brand eventually eclipsed the magazine's. Seventeen became known for Atoosa, not the other way around. Once the balance tipped, Rubenstein bounced.
So what am I saying, really? I think magazines have an incredible brand perception to handle, and in a crowded marketplace, its difficult to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Despite decreases in most print publications as of late, I think some of the biggest losses might be because brands need to either reinforce themselves or reframe what they're about, and make sure it's visible on the newsstand at a passing glance. What makes Allure different from Marie Claire different from Vogue different from Cosmopolitan different from Glamour? Their readers know.
Magazines that establish clear definitions for themselves - Conde Nast, for example, whose portfolio contains at least three men's magazines alone (Men's Vogue, GQ, Details) - will succeed.
It certainly isn't easy being an editor-in-chief in 2007.