Brands and Content

David Hepworth always comes up with interesting ideas about the magazine industry and his columns in Media Guardian are required reading. Sometimes the crux is the main point of his discussion, as when he proposed independent content production companies for magazines; at other times it lies in a more or less throwaway sentence.

The idea that "the magazine industry of the future [could] be more like the TV production industry of today" (MediaGuardian 23/01/06, p8) has, from a business point of view, certain merits. Outsourcing is recognised as a way of controlling costs and exposure, and provided that the content provided met all the branding requirements, there's no reason why it couldn't work.

In fact, it already works because this is the exact model for magazine brands which have been licensed to overseas territories. The December 2005 issue of Magazine World, house magazine of FIPP (International federation of the Periodical Press), contains a number of features which make this point.

• Last October Geo, the German equivalent of National Geographic published by Gruner + Jahr, launched six international editions simultaneously, in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Turkey, Hungary and Croatia. Content is created in Hamburg and "is the same for all markets, but it is translated and local editors contribute additional information such as data boxes and relevant website addresses." (Magazine World, December 2005, p14)

BBC Magazines launched Good Food magazine in Romania: "A third of the content will originate from Romania" (op cit p10), which means two-thirds won't.

National Geographic launched in Bulgaria: content "will follow closely the editorial content of the English-language original." (ibid)

Decanter, IPC's upmarket booze mag, launched in Taiwan: "The edition consists of around 80 percent translated UK content and 20 percent generated locally by Asian partner ...". (ibid)

These examples, it may be thought, come from lands which have no great magazine industries; the putative readers will, surely, be glad for something - anything - to read. Could it happen here (as opposed to "there")? Of course it could. At the moment big examples of what might be called "inwardly licensed" titles, by which I mean mags like Hello (UK-Spain), Grazia (UK-Italy) and Vanity Fair (UK-USA), are full of UK content. And in two of those cases markedly less successful than the originals.

The UK is acknowledged as a powerhouse of magazine production, and quite rightly so. But don't forget that the UK was also a powerhouse of motorcycle and car production, and if magazines are treated as brands, they are subject to the same consumer whims as brands. There is no reason, in theory, why a successful magazine brand which originates elsewhere should not succeed in the UK. There will probably be plenty of work compiling local fact boxes and websites.

An example of a Hepworth throwaway comes in today's article about the demise of Smash Hits (MediaGuardian 06/01/06, p3). He writes: "This was no longer a pop magazine read by girls. It was a girls' magazine. Then it was a girls' magazine read by girls who liked the groups built for girls. What had begun as a broad church turned into a narrow sect and then became less appealling even to that narrow sect ..."

This raises a massive point, and one which he has discussed before, about the way in which magazine managers like to focus their titles ever more tightly. "Know thy reader" is one of the prime directives of magazine journalism, for good reason. But know thy reader down to the brand of soft drink he or she prefers is, perhaps not such a great idea.

Good editors have a particular kind of reader, or even a particular person, in mind when they make their magazines. James Brown knew exactly who he invented loaded for – someone very like himself. That gave the magazine a very clear focus, just like the content filter that drove FHM, second into the new market, beyond loaded: Funny, Useful, Sexy.

The fact that this reader may, in reality, be somewhat idealised (see Ben Crewe's excellent book Representing Men for loaded personnel's reaction when they actualy met their readers) doesn't matter if the generalisation works. But when you research extensively and narrow the focus excessively you run the risk of being left behind very quickly when fashions or whims change.

Max Power spent a great deal of time in carparks and cruise routes, pinning down precisely what it was the hop-up merchants desired in a magazine. Then gave it back to them, with immediate effect on the circulation figures (154,503 last ABC). Now those figures are heading downward again and my guess is that whatever Max Power is offering is the last generation's thing. Trying to hit a moving target is never easy and Fast Moving Consumer Goods have never moved so fast.