Women’s weeklies need new formula

With total sales falling, women’s weekly titles are in dire need of a revamp. Helen Sage asks where the innovation is coming from in a me-too market

Women’s weekly magazines are a brand marketer’s nightmare. Apart from the names of the titles, there is very little to distinguish between them on the newsstands, leaving consumers with little choice.

IPC’s group managing director for Weeklies and the Southbank group of titles Nigel Davidson is leaving the market just as it appears to have regressed by 11 years to the time before the German publishers broke the mould of what was a very predictable and undynamic sector with Bella and Best.

Media specialists agree that most of the weekly publishers have failed to hit on a winning Nineties formula yet, let alone one which will take them into the next millennium.

The main criticism is the lack of variety between the different titles – that they all follow an almost identical formula of celebrities, gossip and problems.

Sarah Jennings, planning director of MBS Media, says: “Many of the titles are looking tired. When the Germans (Gruner & Jahr and Bauer) entered the market in the late Eighties, their titles looked fresh in terms of content, design and layout. There has been very little innovation since then.”

Unlike the time before the German invasion, the market has recently emerged from a year which Davidson describes as having suffered “unprecedented disruption”.

All the main weekly publishers have launched new titles: Now, Enjoy! and Here! Two of these have already disappeared. And the total number of sales in the women’s weekly market fell by 272,864 (4.8 per cent) between 1995 and 1996 according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations – greater than the circulation of either Women’s Realm or Eva.

Observers predict that the next set of ABC figures, out next month, will reveal further decline. Although each of the major publishers have at some time blamed the National Lottery, there is no evidence to prove this – on the contrary, Hello! magazine, with eight per cent sales growth to 536,000 last year, has shown that a strong editorial formula will bring the weekly readers in.

Davidson admits that all the publishers need to work on making their brands more individual and that the competitive nature of the market has increasingly disrupted reader’s brand-buying habits.

Paul Mukherjee, press and radio buying director at the Ogilvy & Mather-owned The Network, says as all the titles are so similar they have lost the brand loyalty that is needed to keep magazine markets alive. He says: “Publishers have got to do something really different to expand the women’s weekly market.”

Jennings agrees: “Because readers find it increasingly difficult to differentiate between the titles, they randomly take their pick from the week’s front covers.

“What’s more, there are only so many times a major scandal breaks and the same story tends to be covered time and again. It also gets covered in the tabloids, which seem increasingly to steal the weeklies’ thunder.”

G&J’s managing director Holger Wiemann says the Lottery has been blamed for a decline in multiple purchasing – readers buying several titles during the week – but he also says the Lottery gets people into newsagents where magazines are sold.

Despite falling sales, the weeklies sector is still a profitable market. The weeklies group at IPC is rumoured to contribute a quarter of the company’s annual profits of 57m. For this reason IPC proved its continued commitment to the market by buying Here! from G&J this year and merging it into its new Now magazine.

Wiemann denies rumours that G&J is moving away from the weekly sector, following the sale of Here! to IPC in April. He too admits the market is the cash cow for every publishing house.

Media specialists agree that under Davidson IPC’s weekly group has managed to consistently shelter itself well from the storms that have arisen since the German invasion, and are consequently in a strong position to do something new.

Mukherjee believes IPC has successfully converted its women’s weeklies over the years to appeal to the daughters of its original readers. But Jennings says publishers should focus on some of their traditional titles with an older profile to secure new readers.

She adds: “They do not seem to be rising to the challenge and instead are using younger models on their front covers in an obvious attempt to recruit younger readers. This market has real strength among over-45s and it’s a shame they’re not exploiting it.”

Jane Ratcliffe, director of press buying at media agency Mediacom, believes that the weeklies will only get back on track once publishers develop titles which are unique enough to convince women that they need a different magazine every couple of days.

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