Next month Sheaffer Pens is launching a customer magazine called Sphere. A title aimed specifically at pen owners is unusual enough – but Sphere is going a step further by including no editorial on Sheaffer or any other pens, and will contain very little Sheaffer branding.
The contract publishing industry is waiting with interest to see how the magazine fares. Contract publishing, after all, is about increasing branding, uplift of sales and cross-selling. This is difficult to achieve under normal circumstances, let alone in a milieu of subliminal branding.
The strategy of the magazine was developed by marketing consultancy Interfocus and the title is being published by Illustrated London News.
Sheaffer Pens is owned by Bic, but the target market for the magazine is not the chewed, plastic Bic ballpoint pen user. Sphere, with a first issue circulation of 70,000, will go to what Sheaffer calls its “white dot” pen owners – who spend from &£40 to a few thousand pounds for jewel-encrusted varieties.
Andrew Sculthorpe, Illustrated London News director, says: “The magazine will be completely lifestyle driven, with articles on issues like travel, design and food. We have an increasingly marketing-weary public, so to ram products down people’s throats could have an adverse effect. The magazine is an integral part of a long-term strategy to reposition the brand.”
There will be some Sheaffer advertising and reader offers, and if readers don’t purchase another Sheaffer product within 18 months to two years, they are likely to be knocked off the database.
But the publication is being seen as a risk and despite an increasing tendency to turn customer magazines into lifestyle products, there is a view that Sphere may be taking this too far.
As always, it seems that striking a balance between naked branding and appealing to broader interests is the issue. Peter Moore, Mediamark Publishing managing director and APA chairman, says: “Who would have said four years ago that Dulux would produce a magazine that not only shifts cans of paint, but is also an award-winning and beautifully designed magazine in its own right?”
The Dulux magazine Colour is produced by Redwood Publishing. Mike Potter, chief executive of Redwood, says: “The key word for us has always been relevance, not just branding or lifestyle. If you have a client whose subject matter is deeply relevant to your audience, then stick to that.”
But the fact is pens are deeply relevant to everyone – and no-one.
Toning down the branding
Nevertheless, there is a tendency for customer magazines to tone down the branding while still trying to communicate the brand message.
Moore at Mediamark, which publishes the British Midland magazines High Flyer and Update, says the magazines have changed dramatically in the past five years.
“In terms of the front cover, there is no British Midland branding at all – only the title. Five years ago there was a huge logo across the front but then British Midland was an internal carrier and that’s what the magazine reflected. Now the airline covers Europe and the magazine is therefore about European lifestyle. The magazine must always reflect and support the marketing stance of the client,” he says.
But then customer magazines in the travel sector don’t need to be very concerned with how lifestyle-oriented they become, because travel is lifestyle.
Someone who believes customer magazines may have veered too far into the lifestyle mould is David Miller, partner at marketing consultancy Miller Bainbridge & Partners, which produces the Toyota customer magazine In Front.
Magazines for marketing
Miller says: “Our research shows that car customer magazines were far too generic and too lifestyle oriented. They all looked the same. I think the marketing department needs to claim authority back over the magazines.”
Miller says the agency has re-worked In Front, which used to be published by TPD. It no longer contains lifestyle features and all the information is purely about Toyota. “We’ve designed the magazine to create affinity with the brand and draw response. The magazine is linked to the Toyota call centre and Website. It carries no other advertising for any other brand because we don’t want to sell anything else to our customers – we want to keep it completely brand focused,” explains Miller.
Miller concedes that car magazines can afford to be highly brand focused because of the uniquely strong link that the reader has with the brand, but still maintains that customer magazines are becoming too generic.
Kim Conchie, Brass Tacks group chief executive, agrees that a magazine can be too lifestyle-oriented but adds that branding and reflecting readers’ lifestyles are not mutually exclusive goals.
Conchie says: “The question is how do we intend to demonstrate that any magazine a client produces – and spends a lot of money on – has a demonstrable effect on their business? You can’t do that if there are no devices in the magazine that mention the brand.
“It may suit some to get the brand message across to some clients without looking for any upturn in sales or cross selling – but I would think we’re talking about a very small group of clients. And in our business, we are interested in expanding the number of clients.
“I don’t think it demeans a magazine to have a few pages telling them about the brand.”
A good balance
Conchie points to Ikea room, produced by John Brown Publishing, as a magazine that has achieved the right balance between branding and covering the world of interiors generally. “The magazine extends the brand but also says ‘we are experts in the field of interiors’,” he says.
David Fernando, group publisher at Premier Magazines, says: “More than ever, clients want to see the results of their expenditure on magazines. Just because a magazine is heavily branded does not mean it is not a good magazine editorially.”
“Sphere sounds as if it is taking a very subtle approach and Sheaffer might have some excellent reasons for addressing its audience in this way. It has to be said that it would be difficult to write a magazine about pens.
“But if I was on the other side of the fence, as a client, I would want to pinpoint some effect of the magazine on the bottom line.”
For some clients and magazines the job is much easier. The magazine for members of English Heritage, Heritage Today, recently changed publishing hands from Redwood Publishing to Citrus Publishing – and the look is very different. But Heritage Today has a passionate and very interested audience, who “read the magazine from cover to cover”, says Carey Sedgwick, Citrus Publishing editorial director.
Nevertheless, English Heritage asked Citrus to produce a magazine that would enable the society to broaden its membership as well as make the magazine more interactive.
Sedgwick says: “The magazine is purely a loyalty tool. We want to retain our membership. We were asked to inject newsstand qualities into the title and make it a lot more accessible.”
But back to the maverick, Sphere. Matthew Hooper, Interfocus managing director, admits the goal of the magazine is not to increase sales. It is, he says, part of a package to reposition the brand – and he claims the client is quite happy with that.
Fulfilling client needs
He is backed up by Andrew Hirsch, chief executive officer of John Brown Publishing, who says it is “absolute nonsense” that clients are increasingly demanding to know how a magazine will affect the bottom line.
“Half the titles we produce are for the purposes of brand positioning and awareness, and nothing to do with selling products,” he says.
Hirsch adds: “The magazine has to reflect the personality of the company. Sheaffer Pens is about a certain lifestyle – you can’t have a magazine that pushes brands down its readers’ throats: that’s not the image of Sheaffer.”
Hirsch believes “it’s all a matter of confidence”. And to a certain extent he is correct. Each client has a different market and expects its magazine to perform a particular function. It’s up to the publisher to develop the best strategy to meet the client’s needs – even if it means taking a risk.