No brand is an island

Why business and style magazine Monocle hopes a business model based on value, not price, can help the brand ward off the threat of recession

Imagine that you’re a media mogul. In charge of your own magazine brand, every headline shouts about advertising revenues plummeting due to the recession. You call the consultants in. They tell you the best thing to do is retrench, cut staff and concentrate on your core businesses.

You’d probably take their advice. Unless you’re Tyler Brûlé, editor of business-and-style magazine Monocle. Instead of following the rest of the industry, Brûlé is striking out with a whole range of brand extensions, including a new batch of retail outlets, books and audio programmes.

Monocle appears to be adopting a strategy that goes against the wisdom of how businesses should behave in a recession, so can other media brands – and every other industry – learn anything from Brûlé?

First, don’t be scared to blur your business boundaries. Monocle opened its first retail outlet in London just before Christmas. Its success is prompting another store to open in Los Angeles in about five weeks’ time, which will be followed by Tokyo and New York outlets. The Monocle website has already run as an ecommerce business for two years, selling everything from Monocle scent to a range of bags.

“We got a lot of letters from readers saying, for example, that we’d written about a pop act in South Korea but they simply couldn’t find it,” explains Brûlé. “So we thought: what’s the harm in importing that and letting people buy it in a shop?”

Brûlé says the London store covered its costs within its first three weeks. He admits that retailing was first seen as a “great PR tool” for the core business but has been so successful that it is now a part of the business making “a proper contribution”. In a year, he foresees shops comprising a 15% share of the overall business.

Second, if you do have extensions, work out what ties everything together and innovate with this in mind. In the case of Monocle, it prides itself on a strong editorial policy that relies on curating content for its readers. It follows the same strategy with its retailing arm, stocking what the brand believes is interesting, rather than trying to predict public interest.

Third, don’t follow the norms of your sector. Since Monocle believes in curating stories, ideas and products for people, it doesn’t invite user-generated content or social networking on its website, unlike most publishing brands, which are setting up Facebook profiles, logging onto Myspace and posting videos on YouTube.

Brûlé has chosen to use face-to-face networking events as “our style of social networking”. He adds that while it might seem backward to avoid adding modern publishing techniques to Monocle’s portfolio, it is important to avoid using “armchair comment” if the brand isn’t one naturally based on online community elements.

Fourth, value is not about price. At the moment, many companies are taking value to mean low cost. It’s seen as making items cheap or cutting costs, but Brûlé argues that it can be about offering people anything that they genuinely want to keep or gives them more than fleeting pleasure.

This might be possible with a niche magazine but does it translate to other sectors? It seems so. In this week’s cover story, Kellogg marketing director Kevin Brennan describes value as offering consistent quality over time, not its price ticket.

While there might be cheaper own-brand cereal alternatives than his own available, he defines quality as the experience taken from a brand, not its cost.

Fifth, think about your brand experience. Brûlé talks about how print magazines are not dead as a medium if they offer something only attainable through a physical experience. This, he explains, is why he spends money on the design, layout and photography in Monocle; he needs to make sure it is physically alluring.

But why does this ethos not continue through the whole shopping journey? Brûlé points out that many print magazines are sold in newsagents or supermarkets, stacked on shelves beside boxes of cheap crisps and chocolate, appearing disposable.

Why would consumers consider print magazines as something worth paying for and holding onto when the whole experience of buying them lives up to the idea that they are cheap and disposable? While publishers may be unable to convince Tesco or WH Smith to adopt new layouts or introduce in-store sofas, it raises an interesting point for other brands. You cannot consider your brand an island. It must form part of a larger shopping experience to integrate successfully into people’s lives.

Perhaps you don’t have a media brand to manage; perhaps the Monocle magazine, shop or ethos don’t appeal to you. But the lessons that the business is using to beat off a recession should matter to everyone. It’s certainly a story worth reading.

Ruth Mortimer is associate editor (features) of Marketing Week

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