Brands turn the tables on old-school media owners

As the boundaries between the customer and consumer titles blur, Michael Barnett discovers that brands are using interactive technology to engage audiences and win the circulation war.

Project: Virgin’s title is faring well against the established competitors

Customer magazines have for some time been challenging consumer titles for newsstand sales and circulation numbers – eight of the top 10 UK magazines by circulation are customer titles, according to the latest National Readership Survey (NRS).

As the line between the two types of magazine becomes increasingly blurred, the content created by many brands now exerts more influence than the content put out by many traditional media owners. Yet as competition between the two becomes ever more fierce, brands need to take care that they match established publishers’ editorial and design expertise.

Although satellite broadcaster Sky announced earlier this month that its self-titled magazine, number one in the NRS rankings, will be scaled back from monthly to quarterly this July and its Sky Sports and Sky Movies magazines will be replaced by email newsletters, the overall trend in consumers gravitating towards customer titles is growing (see Figure Focus, below). Many branded titles are also taking over the internet and publishing on mobile devices.

Virgin is one brand that has effectively become a consumer publisher in its own right. The company has created Virgin Digital Publishing as a subsidiary dedicated to the creation of publications for tablet computers. Its first publication, the monthly iPad title Project, is now four issues old, and includes features and photography on culture, technology, design, fashion and science.

Although Project is editorially independent from the commercial operations of Virgin’s other brands, the influence of the parent company is not entirely absent. In the third issue of the title, for example, US comedian Stephen Colbert posed for photos dressed as Virgin chairman Sir Richard Branson.


Giovanni Donaldson, who founded Virgin’s publishing operation on the strength of the idea for Project, says that unlike other customer publications, this is not intended as an exercise in branding or in boosting sales (see Q&A, below).

He claims it is “just about the magazine” but acknowledges that creating and disseminating editorial content has implications for how Virgin’s other brands are viewed.

Fragmented media and fickle browsing habits mean that traditional customer communications would struggle to hold their attention

Sean King, chief executive of customer publisher Seven – which produces Project – says the expansion of customer publications is just one aspect of brands’ sprawling reach across all content channels. “If a brand has a Facebook page, an app, a magazine or sends out emails then it is a media owner. The big media owners of the future will be brands,” he adds.

Virgin Media’s more conventional customer title, Electric!, is published in print and online by Redwood, independently of Virgin Digital Publishing. Virgin Media director of marketing and CRM Chris Bibby says although these two media channels serve different functions, both help the brand achieve its business objectives.

Print remains unrivalled for the amount of time customers devote to reading, while the internet provides a more interactive platform suited to encouraging direct responses to marketing messages, Bibby says. “Ezines and websites are perfect for offering entertainment such as games, or for driving customers to take action. For us the Electric! ezine is not only a cost-effective way of reaching them but also a different way of providing content in a shorter and more interactive format.”


Redwood chief executive Keith Grainger says the Virgin Media example is typical of what brands want. The need to tailor publications specifically to different media is also a reaction to modern readers’ attitudes towards consuming content. Fragmented media and fickle browsing habits mean that traditional customer communications would struggle to hold their attention.

“The trend is a recognition of their shift from interruption to engagement. In that world, the content is what they engage with,” says Grainger.

It is for this reason that customer publications now so frequently attempt to compete with their consumer counterparts on quality as well as reach. Sainsbury’s Magazine, for example, is positioned as a women’s consumer title, with the editorial split between food and lifestyle.

The food section features products that can be bought in Sainsbury’s, but the fashion section will often mention goods on sale elsewhere – a strategy designed to make sure the title doesn’t come across as a pure sales tool.

Sainsbury’s Magazine publishing director Dorcas Jamieson says: “Because it is a paid-for publication, it is really important that it has that balance, and that it is not just seen as a marketing tool for Sainsbury’s.”

It has also attracted high-profile food writers Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater and Raymond Blanc – a tactic a growing number of customer titles are using. Specialist and business titles are also being emulated, with customer publications like Fujitsu’s CIO magazine – which is published by Redwood and targeted at a technically minded readership of chief information officers – employing writers with niche expertise.

Redwood’s Grainger notes: “To make that successful, we have had to hire a very specialist editorial team. We did not have people working on, say, Boots’ magazine waiting to do a magazine for Fujitsu.”

Investment in editorial can also extend beyond holding a reader’s attention to generating visible business returns. Mark Jones, editorial director at Cedar Communications, says this is the case with Tesco Magazine – even more so than the brand originally intended.


“Tesco Magazine was explicitly designed as a branding vehicle, a thank you to the supermarket’s customers, but it also drives hundreds of thousands of pounds in extra sales. The magazine would not do that if people did not feel engaged, and that the content was relevant to them,” says Jones.

But it is also the case that brands’ approaches to creating content might not always mean an investment in long-form editorial, or in the process of producing it. The significant strategy shift by Sky of scaling back its customer magazines and opting instead for email newsletters is a signal that is hard to ignore.

The broadcaster’s decision is perhaps an indication that it no longer considers the expense of publishing one monthly and two bimonthly titles worthwhile when the media products being promoted through them are becoming increasingly interactive with more online elements. It is also possible that Sky wants a more visible measure of the response to its customer communications, though it needs to give recipients a compelling reason to open each email.

What is certain, according to Simon Hobbs, managing director at Forward Publishing, is that content creation must show its value to a business. “Companies are demanding a much more demonstrable return on physical publications and also online communications.”

Many brands are convinced they can get that return on investment, but how they achieve this ambition remains an open-ended question.

Brand in the spotlight Q&A
Giovanni Donaldson, founder, Virgin Digital Publishing

Marketing Week (MW): Aside from being on the iPad, how is Virgin’s Project magazine different from a standard customer publication?

Giovanni Donaldson (GD): While we use and work with customer publisher Seven, Project is more of a consumer publication. We see the title as a business. There was no way I’d be able to get the funding approval for this from outside without being able to show a business case.

MW: How do you use Virgin branding in the app?

GD: We were extremely careful about the level and the amount of Virgin branding in the magazine. We say that it is brought to you by Virgin, not about Virgin. We derive some of the essence of the values of what Virgin is about without saying “here is an amazing Virgin publication”.

MW: What are Virgin’s future plans in the publishing field?

GD: For Virgin Digital Publishing, which is the vehicle we have created, Project is the first title, and we hope to bring others to market. It is certainly a challenging space for a lot of publishers – we are not alone in this. For a publication that was launched just four months ago, I know that we do pretty well against the majors. You are up against brands that have been around for 70-plus years.

MW: How important will tablet computers be for Virgin’s future publishing initiatives?

GD: With the iPad being the first, that was the one to back first. We are open about other platforms, and Sir Richard Branson himself said we are launching with iPad but we will look for others. The experience you get out of a tablet gives you a different insight as to what content can be all about – not just the written word but also video, images, sound and interactive advertising.

MW: How do you intend to build the awareness of the publication outside the iPad’s closed platform?

GD: We have a companion website, which is OK for the moment, and we are looking at
updating that. One of the things we are working on is the ability to share information – you should expect to see much easier sharing functionality in future. The Daily [News International’s iPad news app] has already shown they can do some of that too. At the moment it is not as streamlined as we would like, but that will come.

Top trends 2011 predictions


Richard Bennett, client services director, Dennis Communications (publishes Waitrose Live and Phones4U’s digital magazine)

Brand publishing will continue to grow rapidly, as consumers of all types continue to expect content for free. The distinction between brand publishing and traditional magazine publishing is difficult to define.

If branded content is high quality, relevant and free, the paid-for model will struggle to compete. The role of the publisher as a content provider is unchanged, however. Good writers will always be at the heart of good content.


Paul Masters, group marketing and operations director, Kinleigh Folkard & Hayward

Any growth in the use of branded publications depends on the brand and the sector it operates in. It also depends on the state of the economy. As we come out of recession and marketing budgets start to grow again, there could be a resurgence in branded publications.

However, they have to move away from being thinly veiled advertorials promoting the brand’s products to something more engaging and relevant to the customer. With that comes the difficulty of measuring success and looking at whether readers love you or the magazine or both, which means they could be one of the first casualties in the event of cutbacks.

Measuring the effectiveness of our magazine Completely London is not easy, but then some other elements of property marketing activity are not either. However, we have a return rate below 2%, good responses to reader offers and positive feedback.


Chris Bibby, director of marketing and CRM, Virgin Media

Brands need to think about their product and what they want to achieve – if pure hard sales are what they are after, that could feel disingenuous with communication on the latest platforms.

Social networking, mobile apps and now the iPad mean that there are more ways than ever of grabbing people’s attention, but branded publications still offer a pure, intimate way of talking to customers that can feel like we’re giving them something over and above what they’re paying for.

And all these new platforms just offer more opportunities to be smarter and more efficient in how and when we do it.


Jon Nutton, marketing manager, Empire Cinemas

Branded customer magazines are launched almost every day across a large number of sectors – it depends on the business and what is driving it. We see our magazine Escape as a way of increasing customer awareness of our cinemas as well as film, but it is just one device we use to communicate with our audience. Social media interaction online is also key to our audience.

We are in a competitive industry where we need to capture as much repeat business as we can. Escape magazine gives readers information on all upcoming film releases in an entertaining way, geared to create excitement for our customers. It helps to increase sales and to raise awareness of our brand.

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