Cook Report

Sainsbury’s The Magazine has set a quality precedent in publishing. Martin Croft discovers its secret ingredient

Food erotica” is how the publisher of one retail title describes Sainsbury’s The Magazine. It’s an observation echoed by many of its rivals, both “customer” and consumer newsstand magazine publishers. Indeed, the loving way in which food is presented in Sainsbury’s magazine is believed to have changed the way food is presented in the media.

It is not the first magazine to use quality, cookery book-style photography. Michael Wynn Jones, editor of Sainsbury’s The Magazine and managing director of its publisher New Crane, points to two great food magazines of the past, Taste and A La Carte. He suggests their problem was that they were too exclusive and narrowly targeted: “If you’re going to make an economic go of it, you have to be attractive to larger food advertisers.” And that means reaching a wider market.

Wynn Jones acknowledges that the transformation in public habits in the decade since the passing of Taste and A La Carte has helped the success of Sainsbury’s title.

The nation has become far more conscious of what it eats, influenced by the greater range of exotic foodstuffs offered at large food stores, and opportunities to go further afield for their holidays. The importance of ethnic communities within the UK has also had its part to play.

Sainsbury’s has, for the past seven years, had cookery guru Delia Smith as its adviser. She had been guiding the company “on getting foods from around the world; but then there was no way to tell consumers about them, or how to use them”, says Wynn Jones. The solution, she suggested, was to publish a magazine.

Since its launch in May 1993, Sainsbury’s magazine has led the way for customer titles. Its first ABC figure was about 265,000; its latest tops 304,000. Sainsbury’s sets the print run and is committed to selling all issues through 350 of its stores. But the title still has to bow to the economics of publishing. Wynn Jones says: “We had to be in Audit Bureau of Circulations, Target Group Index and the National Readership Survey- advertising is our lifeblood.”

Although Sainsbury’s title is only sold in-store, it has many of the attributes of a consumer publication. Wynn Jones says: “It’s not easy to classify it. I think we were a bit of an anomaly when we started. For example, we were shortlisted [in last year’s Periodical Publishers Association awards] both as a customer magazine and a consumer magazine.”

Nicola Murphy, marketing and sales director at River Publishing, the contract magazine company that publishes the Asda Magazine, admits that Sainsbury’s The Magazine has changed people’s perceptions of customer magazines. She says: “Media buyers’ attitudes have changed, although there is still a long way to go. But many free magazines have got better since Sainsbury’s title was launched.”

McCann-Erickson group media director Fiona Smedley agrees: “It has taken food – and food ads – to a new level. It also came in as an extremely cost-effective magazine compared to ones such as Good Housekeeping.”

Advertisers may have felt pressured into using Sainsbury’s The Magazine in the past, but much of the pressure came from their own salesforce, claims Smedley. “Their marketers have been very happy to say to Sainsbury’s buyers that they are advertising in the magazine. It enjoys a lot of clout with clients. It’s one of the few titles that, if it isn’t on a media schedule, clients ask ‘why not’?”

Lizzie Kershaw, publisher of National Magazine’s Good Housekeeping, says: “It has added weight to the women’s magazine sector. If clients want to reach women, then they are much more likely to look at a campaign in women’s monthlies. Media buyers have been forced to look again at the market. It’s like the men’s magazine sector: ten years ago if someone had suggested to a client that they could reach young men with a magazine ad campaign the client would have thought they were crazy.”

Kershaw stresses that, in addition to expanding the sector Good Housekeeping occupies, Sainsbury’s The Magazine has had little effect on the title’s circulation or pagination. “Sales of Good Housekeeping through Sainsbury’s have increased since the launch of Sainsbury’s The Magazine, and ad pagination is up by ten per cent.”

Sainsbury’s magazine costs 1, roughly half that of the consumer titles Wynn Jones believes it competes with – Good Housekeeping and BBC Good Food. He admits that if it had to use the same distribution channels as its rivals, it would have to be at least twice the price.

The Asda Magazine has a price tag of 40p, but is free to Asda shoppers. The cover price is there to give a perception of value. With a print run of 1.2 million, it carries 22 pages of ads, eight to 11 of which are advertorial. It makes roughly 200,000 an issue from advertising and targets a more downmarket audience than Sainsbury’s publication.

Richard Britton, non-broadcast director at CIA, believes retailer titles are no threat to traditional women’s magazines. “There are very few retailer magazines, and a lot of women’s magazines, each aimed at different sectors. I don’t think the likes of EMAP, IPC and the National Magazine Company are quaking in their boots,” he says.

Indeed, consumer publishers say they are not losing revenue to contract or customer titles. Indeed, when Tesco launched its Tesco Recipe Collection (on sale at the checkout for 30p), BBC Good Food took an ad in it.

It is also incorrect to assume that all retailer magazines chase food and drink advertising in the way that the traditional women’s magazines do. “Not all the retailer magazines are out there to get ad revenue,” says Britton. “You’ve got to look at each of these magazines separately to see why they are being published. In most cases, they’re used as a way to communicate with their customers.”

He cites Tesco’s magazine as an example. Britton says its purpose is purely to support the Tesco Clubcard loyalty scheme. “Tesco aims its magazine at its loyalty scheme members – that means it’s very different to a consumer magazine.”

An examination of ad revenue in the women’s magazine sector suggests that many traditional checkout titles have seen their ad income fall. Circulations have also been reduced, judging by ABC figures. However, this probably has more to do with the increasing number of traditional titles being launched.

Deborah Gresty, publishing director of Condé Nast’s House & Garden, says: “We are in a rather different neck of the woods, and they certainly haven’t affected our market share.” Food and drink companies that advertise in customer magazines tend to belong to the mass-market fmcg sectors, whereas House & Garden, she says, is more likely to get advertising from “higher priced products which won’t be in the supermarkets”.

However, customer magazines have affected distribution, says Gresty. “When Family Circle and Living launched they had exclusive distribution deals at tills in supermarkets. They didn’t have to compete on the newsstands.”

In a market that is more competitive than ever, Smedley gives Sainsbury’s The Magazine perhaps the ultimate accolade: “Of all the titles I’m sent free every month, it’s the

one I keep. I give away the rest.”

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