Why The Big Issue brand needs a rethink

Lucy Handley is a key member of the Marketing Week features team and has also worked in advertising agencies so can bring a unique perspective to client-agency relationships when writing on this topic.

Big Issue

Walking through London’s Southbank I bought The Big Issue magazine from a chatty vendor sheltering under a bridge from the rain.

It’s the second time that I’ve bought the magazine this year: the first was in frozen February because I felt sorry for the seller standing outside a shopping centre on Holloway Road.

But as someone who feels that everyone should have a roof over their head and that the idea of homelessness is the unfair subject of jokes and ridicule, (though it could happen to any of us if we take a wrong turn in life), I really ought to be buying The Big Issue more often.

Then why don’t I? Because my perception of the brand is that the content is not going to be up to scratch, that it might be too focused on the ills of life on the streets and that it might be preachy or boring. I’m only going to part with my money for a good read. If the by-product is that it helps someone, all the better.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is a really good read, something it should be making a huge deal of.

But the magazine seems to be having an identity crisis: is it primarily a social project of scale, which has helped many people, or is it a champion of good journalism that just happens to help the homeless?

You can see this confusion on the cover. It uses two straplines: ‘Journalism you can trust,’ and ‘A hand up not a handout.’ Rule one of marketing: don’t confuse your audience.

I was pleased to read that the magazine is in fact going to be revamped. The Independent reports that one hundred vendors will be trained as journalists and paid £100 a month as local Big Issue reporters and next week’s magazine will talk about ‘what next for the publishing phenomenon,’ according to its website. But founder John Bird wants more of a focus on self-help in the publication, which is worrying.

I think it should focus on the big names it features each week and the interesting issues it tackles. Recent features have included an interview with Dolly Parton, how trends from think-tank TED will shape the future and an issue guest-edited by David Cameron.

To get me to become someone who saw the brand as something to buy occasionally to help a homeless person to someone who buys it regularly because I know it will have interesting content won’t take much: I just need to be told what’s in the issue because it’s surprisingly good stuff. I don’t want to buy the magazine because I feel I guilty if I haven’t done so: I want to feel like I will look forward to its content.

I know there will be little money for marketing, but a good old newspaper A-board picking out the two best features wouldn’t cost much. Vendors could choose the ones to promote on their boards. That would instantly get people interested in the content and help to transform rare readers to occasional ones.

I hope Bird sees sense and keeps ‘self help’ features to a minimum. I’m looking forward to the revamp.

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