Publishing As Branding

Magazine brand management 101

MagazinesMy friend and colleague Peter Hutchinson is a great writer (and a renowned writing teacher). So as you might imagine, I jumped at his offer to compose a pitch letter to help me place this very series of articles. As I read his draft, I was struck by his description of me, “brand guru David Kalman.” I wouldn’t have thought to use those words to describe myself. As an editor, publisher, and technology guy, I think of myself as more of a generalist. But I won’t dispute Peter’s observation. As an editor and publisher I’ve been long immersed in brand management, albeit of the magazine kind.

In some respects a magazine is the ultimate expression of branding in that it articulates – literally – brand characteristics that other products only imply. Unlike a bar of soap or a cup of coffee, a magazine’s primary function is to describe itself to its constituents. (Magazine branding is particularly interesting, in part because a magazine is packaged and sold to two distinct groups of customers: readers and advertisers.) The publisher’s job is to align and keep aligned the components of a magazine brand: editorial identity, audience definition, market position, and customer interface. A shift in one component requires adjustments in the others.

The editorial identity consists of subject, style, and tone, and every issue of a magazine becomes an exercise in brand execution. Audience definition mirrors the editorial identity in that the readers of a magazine – its consumers – are attracted to it based on a common information need. By definition, those consumers have interests, habits, and demographic traits in common. The market position alternately dictates and presumes that the combination of editorial identity and audience definition represents a differentiation from competitors and a unique value to advertisers. Finally, the customer interface projects the magazine’s brand values in the context of customer contact, as in selling advertising or subscriptions, or in providing customer service.

For example, through its editorial identity a business magazine may project authority, knowledge, and perhaps innovation or even nonconformity. In contrast, another business magazine may emphasize trust, heritage, and tradition. For either magazine, the grade level of the writing, the choice of words, colors, and illustration style all reflect the desired brand characteristics. Conversely, the audience development effort mirrors those characteristics, using promotions – with appropriate design cues and messages – that target either a younger or older reader, a male or female reader, and so on. The customer interface follows suit in terms of personal presentation, selling style, and marketing collaterals. You know what they say about making a first impression…

Even though it’s the publisher’s job to align the brand components, not many publishers think of themselves as brand managers first. (They’re too busy with budgets, forecasts, and H.R. issues.) At the same time, the branding trade pays scant attention to magazines as branding cases. That’s unfortunate, because every magazine serves as a kind of brand laboratory. The processes for defining and aligning a magazine’s brand components are robust and instructive. For example, if a market position becomes untenable – as when a market matures and consolidates – repositioning, redesigning, and/or rebranding becomes imperative. In some cases, the best option may be to shut down or divest the business. Ultimately, a magazine itself can be thought of as a comprehensive and dynamic branding program. So I’ll accept the name Peter has applied to me – “brand guru David Kalman.” That has a nice ring to it. (Now get back to work Dave!) END

David M. Kalman is the president of Terrella Media, Inc.

Sidebar: A Case of Magazine Rebranding