PR TECHNIQUE: Mags to riches: Tapping custom-pub potential

More and more companies are producing magazines to communicate their brand values and deepen relationships with customers. And, as Matthew Creamer discovers, the ROI potential is high.

More and more companies are producing magazines to communicate their brand values and deepen relationships with customers. And, as Matthew Creamer discovers, the ROI potential is high.

In late October, about 270,000 mailboxes across the nation will be graced with a brand-new magazine. Simply called B, the glossy will be packed with stories on fashion, travel, entertainment, and celebrities, as well as with ads. This isn't the next lifestyle offering from Conde Nast or Hearst, but the debut of Bloomingdale's first magazine - not that you'd be able to tell by just glancing at it. "We're not calling it Bloomingdale's magazine on the masthead," says Frank Berman, the store's VP of marketing. "You're not going to see the Bloomingdale's logo on the cover. It's a magazine for the Bloomingdale's customer, for the Bloomingdale's lifestyle, without beating you over the head with it." Designed to stand apart from the reams of direct-marketing materials its customers receive, B is the company's attempt to take advantage of custom publishing as a way to deepen its relationship with customers. And Bloomingdale's isn't alone. Numerous other companies are trying to tap into consumers' fondness for magazines as a way of cutting through the clutter. The result is a growing industry that's offering a more sophisticated product than ever before. "There's so much competition for people's attention," says Richard Creighton, EVP and principal of The Magazine Group, a custom publisher that has added at least 10 titles this year. "You can't just give them an ad. You have to make them feel like they're getting something, and a magazine is a great way to say, 'Here, we're giving you some extra stuff.'" A recent survey conducted by the Custom Publishing Council in conjunction with Publications Management found that spending on custom publishing in 2002 was up 28.2% over the previous year. Furthermore, the proportion of companies' marketing dollars allocated to publishing in 2002 was up from 13.1% to 23.2%. While the US market lags behind that of the UK, where nine of the top-10-circulation titles are custom magazines, titles here are being produced for companies in industries as diverse as technology, financial services, food, and fashion, as well as nonprofits. Print runs range from several thousand to a couple million. Even the US State Department, reacting to widespread anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, hired The Magazine Group to develop a publication called Hi, which will promote the US in Arab nations. The industry's growth, publishers say, is the result of a relatively high ROI paired with the low-risk nature of the venture, which stems from the fact that magazines custom-made for companies don't face the same challenges as new general-interest titles. Custom titles benefit from a pre-existing, highly targeted readership: the organization's client list. So the challenge for publishers and their clients isn't in finding an audience, but in making that existing audience sit up and pay attention. And that happens through the magazine's content. According to Duncan Milne, publishing director of John Brown Publishing, the appropriate editorial mix will vary from client to client. Some companies, like Bloomingdale's, which is working with John Brown on B, are looking to reward customers. "They want to position themselves in a slightly different way than they were perceived before, in which case the hard sales technique doesn't work," explains Milne. "Other companies are specifically wanting to push product, and so the balance may be tilted to the magalogue side." Sometimes the mix will resemble that of a general-interest magazine; sometimes it will be more focused. It all depends on the target audience. In any case, the content has to add value for the reader, who is likely already besieged by catalogues, pamphlets, coupons, and other mailings. "When we talk to clients, we talk about the importance of magazines having value for the customer," says James Meyers, president of Imagination Publishing. "One of the best ways to do that is to have the customer believe there's a real editorial value in the magazine, and that they're not just receiving a glorified marketing piece." Says Howard Lalli, SVP of custom publishing for Edelman, "You do need to strive for journalistic credibility, but at the same time be very clear with your readers that this is coming from a particular company, and that's why you see their experts quoted here." Striking this balance is never easy. One key, Milne says, is making sure the publisher and client are on the same page in terms of branding and messaging strategies. A successful publication will bring about a deeper relationship with customers. Regularly published magazines, the theory goes, will find a way into readers' lives, expanding their understanding of a company or a brand by calling attention to its experts and services. Customers, too, often gain a sense that they're being appreciated. The biggest obvious benefit of this is improved sales figures. Meyers says that he can show potential clients case studies with returns of between three and 15 times their investments. A pleasant side effect from a successful publication is that it can become a revenue-generator in and of itself. For instance, in B, Bloomingdale's will take ads from vendors that aren't found in its department stores. Berman says that though the launch issue will only go out to preferred customers and be available at points-of-sale, he could eventually see it on newsstands. His excitement about B stems from the feeling that offering a complete portrait of a brand is something that isn't achieved with an ad campaign. "You don't have an opportunity to tell your story in that type of vehicle, and we were looking for something where we could communicate what we stand for," he says. The need for a versatile medium is especially pressing for companies with complex messages that can't be told in 30-second spots or in images. These companies - often from the healthcare, technology, or financial-services industries - have been quick to adopt custom publishing as a marketing vehicle. What's important in all cases is having something to say. "The company has to have a very strong brand message, and it needs to have a customer base that has some sort of emotional attachment to the company," Milne says. "That needs to exist before the magazine."

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