Brand battle has publishers aiming high

Magazines are expensive these days. And not just the cover prices. Condé Nast, the capo di tutti capi of magazine publishers, is looking to drop $100 million on its brand new business title before it sees a dime of profit.

Magazines are expensive these days. And not just the cover prices. Condé Nast, the capo di tutti capi of magazine publishers, is looking to drop $100 million on its brand new business title before it sees a dime of profit.

Needless to say, that price tag is not solely for notepads and writers' salaries. It is, in essence, a battering ram of cash designed to break into a magazine category that is already dominated by well-established names like Fortune, BusinessWeek, and Forbes.

Not only that, but business for the big three themselves has been flat lately, meaning that Condé Nast will have to either steal (a lot of) readers from the others; convince business types to add a fourth purchase to their roster of subscriptions, about which they are not too excited at the moment anyway; or pull in enough totally new readers to keep the new product afloat.

The company has said that it expects at least 30% of its readership to come from the latter category. To do that, much of the $100 million will certainly be dedicated to the ubiquitous "branding initiatives" that have become essential in the magazine space. The effort began with last week's announcement of the title's name - Portfolio - and will inevitably build up to a crescendo of excitement by the May 2007 inaugural issue that will have MBAs from coast to coast quivering in their Brooks Brothers suits.

Is a basic glossy magazine launch too tame for you? Consider the Hearst Corporation, publisher of such titles as Cosmo and Esquire, which last week opened its $500 million skyscraper headquarters in midtown Manhattan to much fanfare. This, too, was a move that had more to do with one-upping Condé Nast's famous Times Square headquarters than with producing a magazine. A large, open room with lots of computers and printers is about publishing something; a 46-story undulating crystal tower complete with a theater, waterfall, and gourmet cafeteria is a branding exercise.

Still not enough? Gaze in awe at the silicone-based juggernaut that is Maxim. Following up on an earlier stunt that involved going to the desert to unfurl a replica of its cover that was large enough to be seen from outer space, Maxim announced last week that it will be lending its name to a new $1.2 billion casino on the Vegas strip.

What does any of this have to do with being a magazine? That, of course, is debatable. All of these branding moves should ostensibly flow from a coherent vision of the brand itself and what it represents - the same vision that informs PR, advertising, and other marketing communications.

National magazines seem to be in a safer position than newspapers, but both face similar challenges when it comes to competition from new media. So one could just as easily argue that all the brainpower and cash being sunk into strategic communications designed to create a shimmery aura behind the product and tangential brand extensions would be better spent on improving the actual editorial product.

Jeff Swystun, a global director at brand and design consultancy Interbrand, says that the first rule of brand extensions is "they have basically the same values of the initial property," meaning that Maxim is not going too far out on a limb by guessing that it's frat-boy readers like gambling. And because Maxim is not typically viewed as a product of elite journalism, it has less to lose if its brand extension tanks.

But for more serious magazines, branding is a delicate walk between the competing extremes of "all writing, no brand" (think The Utne Reader), and "all brand, no writing" (think OK! Magazine).

"You can't brand a bad product," Swystun emphasizes. "That becomes spin."

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