Tough customer

Companies are now using customer magazines to communicate their brand values.

‘I don’t want this to sound like a really negative thing, but I think any company that’s going to produce a magazine needs to be serious about it. This means they have to realise how important it is to invest in it, from getting the resources and database right through to getting the mailing house and production run sorted out,’ says Vince Frost emphatically. His obvious frustration is directed at Nokia, for which Frost Design created and produced five issues of the customer magazine Link, before being asked to enter a new pitch earlier this year if the consultancy wanted to be involved in a redesign. Frost, managing director of Frost Design, graciously declined – telling Nokia, ‘That’s not a particularly appealing way of doing business’. The project is currently on hold.

At this point you might ask why someone like Frost – whose publishing work includes award-winning Financial Times magazine The Business and The Saturday Independent magazine – would want to work in customer magazines – also known as the once-despised contract publishing arena. However, Frost’s work on British Design & Art Direction customer magazine Ampersand has always been a happy experience. He says he ‘would love to do more corporate magazines, and more magazines in general’.

Frost’s enthusiasm is timely. Last year research company Mintel reported that the customer magazine market had more than doubled in value from its 1995 figure of £100m to £227m in 2000, with an annual growth of 15 per cent (now estimated at around 17 per cent). And of the UK’s top 30 audited magazines, 14 are customer magazines. It seems that everyone from Sky to Selfridges wants their own magazine. Why? Because, says Selfridges marketing director James Bidwell, ‘It’s potentially a very effective marketing tool that gives the user real added value. The Selfridges brand, for example, is about theatre and experience, and obviously the best delivery medium for that is in-store, but the magazine allows customers to engage with the brand at their convenience.”

Selfridges’ magazine is edited and produced by Wink Media, a subsidiary of Wallpaper, and it shows. Indeed, it was this association that Selfridges bought into two years ago when it appointed Wink to its advertising and marketing roster, and it continues with the magazine. ‘Visually, there is an association with Wallpaper,’ says Bidwell, ‘but the tone of voice – the dialogue it has with its readers – is ours.’ So how does a designer achieve that right tone, or successful brand extension?

Jeremy Leslie, creative director at John Brown Publishing, which produces O for Orange (the magazine has a circulation of 1.6m), as well as the recent Total Design award-winner Untitled (the title changes with each issue) for paper company M-real, says it has to start with a strong brand. ‘If there’s confusion around the brand the whole thing’s flawed from the beginning. Our work is strongest when there’s a strong brand to work with – Orange, Virgin Atlantic, Ikea and Waitrose are some of our clients whose brand message is so clear and solid that before you even get into the details of what they want, you already have a strong sense of who they are,’ says Leslie.

‘The fact that you generally win the job through a pitch is helpful too,’ adds Leslie. ‘It means you’re involved in developing the brief, so that once you win the job you’ve already started the process of creating the product and have a basis for discussion that goes beyond the visuals. It’s also important to establish a target audience (for example, the client may not be targeting existing customers, but new ones), discuss what other magazines the client’s representatives like, talk about the format, name, how it works, content, design – everything’s there to be discussed,’ he says.

Frost also emphasises the importance of that early dialogue. ‘In an ideal world you have 100 per cent commitment from the client on the vision and direction, the look and feel of the content. And from the start it should be made clear that X number of resources are required to make this happen.’ Frost’s experience on Link was made particularly difficult by physical and emotional distance from the client, having been appointed by now defunct UK ad agency Anderson & Lembke, which was working with Nokia.

‘What we normally offer is an effect on an organisation in a positive way, and for that to happen it’s very important to be close to the client. But with Link the problems were twofold: for the first issue we had to work through the ad agency, and after that, once Link was up and running, it had a different editor for each issue. So there was no room for development of a close relationship with the client,’ Frost explains.

Problems were compounded by the introduction of a corporate guidelines book. Design concepts had been approved, but Nokia wanted the magazine to be all things to all readers, resulting in a lot of dilution and confusion on the part of the client’s employees as to whether they actually needed a print publication. In addition, there were many different departments, all of which were vying to be heard within the publication. ‘It was very difficult,’ says Frost carefully.

As Frost discovered, power relationships and clear communication within the client company are crucial to delivering the brand effectively via a successful product. Leslie too finds the relationships need careful attention. ‘The involvement of the client’s marketing people really varies. With some clients every page is checked by 25 people, it goes this way and that way and invariably ends up where you started, but you have to go through the process. And it ranges from the simply resolved – ‘I don’t like that word or colour’ to ‘this piece isn’t right for our magazine’, which is obviously a serious issue, not just in terms of replacing the content but because you’ve judged it wrong.

‘If a client comes back with a problem it is usually right. Which isn’t to say it expects you to acquiesce; a good client will expect us to be able to defend and explain our actions and argue the point, then make a decision. A newer client sometimes just needs to have something explained; essentially, if you’re not communicating, things can easily go wrong. But, fortunately, people on both sides usually understand how powerful a tool the customer magazine can be, if it’s allowed to be,’ says Leslie.

Bidwell at Selfridges certainly does. ‘A good blend of creativity and commercialism is a win-win situation, and acts as an important part of the marketing mix,’ he says. ‘That’s only achieved by working with a partner who understands the brand, and can translate it in the magazine through the articles, advertisers and design,’ he adds. Bidwell and his team work closely with the Wink editorial team, which is in Selfridges frequently, as well as holding regular meetings during the process. ‘Both sides fight hard to get what they want, because the last thing either of us would want is something that’s diluted. It’s all about communicating our needs and that’s done by working with Wink as a partnership and trusting in their expertise as publishers,’ says Bidwell.

After ten years of news-stand experience and six years in customer magazines, Leslie is well placed to comment on the differences between the two, and he’s unequivocal in his preference for the latter. ‘When you’re working on a news-stand title you live and die by your sales figures, the front cover becomes a very contentious area, advertising can dictate flow and even content. It’s becoming very hard to come up with something new that’s either clever or efficient in doing what it’s supposed to because there are so many restrictions,’ he explains. ‘With customer magazines you’re free of all those publishing restrictions; you have a client, an agreed brief that you try and meet and ultimately a more creatively led process.’ Even distribution plays a part in that creativity: ‘Alternative distribution networks mean that magazines don’t have to conform to the dictates of industrialised distribution such as size and format – it’s increasingly easy to break out and produce something different,’ he adds.

However, Frost sounds a small warning note: ‘I think some customer magazines could learn from consumer ones – for example, in terms of the power of a good headline and masthead. A lot of the features can be really dry too, and you have to try and find ways of overcoming that.’ Frost sees a publishing division as one way around the potential problems of customer publishing. ‘I learnt a lot from doing Link, and certainly wouldn’t approach it in the same way again. In the future, Frost Publishing’s a definite possibility,’ he says.

Meanwhile, John Brown is one step ahead with its exploration of Web publishing, but is proceeding cautiously, admits Leslie, who doesn’t seem too worried about the Internet threat: ‘At the moment customer magazines are a really exciting area; mainstream consumer titles have become very staid, relying on the same old formulas, but there’s still plenty of scope there for magazines to keep reinventing… the whole idea that they’re going to end one day is absurd.’

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