Magazines: Brits abroad

'Common truths' are what make UK magazines so successful overseas, Lucy Aitken writes.

Could Nuts and Zoo one day be the UK's most famous exports since Marmite and Britpop? Just as Maxim and FHM have become huge international magazine brands, the men's weekly format could soon be following suit, according to many in the international media community.

Indeed, Zoo has already landed in Spain and Australia.

UK magazine publishers have been successfully exporting their titles for some years now, seeking new revenue streams in markets where the newsstands are not already heaving with magazines - an all-too-familiar scenario on home turf. Today, Time Out is in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Beijing, Bucharest, Mexico, Istanbul and Mumbai, and will launch in Beirut and Almaty this month. Heat appears on South African newsstands, while Future's Guitarist appeals to axe-men in The Netherlands and Spain.

The biggest successes tend to be those titles that tap into a certain attitude because, Phil Coldwell, the European managing partner at MindShare Worldwide, says: "Readers can either be defined by geography or attitude." He cites fashion and business magazines as successful examples because the subject matter is, for the most part, geographically agnostic.

"In China, the upper classes like to attach themselves to European values through reading titles such as Cosmopolitan and Vogue. It's a statement which says they are part of the world economy," Coldwell says. He adds: "Broadly speaking, if you're a middle-aged, upmarket, design-conscious woman, you'll want to read the same title, regardless of whether you're in Seville, Sao Paulo or Singapore."

Football and women have been staples of the men's monthly formula that has achieved fame around the globe in the past decade. There are now 30 editions of FHM and 21 of Maxim, and most are produced through licences with local publishers. The US edition of Maxim, published by Dennis, has been such a hit - selling more than 2.5 million copies every month - that it has launched Maxim Radio and a spin-off music title, Blender. The Maxim empire now even boasts a home furnishings range, a brand extension that no doubt saw Martha Stewart choking on her porridge.

Hugh Semple, the group account director responsible for Levi's at Starcom, believes that "common truths" - such as women being interested in fashion and celebrity gossip, and young men being testosterone-charged football fans - help magazines to grow overseas. "Tapping into these truths make it much easier for them to expand," he reflects.

The Economist is one British title that continues to march relentlessly around the world while its US-based rivals such as BusinessWeek and Forbes have struggled to win international audiences. Its weekly digest of politics and economics has seen its global circulation break the one million mark after winning new readers in the US and Asia in recent years.

But even for established players, growing your magazine business overseas is not always plain sailing. In 1998, Emap bought the US magazine company Petersen for £1 billion, only to sell it three years later for £336 million - a sale that was lambasted by the City. And more recently, in March 2006, Emap put its French magazines up for sale when two television listings titles arrived on the scene and threatened to eclipse its own titles, Tele Star and Tele Poche.

Is there any advice that publishers could pass on to those who are looking to grow their businesses overseas?

Ian Watson, the international director at BBC Worldwide (which chiefly expands through forming licence deals with local publishers) believes that "so much is about choosing the right partner". He adds: "You have to take a long-term view. These are marriages, and we go into them with the view that marriage is for life.

You've got to spend time with your partner, and you've got to enjoy working with them. The cultural fit is hugely important."

One of the BBC's most successful exports is Top Gear, which is now a newsstand staple in 12 countries outside of the UK. Again, it taps into a "common truth" - that a huge number of men are obsessed with cars.

Watson says: "It's a very easy concept to understand, so it's a genre that works in most countries. In essence, it's a motoring brand, but effectively it's car porn. In every market, there is an appetite - principally among men - for pictures of cars and cheeky, off-the-wall humour. Young men are young men around the world, just like women's fashion titles are popular all over the world because, by and large, women like shopping."

Watson also attributes the success of the BBC's children's titles such as Teletubbies and Girl Talk to the fact that "children are pretty much the same the world over". He adds: "Seven- to nine-year-old girls anywhere in the world seem to love Barbie, the colour pink, and playing with dolls and bracelets."

He predicts that food magazines could be ripe for international expansion in the future because the trend for home entertaining is exploding. "This desire is really taking off in countries such as India, where the middle classes want to experiment with European or Pacific Rim cuisine," he says. BBC Good Food has just launched in Romania and that title, along with Olive, will no doubt be looking to cater to local tastes.

Magazines can rarely be exported without some fine-tuning; local sensibilities have to be respected. Jane Wolfson, the head of press at Initiative, says: "Nuts and Zoo could succeed internationally, but although we in the UK accept their content, we couldn't just export them as they are."

With a tweak here and an air-brush there, the men's weeklies could soon be buffed and primed for their world tour. Women the world over: the days of your man giving you a helping hand could soon be over.