Media Perspective: Strong brands can still thrive in hostile magazine market

Sylvia Auton, the chief executive of IPC Media, seems to have gathered some industry support for comments made last week following the release of the latest consumer magazine ABCs.

She said: "While it's clear remorseless year-on-year growth is no longer a realistic ambition for any publisher, brilliantly conceived and skilfully executed new launches will always find a big audience." Rival publishers thought she'd hit the nail on the head with the first part of the sentence, even if the second half seems a bit smug given the launch success of IPC's women's weekly Look.

Auton basically amplified what many analysts have pointed out in the past week: that consumer magazines are still an exciting and profitable place to be, but that there is no room for complacency and that any growth that's left has to be hard won.

The scary thing for publishers is that many of the sectors they now occupy are immensely more competitive that even five years ago. For instance, 12 women's weeklies have launched since 2002. Partly as a result, the retail environment has changed so much and is also so much more crowded. Alongside the issue of creating and translating products to work online, this is providing a few headaches for publishers.

Facing this, most have realised that strong brands (not just the print magazine) will win out in the major sectors. So, for instance, many are now predicting a shake-out in the women's lifestyle sector, as key titles in fashion and beauty survive against the weeklies, while others face a struggle.

It's tough for magazines to build long-term loyalty to their brands. Many have tried to grow subscription levels, but this is difficult and costly, especially given the consumer magazine's essential appeal as an exciting impulse buy, rather than a regular arrival such as a water bill.

So, in the monthly markets, there has been a continued reliance on covermounting (or "gifting") to boost short-term sales. Now some are predicting publishers might cut back on this as it will be an increasingly ineffective, and costly, way of fighting back against weeklies that are enjoying unheard of distribution through the growing supermarket networks.

Reassuringly, though, the ABC figures provided good news for advertisers. The publishers are feeling sufficient pressure to tone down their usual bullishness a little, and while "mid-market" titles are being squeezed, those at the top and bottom ends seem in good health. It may be more relevant to applaud upmarket offerings such as Vogue, Tatler, Harper's Bazaar and Esquire for their efforts, but it's hard not to admire the brand loyalty and sheer number of sales enjoyed by the real life and TV listings markets. It's still astonishing that five million people buy a TV title each week.