PUBLISHING AGENCIES: A REFRESHING READ

Steve Goodman reviews four of the biggest circulating customer magazines and asks whether they manage to fulfil their remits to both their readers and their advertisers.

While customer magazines vary tremendously in terms of quality and content, many good publications are often tarred with the same brush as the poor ones. If, however, the customer magazine market had been tarred with the brush used to create Boots Health and Beauty magazine, it would be in a far better state.

Its mantra of promoting women's well-being is delivered emphatically.

Strong features, which seem strictly confined to issues of health and beauty, result in a magazine that could easily be positioned on a newsstand and command a significant cover price. Promotion of Boots' products is subtle compared with some customer magazines. The final package is one I believe would be read thoroughly by those who receive it. Combined with a circulation of more than two million, a desirable youthful female upmarket readership profile, and high production values, and you have a strong candidate for many glossy women's schedules.

Marks & Spencer Magazine certainly looks and feels like a title that could, if it were also sold through newsagents, sit comfortably alongside Boots' magazine, but falls well short in terms of content. The editor states the magazine's primary function is to sell, and it adopts something a little short of sledgehammer tactics. Virtually every editorial page lists products and prices from the M&S portfolio; however, these are portrayed in a stylish way, leaving me with the impression that I have just leafed my way through a beautifully collated collection of M&S advertorials. While one can't dispute the impressive 3.7 million readership figure, QRS data indicates the average time spent reading that publication is 24.9 minutes, significantly lower than paid-for titles in that sector. This might imply the magazine is not actually thoroughly read, but skimmed through by regular M&S shoppers on the prowl for new products to sample without having to trawl each shelf in the store.

Spirit, the Superdrug magazine, claims to be "the number-one health and beauty magazine", although it is not clear as to what criteria it awarded itself that accolade. It can't be circulation - the Boots magazine has more than double the numbers. The title is vibrant, however, with the zest of a weekly, not a bi-monthly. The publication takes every opportunity to promote products sold by Superdrug, but there seems to be a happy compromise here, with features on fashion and beauty that are not confined to what can be piled into the shopping trolley. The fashion feature in the November/December issue included ideas from a variety of other high-street outlets including M&S and French Connection. On the pages which are strictly promotions of specific products, the words "Spirit promotion" appear at the top. With an ABC of one million, it's a title that shouldn't be ignored for relevant campaigns, and, if I were to nominate a category for which it should be considered number one, it could be for honesty: the magazine is readable, lively and does not try to dupe readers into thinking they are reading unbiased editorial.

While the AA may be "renowned for the quality of its breakdown service", it is somewhat let down by its magazine offering. A shame, as with a circulation of more than five million, it has the potential to be the backbone of many a schedule. It misses out on two important fronts - editorial and advertising - which leaves little room for redeeming features.

The paper quality isn't bad (but it is saddle stitched), the format (not quite square, not quite A4) gives it a unique feel, but that's about it.

The cover story of the December issue was readable enough, featuring Jamie Oliver and his new motor, a Maserati no less. But it was little more than a page of editorial accompanied by a picture of him sitting smugly on the bonnet of his new car. That is where the problem lies; lack of any substantial editorial.

It feels like little more than a catalogue of AA products and services, peppered with direct response advertisements - hardly conducive to an entertaining read.

M&S: 'QUALITY AND EXCELLENCE'

Diane Kenwood, the editor of Marks & Spencer Magazine at Redwood, says: "The fundamental job of the magazine is to sell - not just M&S product but the organisation's brand values and commitment to quality and excellence.

As a marketing tool, its role is to create a lifestyle context for the featured product that makes it more appealing to the customers. As the new corporate team at M&S has slowly started to rebuild interest in the company and its merchandise, so the magazine has been re-energised and injected with an increased sense of passion and fun, reminding the readers/customers that M&S offers quality product."

BOOTS: 'WOMEN'S WELLBEING'

Louise Pearce, the editor-in-chief of Boots Health and Beauty at Redwood, says: "A key role of the magazine is to communicate the Boots brand values to its most valuable customers, and to reinforce Boots' intent to promote women's wellbeing. It achieves this by bringing wellbeing to life in its pages, through emotionally engaging features encompassing all aspects of women's lives, from health and wellbeing to emotional issues, building a relationship between the reader and Boots. The magazine also delivers sales uplift, through pages showcasing inspiring new products, combined with practical, solution-based health and beauty features."

AA: 'A WIDE READERSHIP'

Paul Colbert, the editor of AA Magazine at John Brown Citrus Publishing, says: "An AA members' publication has been in existence in some form for several years, but John Brown Citrus Publishing took the contract over two years ago and revamped it into the magazine format it is now. It publishes three times a year. AA Magazine has probably the widest readership of any magazine in the UK - 18 to 80 is not far off, but the largest cross-section of readership is probably families from early-30s to mid-50s.

As such, the remit of the editorial team for every issue is to bring to their attention as many new and useful AA services as we can."

SPIRIT: 'FOR THE SASSY SHOPPER'

Brigid Moss, the editor of Spirit at River Publishing, says: "Spirit is the number-one health and beauty magazine, with an ABC of one million, adding something to the reader's shopping experience and, we hope, life.

Editorial covers Superdrug's core areas of health and beauty, but also fashion, real-life stories, homes, celebs, competitions. For Superdrug's smart, price-savvy, sassy shopper, Spirit needs to be a real magazine - not a marketing mouthpiece or boring catalogue. Although it's not a big mag, Spirit has a big identity. We want it to be accessible to the normal woman, so we never preach or patronise. We aim to make her feel good about herself every time she reads it."

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