Media: High style comes home

From T-shirts to cover-mounted CDs, magazines just love to promote themselves. And Wallpaper* is no exception. Their latest effort? A house. By Richard Cook
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The Independent Culture
When Marie Claire launched in the United Kingdom, the poster adverts asked "Who is Marie Claire?", as though the publication could be equated with a person. Editorial meetings at the National Magazine Company constantly ask what Cosmo woman should be wearing, or who she is sleeping with. The identity of the reader is fed out in parcels of merchandising, from what she wears on her feet to what novels she reads. The lads' mag Loaded has even got in on the act. It flirted with a tasteful line in, well, pants, before actually settling down as a far more respectable sort of glossy boutique selling everything from sunglasses and sweatshirts to safari holidays.

The whole magazine merchandising craze has been taken to a new level by the high camp fashion bible Wallpaper*. Not for Wallpaper* the branded T-shirt or shopping bags favoured by Elle, nor the make-up and mascara offered by the likes of Mizz and Marie Claire. No, Wallpaper* is now proud to offer you, the devoted reader, the chance to acquire... the Wallpaper* house.

Now, Wallpaper* has many good qualities. It is the one high fashion magazine, after all, that doesn't take itself too seriously and it certainly isn't afraid of the bold and beautiful if ultimately meaningless gesture. How it stands as a purveyor of housing to the international sophisticate, on the other hand, is another question entirely.

From this morning, visitors to the Salone del Mobile show in Milan will have an opportunity to find out. Today the specially designed Wallpaper* house opens. If you like it, you can order your very own version, not just to take home but actually to be home. After all, you've got the ultimate coffee table magazine, so why not go the whole hog and get the coffee table and living room to put it in?

Wallpaper* has simply eschewed the conventional merchandising gee-gaws - the videos, posters, calendars and screensavers that are fast becoming a staple of all our lives - in favour of something a little more grandiose. The Wallpaper* house is a modest little 95sq-metre bungalow that can, explains its designer, the Swedish architect Thomas Sandell, "be built anywhere in the world".

Did I say modest? Actually that was a little disingenuous of me. The wooden-built house uses a specially developed wood effect wall material that allows light in. Bang & Olufsen are providing state-of-the-art hi- fi, while the kitchen and bathroom are being made specially by the design firms of Bossi and Cesana respectively. These are the sort of high-priced Italian talent that make Vialli and Zola look like lightweights. And, get this, such is the attention to luxurious detail that even the door handles are made by Pomellatto, one of Italy's most extravagant jewellery companies.

"Ever since Wallpaper* launched in 1996 we've always wanted to build our own house. This year finally we have," explains the editorial director, Tyler Brule, with refreshing simplicity.

Wallpaper* might have gone a little further than most magazine merchandisers, but then it has obeyed one of the golden rules of making a success of such things - it has been true to the personality of the magazine.

Because the fact is that Wallpaper* inhabits a place all of its own: a glamorous yet kitsch place where James Bond is played by Jimmy Somerville and where even the Bond villains know their Missoni from their Molinari. It's a world where the cookery page can include a recipe for fruit salad - "cut fruit into small pieces and serve" - without blushing. A place where the diet and exercise advice consists of two equally tough exhortations: first, that you shake your cocktails a little more vigorously; second, that you practise lip-synching Ultra Nate dance routines. This is exactly the sort of magazine that should be aiming high in the product merchandising stakes. Well, higher than Cosmopolitan's colourful knickers, anyway.

"The most important thing in any magazine merchandising deal is that you have complete control over everything that you do," says Anne Melbourne, the director of National Magazine Enterprises, and the woman responsible for all merchandising at the Cosmopolitan to Good Housekeeping publishing group. "And you have to make sure that whatever products you come up with stay true to the magazine's core brand values. So with a magazine of ours like House Beautiful we offer a range of products we have chosen for the home, such as a complete range of carpets. We also kit out two show homes completely at the Ideal Home Exhibition. But I think there are very few magazines that can support such a really large amount of merchandising activity. You've really got to be a market leader in your category and your magazine has really got to have a very strong personality."

But the rewards of successful merchandising deals are huge. The truth is that a successful merchandising deal for an entertainment event such as a TV programme, or for a well-known magazine, can actually be a bigger business than the event or product itself. In 1997 the worldwide turnover of the licensing industry was $132bn (pounds 82.5bn). To put this into perspective, that represents one-eighth of the UK's gross domestic product. It's more than the GDP of South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Israel or Greece. Of that vast figure, the US accounts for 64 per cent, Western Europe 23 per cent and Japan 10 per cent. The rest of the world makes up the remaining rather titchy three per cent, suggesting that some two-thirds of the world's population is still available to purchase a novelty Christmas gonk, or their favourite magazine's range of knickers.

"The easy part is doing the sort of natural brand extensions - things like books and related magazines, and certainly we do that on FHM with our fashion title FHM Collections and books like The Bachelors Collections," explains Philip Thomas, the managing director of the market leading men's title FHM. "But the real difficulty and the danger comes if you are prepared to get involved in just about anything. If you just want to slap your name on something and pocket the royalties, readers will soon see through the offer. Worse still, they will immediately start to think less of your magazine. Any merchandising deal must have its own logic and must offer the readers something they really want."

Wallpaper*'s impossibly glamorous home for the new millennium might fulfil both those criteria but, back in the real, rather less flamboyant world of magazine merchandising, the choices are very much more marginal.

"We have eight titles that are over 100 years old and none have ever been made available to third parties for merchandising in the past, so there is a huge opportunity," explains Agnes Kelly, head of merchandise licensing at the UK's largest magazine publisher, IPC. "But because there is for the first time a huge opportunity there has been the temptation for manufacturers to suggest all sorts of inappropriate merchandising matches. We couldn't do Loaded cornflakes, for instance, because there is absolutely no connection with the title and it would just put readers off, but it's the sort of thing we have been asked to do."