Ian Burrell: Championing real women helps Essentials to buck the trend

  • @iburrell

The circulations of many women's magazines are falling off a cliff. It's partly down to the recession. When supermarket aisles are less crowded there are fewer people to make impulse purchases at their news-stands. And celebrity titles seem less attractive when the sumptuous lifestyles of the featured stars seem so far out of reach.

Some magazines have tried to dig their stilettos in, most notably Condé Nast's Glamour which has led the revival in cover-mounts, offering branded gifts from Nail Inc nail varnish to Clinique health products to defend its 530,000 sale.

But elsewhere there has been carnage. Hearst Magazines title Company saw sales tumble by 17.1 per cent year-on-year in the last ABCs. The same publisher closed She magazine and Cosmopolitan Bride last month. IPC's Marie-Claire was down 10 per cent on 2010, while Heat, once a magazine that could do no wrong, was down by 21.7 per cent year-on-year. Its sister celebrity title in the Bauer Media stable, Closer, fell by 12.7 per cent. The so-called "real life" sector is also suffering with IPC's Pick Me Up down a colossal 18.1 per cent on the year and the once invincible Take A Break from H Bauer losing 50,000 sales in 12 months. These are big numbers.

And yet the picture is not uniformly bad. The magazine most notably bucking the trend is IPC's Essentials, which has made a conscious decision to champion "real women". Those are not the real women of the "real life" sector, who relate outlandish and bizarre stories, but a demographic that does not crave celebrity gossip nor aspire to the glamour of the high-flying careerist or trendy girl about town. But some of them are happy to be magazine cover stars.

Every issue Essentials puts a real woman on the front, rather than a model or a celebrity. And this month, for the second October issue in a row, it has created a gatefold cover featuring a selection of readers. Last year's version delivered a 25 per cent increase on the normal sale.

This year, editor Jules Barton-Breck has gone further and allowed seven readers to guest-edit the magazine. There are sound commercial reasons for this approach. Since the big statement of last year's "Real Women issue", Essentials has steadily picked up readers.

Sales are up by 9.9 per cent on last year, making it the fastest-growing women's magazine in the UK. "It came together at the right time," says Barton-Breck. "In a recession our readers were looking for something more real – not living on the credit card and all that business."

It's an approach that echoes some of the success that retail brands such as Dove and Debenhams have had in using real women in advertising.

Essentials embeds that ethos in its editorial offering. It has no problem with describing its readers as "suburban" or acknowledging that they are "35-55 plus" in age. This is not the world of The Devil Wears Prada and honesty is a vital part of the appeal. "They live in villages and small towns as opposed to cities. Everything is local for them, their friends are local, they have a very nice life and I think they feel they have too," says the editor. "They don't want depressing stories or anything that doesn't have a happy ending."

That's not to say the magazine doesn't present itself as a treat, albeit at £2.90 – a budget price for a monthly. "People are looking to magazines that cheer them up with a lot of practical value they can use, where they can afford the fashion and are able to cook the recipes," says Barton-Breck.

It's a simple recipe all round and the same comfort reading appeal has also benefited other titles in this section of the news-stand, such as Hearst Magazines's stalwart Good Housekeeping and its stablemate Prima and the IPC title Woman & Home.

Barton-Breck thinks she is on to a winner. "It's not something that's going away and the more feedback we get the more I can't believe that other magazines don't do this, although I don't want them to."

She was nervous about allowing the readers to guest-edit ("I was dreading it, thinking if they come up with some hideous ideas how am I going to say 'No'"), but says her own East Sussex lifestyle – reflected in her monthly editor's letter – is not so different from that of the people who buy the magazine.

Essentials was criticised on some American blogs when last year's groundbreaking "Real Women" gatefold cover featured black readers on the turn rather than the front. This year's Real Women issue has a pretty 33-year-old Asian woman who works in PR but Barton-Breck says she never thinks about such things as ethnicity and that the seven chosen guest editors merely reflect the magazine's readership. She is delighted with the results. "Some people asked 'Is it going to look downmarket? Are the readers going to look chav?' But my argument would be 'Why am I going to put someone horrible on the front cover?' My criteria are still the same as if it was a model."