Why the fading 'She' magazine got a full makeover and not just a facelift

The brand value of the 49-year-old women's magazine was too strong to lose, Nat Mags' chief executive Duncan Edwards tells Raymond Snoddy
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The Independent Online

The idea, as Duncan Edwards, National Magazines chief executive, explains it, had originally been to produce an entirely new product - a service magazine for "the thirtysomethings" that would combine practical information with the design feel of a glossy fashion magazine.

Former IPC executive Matthew Line, who had been working as chief executive of the Prince of Wales's Foundation, was lured away last year to launch the new title, under the codename Project Julie. She, founded in 1956 and relaunched in 1988, was slipping into middle age with sales dipping, at the last count, to 148,000.

But Edwards and team had a rethink and, instead of launching a new product, they decided to revitalise She. He says: "The trend (for She) was very clear. In a couple of years we would have had to make a major change. So we took a rather brave decision to say, 'We have this magazine brand with all this consumer equity and trade equity and we have this new product over here.' So we decided we would effectively use it as a vehicle for the equity in She to launch this new magazine."

The racks in his office are full of the new She, with its rather elegant cover promising help and solutions to 50 everyday dilemmas and advice on everything from how to run a fireworks party to reading palms and teaching your dog tricks.

Isn't there a danger that an interesting new magazine idea could be marred by a rather tired, fading brand? "Clearly that's the issue, but one of the nice things about magazines is that you can change the product every time you publish. We batch-produce, and immediately you produce a new batch, that is what the brand means," says Edwards, who has worked at Nat Mags for 16 years.

The idea of launching the new magazine under the She banner just "emerged" at a meeting to discuss the launch strategy. "Matthew Line asked the same questions as everyone else, but it's exactly the same as what has been done at Burberry, Selfridges or Topshop. If you have some underlying strength, you can modernise it," says Edwards.

Around 400,000 copies of the first issue have been produced, and the company is looking for a relatively modest sales boost in the short term to between 150,000 and 200,000.

Apart from its appearance, the most distinctive thing in the new She is the Help section which accounts for more than 20 pages at the front. The topics range from the quickest way to iron shirts and where best to find original chandeliers to how to download music. The "service" theme continues with a guide to the lost art of writing letters, a primer on symbolism in art and a guide to painkillers.

Edwards cites three things he hopes will make She stand out in a very competitive sector that includes everything from Red, Eve and Easy Living to broader women's service publications such as Prima. First, the clear, clean and precise design; second; the service element; and third, the tone of the magazine. "It is absolutely, unashamedly middle class. There is a slight sense that the middle class are shaking off their embarrassment about being middle class, and this magazine speaks to that," Edwards says. The line-up in the first issue includes the thoughts of a middle-class mother running a perpetual taxi service for her children.

Naturally, the new She has been welcomed by rivals with the sort of objectivity you would expect. Nicholas Coleridge, the UK managing director for Condé Nast, publishers of Vogue and Tatler, was noticeably snooty in an interview in these pages last week. "We are told," said Coleridge grandly, "that She looks rather like Easy Living, a Condé Nast title. But that would be nothing new for Nat Mags." Coleridge, who used to work for Nat Mags, described the She publisher rather airily as "a bit of an echo machine, a poor man's Condé Nast."

Edwards looks pained, then gives a measured response. "It's really strange; every interview you read with Nick or anyone from Condé Nast has this undercurrent of slightly nasty comment. There is this air of smugness and superiority that comes out of Condé Nast, which you never quite understand because they are really good publishers." He insists there is "absolutely nothing derivative" about She.

Coleridge also took a pop at Good Housekeeping, arguing that although it was full of good stuff it was perceived as very old and therefore hard to sell to cool, urban younger people.

Edwards says that because the magazine was first published in 1922, it has had to continue to attract new customers in its "35 to 65 or even older" heartland. The latest official circulation figures show Good Housekeeping selling 475,838 a month, a 13.9 per cent rise on a year ago. And Edwards points out that a new book on British "superbrands" listed only two magazines; one isGood Housekeeping, the other is Nat Mags' Cosmopolitan.

Coleridge's attack continued with the accusation that, unlike Condé Nast, Nat Mags had talked about investing in the internet and then got cold feet and pulled out. "Absolutely true in every respect, and I'm not in the least bit embarrassed by that," says Edwards. Five years ago, the company had been about to launch a British version of women.com. The plug was pulled because they weren't convinced the revenues were there.

"The online area has risen back to the top of our agenda over the last year. In the next year, you will see activity on probably about half our magazines," Edwards says. One aim will be to try to build a closer relationship with readers. She, priced at £3 an issue, plans to set up a reading group online.

Then Edwards allows himself a swipe at the Vogue and Tatler publisher. "The two launches out of Condé Nast are both low prices. Glamour launched at the very low price of £1.50 and Easy Living at £1.90. I don't understand the strategy."

The business strategy of Nat Mags, a private company owned by the Hearst Corporation of the US, is based on three approaches - wholly owned magazines, acquisitions and joint ventures. The most substantial part of the empire is the 15 wholly owned magazines such as She, Cosmo, Good Housekeeping and Country Living. The company recently bought Coast, a magazine aimed at all those who live, or would like to live, by the sea.

A joint venture with Rodel of the US in the health and well-being sector has gone well, with magazines such as Men's Health and Runner's World. Nat Mags also launched Reveal, a celebrity magazine in partnership with ACP (Australian Consolidated Press). There is even a distribution joint venture with Condé Nast. Developments are planned in all parts of Nat Mags, with emphasis on expansion in the weekly magazine sector.

As with She, the decisions will come to Duncan Edwards' desk. " Most of what I do now is make judgements about product. The most important thing that determines whether a business in our sector of the industry is successful or not is the quality of the editorial product. It's so crucial to how we do as a business - just as the decisions we have made on She are crucial," he says.