Are branded magazines the new mail order catalogue? An increasing number of retailers are dipping a toe in the editorial waters, both online and offline. We talk to Crane Brothers founder Murray Crane and Barkers’ 1972 magazine publisher and editor Duncan Greive about this trend, and what it takes for companies to get into the content-creating business.
Bricks and mortar stores have been around for centuries, but the humble mail-order catalogue outstrips some of the world’s earliest stores. The first ever catalogue was published in Venice, Italy in 1498 by Italian publisher Aldus Manutius.
According to The Dingley Press, Manutius created the concept of paperback books, or pocketbooks, with the catalogue featuring books he produced. Four hundred years later, Tiffany & Co. created the first mail-order catalogue in North America in 1845, titled the “Blue Book”.
In New Zealand, mail-order catalogue company Laidlaw Leeds was founded by Robert Laidlaw in 1909. It sold agricultural related goods and later merged with The Farmers Union Trading Company, which became the Farmers brand most Kiwis are familiar with today.
Mail-order catalogues are still as relevant as ever (just look the institution Ezibuy has built off them as proof) but there’s a growing trend of retailers eschewing catalogues in favour of something a bit meatier.
Magazines are now the publication of choice for many, with Ziera, Unichem and Life Pharmacies and Liquorland among the companies branching out into this new territory.
Magazines don't just look the part - they've also have been proven to result in increased revenue. Ziera was blown away by the response after sending its magazine to 60,000 of its customers.
“We couldn’t believe the improvement in response rates, average purchase amount and overall revenue. We thought the magazine was really good, because you become attached to something. But the unsolicited feedback we got from customers saying how amazing it was took us by surprise,” marketing manager and chief customer experience officer Nicky Dunn said.
Rather than direct marketing through the pretty pictures and product spreads in catalogues, magazines feature subtler links to the brand interwoven in between editorial content.
Often, the magazine content isn’t even directly linked to the wares the retailer is selling. It instead relates to the lifestyle the brand wants to promote or the values it wants to attach itself to.
Crane Brothers and In Conversation: The retail perspective
New Zealand menswear retailers are getting in on the action, both online and offline.
Crane Brothers debuted an online-only magazine called In Conversation in December alongside a relaunch of the entire site.
Founder Murray Crane says the company wanted to give customers an insight into the brand and its peers.
“It allows us to communicate to our clients in our voice with a passive approach. It’s about our community; sharing what we’re doing, seeing, and being inspired by,” Crane says.
“People who may not be as familiar with the brand can find out more about who we are and what we do. Our content allows people to understand our tone and what makes us tick. It’s a way of documenting our thoughts and what we’re doing online allows them to see what we’re all about – it showcases our integrity showing that we do what we say we do.”
The content’s premise is simple: Crane says they interview who they like and talk about what they find interesting.
Showcasing what’s on trend isn’t a motivation for the brand, he says, as Crane Brothers is creating original content as opposed to what other people are posting.
The current magazine includes an interview with James Hurman, founder of innovation firm Previously Unavailable.
One of the only links to Crane Brothers is when Hurman discusses innovation in fashion and drops a mention of its store’s customer service.
“I remember when one of the staff noticed me enjoying a book in Crane Brothers, and then when my suit was sent to me the book was sitting in the suit bag as a gift. Because of that one act of thoughtfulness I wouldn’t ever buy a suit anywhere else. I think that’s the critical differentiator in great retail,” he says in the interview.
Crane’s own voice also comes through on Dispatch, where he regularly posts his own thoughts on people, events or issues.
He believes it’s important – and perhaps more so than ever in the digital era - that retailers offer more content than just clothes to their audience.
“Even pre-digital, we’ve always shared content with our clients by bringing interesting product into the store and partnering with other brands. It’s about giving them something, an experience, in return that they can’t buy.”
The Spinoff and 1972: The editorial perspective
Another menswear brand delving into the editorial world is Barkers’ 1972 magazine.
It was founded in 2011 and is going from strength to strength, having just signed a contract to up its issue count from two to three a year.
The latest issue is about to drop in the next month or so, while a digital edition is about to launch that will run weekly.
Prior to 1972’s creation, The Spinoff founder and former 1972editor Duncan Greive said Barkers was spending a lot of money on lookbooks, which wasn’t necessarily paying off.
“The lookbook was basically just a photoshoot of maybe 30 to 40 images,” Greive says. “In terms of the return on investment and how guys would behave, the lookbooks often wouldn’t be particularly well read, they were only relevant for a brief period of time and a company like Barkers would have a high turnover of product, so it was a short timespan for something that cost a lot of money.”
Managing director Jamie Whiting and Greive, who was working in the marketing team for the company at the time, decided to turn a fleeting thought of a magazine into a reality.
It was named 1972 in honour of the year the company was founded. To begin with, the stories all had some sort of connection to the Barkers brand.
One of the first stories Greive did was interviewing the company’s founder, Ray Barker, about how he started the brand, as well as touching on why Barker regretted selling it.
“His story and the company’s story was incredible but the company had forgotten it and the customers had forgotten,” Greive says. “While that kind of story conventionally could have been very tedious, I approached it like a feature in Metro, where I was freelancing at the time.”
He says he went about crafting the piece by digging through archives, conducting interviews and worked on it over a period of months.
By the end of the process, Greive had reunited an estranged Barker with the brand bearing his family name, and he was brought back on board as a brand ambassador.
“The story isn’t entirely positive, and as a result, people saw it for what it was,” Greive says.
“You could do something like that and it’d be so bland, but it’s journalistically led and I’m really proud of that piece of writing. I was glad to bring him back to the company in a way.”
The magazine is now a collaboration between The Spinoff’s custom content creation arm and Barkers, with The Spinoff leading the editorial side of things and commissioning journalists externally.
A similar process happens for the work The Spinoff does for Flight Centre.
Meanwhile, Barkers pitches in with the occasional story idea based off someone they’re working with, as well as providing the fashion imagery and the words for 1972.
Greive says Barkers decided to be more hands off around a year and a half ago and not have every piece of content directly reference the brand.
This led to a feature being commissioned on Kim Dotcom's new album, which Greive says was one of the best pieces of music journalism in 2015.
He points out that just because 1972 features branded content, it doesn’t mean the editorial quality is diluted. Case in point: the 1972 journalist behind the Kim Dotcom story, Hayden Donnell, was nominated for a Canon Media Award for The Arts and Entertainment Feature of the Year.
“That was amazing for us - Barkers and The Spinoff - to think a piece of branded content could be up for a Canon Award, it’s amazing.”
From the retail side of things, Barkers marketing manager Anna von Trott says 1972 won’t feature anything that the company wouldn’t enjoy reading or hearing about.
“We are committed to creating interesting content that our customers won’t get anywhere else,” von Trott says.
“We are more than just a men’s clothing brand now, with wider lifestyle offerings, so the magazine and our blog have to reflect that. We like to think that we are trusted advisors, whether it be about how to wear winter coats or uncovering new music or dining offerings.”
But magazines aren’t for everyone
Before jumping headfirst into the branded content waters, bear in mind creating a magazine – and even just creating interesting content – is no easy feat.
Greive says there are plenty of brands that shouldn’t produce a magazine, as they don’t have the appetite for the risks that come with it.
The content has to be intellectually stimulating and valuable enough for people to want to read it, he says, which is not something every brand has a handle on.
“It’s absolutely not for everyone. 1972 is emblematic of what we’d like to do, it’s a product which stands as a magazine in its own right, and the [Canon] nominations are a testament to that. That’s the kind of aspiration we have for our custom products - they don’t just exist for existing’s sake, they have a quality that is shocking to people for the format.”
For the less brave, there is a myriad of options out there in terms of content marketing: sponsoring interesting content that someone else has created in a magazine or online, or starting off by publishing a blog.
Social media is also a great introductory lesson on posting interesting content, as ramming direct marketing down an online audience’s throats is a great learning curve (spoiler alert: they won’t like it).
Sites like Tumblr are great for curating aspirational posts that aren’t intrinsically linked to a brand, but can help convey the brand’s identity.
With consumers moving towards preferring experiences over things, it’s becoming more important than ever for brands to offer something more than just products.
As Crane said: It’s all about giving consumers an experience they can’t buy.
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