August 17, 2012 5:03 pm

Differentiate – or die

Magazines should focus on what their most loyal customers are looking for – something new to read

Late last week there was much in the US media about the sorry state of print media – magazines were the focus rather than newspapers, as the latter have already been dismissed by a certain type of commentator as irrelevant and doomed. Depending on where you read the story, it was a lot of nuts and bolts reporting with double-digit figures, negative signs and percentage symbols and very little analysis. While the odd title trotted out the same played-out excuses we’ve been hearing for the better part of a decade now, no one addressed the core issue that’s at the heart of print’s decline in many markets – yes, it’s a “d” word and no, it’s not “digital”.

As many publishers shift resources to tablet editions (I’m still waiting to see a sustainable advertising model for this format) and developing Twitter teams to push traffic to their core brand (a tremendous waste of money at the expense of real journalism and a terrific way to actually divert people from your core product), the real issue facing publishers is “differentiation”.

Spend a bit of time at a US newsstand and it’s clear that the crisis in the magazine industry isn’t so much about plastering covers with hash-tags, the problem is that everything feels and looks alarmingly the same – the cover stock is identical across a variety of magazines, the varnishes too.

Open up any US consumer magazines and you’re likely to find the paper is similar, the style of photography (lighting, composition, crop) is the same and the layout is dull and unchallenging. Even the subjects of the news weeklies are starting to look alike – chief executives over 55 with a look of surprise that gives the impression that they’ve just seen a shocking round of quarterly results, when in fact they’ve just been overdoing it on the eye-lifts and Botox shots to the brow.

Indeed, every sector of the newsstand has its same-y cast of undifferentiated characters – the reality star with his or her arse falling out of nasty sweats as they push a shopping trolley in a celebrity weekly; the resurrected 1990s TV star with her new volleyball boobs snapped on a beach in Mexico for a beauty title; the political candidate in his ill-fitting suit and shellacked hair surrounded by aides wearing jumbo chinos and bad shoes in any news weekly; and the female TV host in a shift dress and bare arms in a fashion monthly (why do women in TV news insist on bare arms? Studios are not all that hot and they don’t all have the best biceps).

In this competitive world one might think that the whizz kids coming out of business schools would be, whether arriving at multinationals or launching their own start-ups, wanting to produce something new and different from what’s gone before but, curiously, it’s rather the opposite.

Because of the dread word “efficiency” (cheaper for everyone to use the same suppliers at the expense of being unique), we’ve come to a point in our popular and consumer culture where uniformity isn’t just stifling innovation, it’s also making consumers number and dumber. When everything becomes so flattened-out, perma-pressed and rounded at the edges, all sense of aspiration is lost – even the oddly flat medals podia at the Olympics tried to make everyone a winner, offering little vertical differentiation between gold and bronze.

Just as magazines in the US (and many other markets) try to figure out where the problems are in the media landscape while failing to innovate with their core products, so a peek at other sagging sectors reveals a similar story. This week saw a host of airlines around the world issue dreadful results. Again, lack of innovation is at the heart of the problem. Uncreative chief executives will argue that there’s not a lot you can do with an aluminium/steel/carbon-fibre tube when fuel prices are high, unions are prickly and no one knows whether the Schmidts from Mannheim or the Bengtssons from Gothenburg are going to take a sunny vacation this Christmas.

Bullshit! The problem with airlines is that they all rely on the same tired ideas that are clearly not working. Their marketing managers will claim there’s no brand loyalty and consumers are promiscuous based on price, but wasn’t it ever thus? Show me an airline – or any company – with a strong point of view, solid product, good customer service and great branding and I’ll show you a queue of passengers stretching around the planet ready to fly and willing to pay a sensible premium for a dignified, punctual, safe and serene experience. Unfortunately, we’re mostly left with hotels using the same designers; we’re welcomed into grocery stores so intent on trying to look like everyone else and match the competition on price that they lack distinction; and in the land of print media we have newsstands around the world that feel they need to be in the food and beverage business rather than focusing on what their most loyal customers are looking for – something new to read.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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