Women’s glossy magazines are often vilified as being of limited value, too light and frivolous and the subject matter too repetitive. The Media gathered together a focus group of respected and influential people in the industry to discuss the value, influence and validity of the publications.
The focus group consisted of: Jenny Crwys-Williams, 702 talk show host; Denis Beckett, enterprising journalism guru; Thabo Leshilo, former newspaper editor; Virginia Hollis, media agency icon; Angela Richardson, former publisher; Jody Hyam, beauty product advertiser; Sandra Gordon, publisher; and Ronell Buitenbos, ad sales expert.
While there was a whole lot of discussion and animated talk at the focus group breakfast in March, there was no argument over who was on the top of the heap of women’s glossy magazines.
Afrikaans women’s magazines, SARIE and Rooi Rose, and Destiny were voted the best, with woman&home and Good Housekeeping in second place.
There was a unanimous decision that, although there were a few others favoured, such as Marie Claire, O Magazine, Glamour and Elle, only the original five were doing something phenomenal and really deserved to be placed.
Everyone agreed both Afrikaans magazines had the recipe right: being locally focused with a quality international look and being relevant to their audience. Not bad for such old-timers – Rooi Rose has just celebrated its 70th birthday and SARIE is trailing not far behind at 63.
“They stand out from a design perspective,” said Angela Richardson.
Sandra Gordon: “For years I have marveled at these two titles – their fashion spreads, food and general content is perfect for their market, which they clearly know so well.”
Richardson: “They also have a much wider age market than the English glossies. You will have a mother reading it, her daughter and possibly the grandmother as well. And while you know what you are going to get, there is a fresh appeal each month.”
Virginia Hollis: “You get many women buying both magazines every month because there is always something different in each one. Their readers are loyal to the brands, which is pretty rare in the English market, where people buy on a whim.”
Jenny Crwys-Williams: “It is because they are local, professional, have good layout, clean and not jumbled with the odd wedding thrown in…”
Richardson: “They are authentic.”
Hollis: “There are lots of local celebrities celebrated in the Afrikaans mags. They are ours. I don’t want to read about Angelina Jolie and her skinny body…”
Jody Hyam: The advertising in these magazines is perfect for their market. They aren’t Paris, New York or aspiration. They are achievable and appropriate.”
Gordon: “Afrikaans publishers are careful not to dissect their market because that is what has happened to the English market. They haven’t chosen a particular life stage and that is why the Afrikaans titles have maintained themselves because they cater to more women across all age groups.”
Hollis: “SARIE did try a teen SARIE, but it didn’t last five minutes.”
Richardson said her impression was that the Afrikaans titles are more inwardly focused. So the food department, for example, would concentrate on the food of the season and what would work here, while the English titles look at what is happening in the world at large.
“Afrikaans titles are aware of the world, but bring it back here and don’t try to be like the world,” Richardson said. “Same with fashion. Because they have to produce their own local fashion, they have to think about it and produce it in a slightly different way. Meanwhile, the English titles are heavily led by their overseas counterparts.”
Destiny, launched only in 2007, has a much lower circulation. SARIE’s latest figure was
120 402 and Rooi Rose 104 533, while Destiny is 30 082. Destiny, however, is up from 23 237, while the Afrikaans titles have dropped a little in the last quarter.
Crwys-Williams spoke about the response she had to women’s magazines on 702. “The majority of callers were young black women who were so bored with the English magazines. They hated the airbrushed international star covers, hated the fact that Katie Holmes was on three of the covers in the same month. They basically said we are way more intelligent than these magazines give us credit for being.
“They were scornful of the beauty pages, which they said were impossible to follow. They liked a bit of fashion, but were sick to death of articles about sex and nonsense. Above all, they wanted to be celebrated as intelligent women of the world. They too wanted to know that they could be chairperson of Anglo American and take on the world in their own terms.
“This is where Destiny came in, from black and white alike. They all really like it because it focuses on celebrating local success stories, is aspirational and gives women credit for being intelligent.”
Gordon: “I am surprised Destiny doesn’t do better.”
Richardson believes that it falls short on the design. “The design is weak. The photographs just don’t have an international feel and aren’t used well, unlike the Afrikaans titles.”
Crwys-Williams criticised some of its adverts for not fitting the intended market. “So while you are appealing to one lot of people, you suddenly have mumsy ads that would be more appropriate in Living and Loving.”
Hyam felt its advertising was appropriate as it appeals to a far wider audience than one assumes is their target market. “I think it is spot on,” she said.
There was a general nod of approval on Destiny’s educational road shows. “It is a whole philosophy that they carry through, which is hugely impressive,” said Crwys-Williams.
On the cover of the February edition was Yolanda Cuba, executive director for development and decision support at SAB. There was approval about the fact that she is hugely successful without being an actress or model and is not skinny. “I look at that cover and there is nothing threatening about it because she is fat – she is massively successful and hugely inspirational because of that,” said Crwys-Williams.
There was also a sense from the group that Destiny is a step ahead of the rest with its online presence.
Perhaps it is no surprise that the women in the focus group love woman&home because they are in its target age group and are certainly not in that of COSMOPOLITAN, True Love, and Glamour. Unlike the other glossies, woman&home celebrates South Africa, with mostly local women on the cover, whether celebrities or businesswomen. There was agreement that the articles were relevant to their market. “They utilise real pulling points, like in this one (shape and diet), for women,” said Richardson.
All agreed that woman&home’s covers work and have a strong appeal because they show “real women” and not, as Denis Beckett called them, “photo-shopped pictures of plastic surgery women”.
As Richardson explained: “Each woman needs to be styled to look fabulous to attract beauty clients and readers, but she must still look real.”
Most were surprised at how impressed they were with the newest glossy in town and the one with the most antiquated name, Good Housekeeping. “The title is very misleading and outdated,” said Richardson. “Like something that belongs in a lost era.” Beckett felt that perhaps there was an appeal in the old fashioned name. Hollis said that kind of name can carry a legacy, like Harper’s Bazaar or Vanity Fair. But all agreed with Crwys-Williams in saying that it is “Women’s Institute – massively professional, great books, great articles and generally great content.“
Hyam said: “Good Housekeeping is much more accessible, with clothes that are far more reasonably priced than woman&home.”
Hollis was partial to the regular feature in woman&home about finding the right clothes for your shape. “But you are not going to find a shirt there from PEP Stores,” said Richardson. “Nor would I want to,” retorted Gordon.
The rest of the magazines, the focus group insisted, were too similar. They felt it was difficult to separate them and find the individuality in them.
“There is no spontaneity or spark of genius. They are all too formulaic and the formula is simply not working anymore,” said Crwys-Williams.
Richardson explained that many women buy these magazines to escape and they want to lose themselves in Katie Holmes’s life, trying to imagine her perfect existence and aspire to it. “Many, many women connect with that. They may not want to admit that they want a magazine to dream a bit about what they don’t have and instead they say they want an intelligent read. They won’t be reading Destiny. At the end of the day, the ratings speak volumes.”
Leshilo said he used to buy his wife and daughter True Love and COSMO, but stopped ages ago because they weren’t opening them. “Even True Love now looks like a clone of the others,” he said. “They seem to start out with the intention of making money rather than providing a service. So, they use gimmicks like sex, or who is the most gorgeous and biggest star of the moment. They won’t survive unless they start seeing themselves as providing a service that is worthwhile and helpful.”
Beckett also said he never sees any women’s magazines in his wife or daughters’ houses. “In fact, I don’t see them in any homes I visit.” But looking at them now, he said: “I am stupefied by the clutter on their covers. Then there is all this sex… Some of the magazines have sex written on the cover numerous times.” He pointed out a coverline on ‘how to seduce absolutely anyone’, which, he explained, uses sex as the pull but had nothing whatsoever to do with anything carnal. “Internally, instead of using one good pic, they use zillions. It is all aiming to attract and everyone is beautiful, Beckett said.
“From a male experience, innumerable people want to launch rugby magazines because millions of South Africans love rugby, but it always turns out they don’t want to read about it. So when I see this extensive array of stories about sex, I wonder if there are that many women who want to read about it. I wonder.”
There was agreement that many of these magazines are a tired looking, mostly looking so similar it was hard to tell them apart. There is a need for a revamp on many of them, particularly those whose numbers are dropping substantially.
Hollis said: “If there is belief in the title, the publisher needs to see how they can recreate it to make it work again.”
They all agreed that a brilliant cover is essential because it is the foremost selling point, particularly in the English market where women buy on instinct rather than out of loyalty.
And one of the main pulling points these days is food. “Readers are going less for fashion and more for food and healthy living,” said Hyam. Crwys-Williams agrees: “Food is the new sex, so you can’t go wrong if you have a lot of it in your magazine.”
What was clear from this focus group is that, with exceptions, women’s magazines need to revitalise themselves, create a unique selling point and let go of the same old features that don’t seem to be working like they used to.
This story was first published in the May 2012 issue of The Media magazine.