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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Tired brands: Nova magazine

Let sleeping brands lie

In the 1960s Nova magazine was Britain’s ‘style bible’, and had a massive impact on the fashion of the era. Alongside the fashion pages, it carried serious and often controversial articles on subjects such as feminism, homosexuality and racism. At the time, the magazine was unique, but by the 1970s other magazines started to clone the Nova concept. Nova itself soon started to look tired and fell victim to sluggish sales, and closed in 1975 after 10 years in operation – a lifetime in the magazine industry.

However, such was the impact of the magazine on its generation that IPC Magazines (which owns Marie Claire magazine) decided to relaunch the title in 2000. Second time around, the magazine was positioned as a lifestyle magazine that was as edgy and fashion-conscious as the original.

The first issue lived up to this promise. Here was a women’s magazine completely devoid of articles such as ‘10 steps to improving your relationship’, ‘How to catch the perfect man’ and ‘Celebrities and their star-signs’. According to the Guardian, the revamped Nova ‘had more humour than the failed Frank magazine, and more realistic fashion than Vogue while still being a clothes fantasy.’

Three months later though the publishers were already starting to worry that the sales figures were lower than they had anticipated. They therefore moved editor Deborah Bee, and replaced her with Jeremy Langmead, who had previously been the editor of the Independent newspaper’s Style magazine.

Although some commentators questioned the decision to place a man at the helm of a magazine aimed at women, gender wasn’t the real problem. After all, Elle magazine had a male editor for many years without disastrous consequences.

Tim Brooks, the managing director of IPC, declared that the first three issues of Nova had been ‘too edgy’. But the publishers had done little to calm wary consumers by shrink-wrapping the magazine in plastic. After all, most people who purchase a new, unfamiliar magazine want to flick through it first to check that the content is relevant to them.

The new editor was quick to make changes. The novelist, India Knight, was given her own column, and more mainstream features, such as an exercise page, soon appeared. Although the magazine gathered a loyal readership, the numbers weren’t enough.

In May 2001, a year after its launch, IPC pulled the plug on Nova. ‘It is with great reluctance that we have had to make this decision,’ Tim Brooks said at the time. ‘Nova was ground-breaking in its style and delivery, but commercially has not reached its targets. IPC has an aggressive launch strategy, and an important part of this strategy is the strength to take decisive action and close unviable titles.’ IPC also said that it wanted to concentrate on the bigger-selling Marie Claire.

For many, the failure of Nova’s second attempt was not a surprise. ‘It was exactly like all the other magazines and failed to capture the British public’s imagination,’ said Caroline Baker, the fashion director at You magazine, and a journalist on the original Nova. ‘They should have left the old one alone,
not tried to bring it back.’

Whereas the original Nova had little competition when it launched, the updated version had entered a saturated market place. 2000 had seen a whole batch of new women’s magazines enter the British market such as the pocketsized and hugely successful Glamour magazine (the first edition sold 500,000 copies). Unlike Nova, Glamour had spent masses on making sure the magazine was moulded around the market. ‘We travelled up and down the country and spoke to thousands of young women to ensure not just the right editorial, but the scale and size of the magazine,’ said Simon Kippin, Glamour’s publisher.

The Guardian reported on the highly competitive nature of the women’s magazine market where new titles are launched and extinguished with increasing speed:

The cycle of launches and closures may have speeded up but then so has society. Forty-four percent of revenue is currently generated by magazines that did not exist 10 years ago. People still like magazines, in fact 84 percent still believe that magazines are worth spending money on, according to Henley Centre research. The magazines that people enjoy buying however, are not guaranteed to remain the same.

Commentating on Nova and other magazine closures, Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of Conde Nast Publications, said magazine closures are a fact of life for the industry. ‘It is not surprising nor horrific when magazines open and close,’ he said. ‘It’s completely predictable, and it’s been that way for hundreds of years, otherwise we would still be reading cave-man magazines.’

According to this logic the failure of Nova version two can be attributed to the natural order of magazine publishing. However, many have said that if Nova had been given more time to carve its niche, it would still be here today.

One thing though, seems certain. Having already been given a second chance, it is unlikely to be allowed a third. But then again. . .

Lessons from Nova

  • Recognize that brands have their time. Just because Nova worked in the 1960s didn’t mean that the same formula would still be relevant in the 21st century.
  • Account for brand failures. Magazine publishers take a pragmatic approach to failure. Indeed, most factor in a couple of annual ‘misses’ into their budgets. ‘Of every six magazines launched, two will fail,’ says Conde Nast’s Nicholas Coleridge.

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