Food feeds hunger for sales success

Sue Robinson tells Alyson Fixter how a
marriage between a publisher and a supermarket provides a best-selling
mix and popularity at the checkouts

WORKING
ON a contract magazine is becoming a fashionable career move for
consumer editors these days, but Sue Robinson, editor of Sainsbury’s
Magazine, was one of the first to make the jump.

In 2001, with two BSME awards under her belt from editing the BBC’s
Radio Times , she moved to Sainsbury’s Magazine on the personal
invitation from celebrity friend Delia Smith and her husband Michael
Wynn Jones, who then owned the title.

Since that time contract magazines have gained respectability.

Former
Loaded editor Scott Hanson recently took the helm at British Airways’
High Life and ex-Mirror journalist Dawn Alford, of Wliiam Straw drug
deal fame, is now at Tesco magazine.

“It’s really interesting to
see the other journalists who’ve moved across since then and are making
some exciting products – people take customer magazines seriously now.

“I
wouldn’t say there’s a negative side now to working on a customer mag
[compared to a consumer magazine] – the pressures are just different.”

The
question of whether anyone actually reads customer magazines is one
that’s currently puzzling some big companies – but Sainsbury’s bosses
can rest easy at night on this issue at least. More than 340,000
Sainsbury’s shoppers are undoubtedly reading Sainsbury’s Magazine,
because they’re each paying £1.20 for the privilege. And with a sales
jump of 60,000 in just six months, the customer obviously thinks the
monthly marketing tool is worth the money.

According to Robinson,
the April issue of the magazine should do even better than the current
official 340,126 ABC figure. It’s got the ultimate gooey chocolate cake
on the cover, photographed as lovingly as a supermodel – and chocolate,
it seems, is the Kate Moss of the foodie magazine world.

“It’s a
big seller every time,” says Robinson, unashamed of pressing an obvious
sales button for her mainly 35 to 44-year-old, two-thirds female,
upmarket readership. But the rest of the 170-page title is much more
subtle. Robinson says it’s all about getting the balance of
“Sainsburyness” right.

She says: “It’s got to be very clear to
the reader that it’s a genuine consumer magazine. Not overtly puffing
Sainsbury’s, but with editorial independence and creativity.”

Part
of this consumer magazine feel comes from a roster of high-profile
names, from founder and editorial consultant Delia Smith (who sold the
magazine to Seven Publishing in January) to novelist Sue Townsend,
health editor Dr Mark Porter and chef Nigel Slater. It also has
separate sections on health, beauty, homes, gardens and travel, unlike
many other food and customer magazines.

“We do everything as if we were a consumer magazine,”

says
Robinson. “We stay very close to what Sainsbury’s is doing, but they
don’t need to lay down the law, they trust us to interpret what they’re
doing in a way that’s relevant.

“We ask readers whether the
balance of CONTRACT MAGAZINES Food feeds hunger for sales success Sue
Robinson tells Alyson Fixter how a marriage between a publisher and a
supermarket provides a best-selling mix and popularity at the checkouts
Sainsburyness is right, if it’s pitched right, and we listen to what
they say.”

It
is is now not only the fastestgrowing food magazine in the past six
months in terms of actual added sales, but the fastest growing of all
paid-for magazines, beating consumer glossies like Closer , Glamour and
Woman & Home.The only magazines currently outrunning Sainsbury’s
Magazine in the ABCs’ top 100 sales climbers are free customer
magazines – A sda Magazine and Sky the magazine – and a recent survey
conducted by the National Readership Survey revealed that 72 per cent
of Sky customers would “not be at all disappointed” if the magazine
never arrived through their letterboxes.

Robinson admits that initially she had some trepidation about the switch from consumer to contract.

“The
thing that persuaded me that it would be okay was the equal
relationship that Michael and Delia had forged with Sainsbury’s,” she
explains.

“The agreement between the two companies was based on a
mutual respect, that the magazine would be a wonderful marketing tool
and also a fantastic consumer magazine, without the level of editorial
interference from the client you might get on other titles.

One
of the pressures unique to Sainsbury’s Magazine has been the
supermarket’s very public struggle with profit warnings and defecting
customers, something that Robinson admits hit the team hard last year.

“If you’d spoken to me a year ago I’d have felt very differently about the magazine,” Robinson says.

“Part
of our job is to reflect the brand and that was very difficult when
Sainsbury’s were struggling to find the right direction.

“But in this last year the management has changed, they’ve now a really clear vision and passion for food.

“Everything is much more positive and we can feel that coming through in what the readers say.”

As
a team-building exercise in December, as well as a practical aid in the
Christmas rush, senior Sainsbury’s staff were drafted into the stores
for a bit of street-level experience.

Robinson was an eager participant – mainly, she says, in the hope of getting some direct feedback on her magazine.

It didn’t quite work out as she planned.

“I
was on the tills helping people pack, and when I said I was from the
magazine they’d say something like: ‘Great, am I buying the right
potatoes to go with lamb?’ so I didn’t scrounge as much feedback as I
was hoping for. But you could feel that Sainsbury’s was changing, that
things were going in the right direction.”

The sale of Delia
Smith’s publishing company, New Crane, to Seven last month for £7m, is
another step forward, says Robinson, although she claims Seven has no
plans to change the magazine.

“Everybody’s excited about it.
We’re joining forces with a really young, ambitious, exciting company
and I think it can only be good news all round.”

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