Good Housekeeping is a monster brand for parent company Hearst. The 129-year-old magazine is among its largest in terms of revenue, with more than 4.4 million subscribers. Consumers place enormous trust in the Good Housekeeping Seal.
But it faces a looming challenge, inherent in its very name -- Good Housekeeping?
The moniker is old-fashioned, calling to mind 1950s housewives. It's hardly the kind of image that attracts the younger, modern woman Good Housekeeping must reach to remain vital. The average reader is 55, among the oldest in its competitive set, according to information from GfK MRI, which tracks print and digital magazine readership.
"In some ways, the 'housekeeping' part of Good Housekeeping does them a disservice," said George Janson, managing partner and print director at GroupM.
At Good Housekeeping, where Procter & Gamble and L'Oreal are its biggest advertisers, print ad pages have declined in four of the past five years, slipping 7% in 2013, according to Media Industry Newsletter. That's a sharper decline than all monthlies, which fell less than 1%.
Hearst executives say Good Housekeeping is a healthy business, but they also acknowledge the desire to evolve it. Last November it poached Jane Francisco from Chatelaine magazine to fill the editor-in-chief role left vacant by Rosemary Ellis. "I wanted someone who had an unexpected take, not someone who had potentially edited three of these magazines in the U.S. in the past," said David Carey, Hearst Magazines' president. "Jane has great instincts for transforming a legacy business and making it more modern."
"Her mandate is not to turn the business upside down," he added. "But at the same time the role of all the women's lifestyle magazines that have a service component have to be constantly reexamined."
Ms. Francisco's progress will be closely watched. Good Housekeeping is one of the original group of women's service magazines called the Seven Sisters, along with Hearst-owned Redbook and Woman's Day and Meredith's Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle and Ladies' Home Journal. (The seventh sister, McCall's, closed in 2002.) They share similar challenges of graying audiences and declining ad pages.
Ms. Francisco's touch is already evident. The March issue, her first since taking over, offers a dramatically different cover presentation. "Visual content is as important as written content," she said. She's also infused personality into its social-media feeds. "We're not working in the emergency department of a hospital," she said. "We can afford to have fun." Soon, the website will match the consumption habits of web readers, with more frequent posts tied to the news. In May, she plans to roll out the magazine's first All Star Beauty Awards, a biannual compilation of the top-tested beauty products from the Good Housekeeping Research Institute.
"We target women who have a busy life," she said. "We can deliver the one-stop shop if you can't make it through your shelter magazine or if you're interested in fashion trends you can use today."
Her own lifestyle seems to reflect that of the magazine she's been tapped to edit. On a recent Tuesday morning in January, Ms. Francisco's navy blue nail polish was chipped or absent from her fingers -- unexpected from the editor in chief of a title festooned with beauty ads and advice. "I struggle with a lot of the same issues as our readers," she said over a cup of tea. "How do you fit everything in?"
But would she ever consider changing the name?
"That's a big question," she said, raising an eyebrow. "I think we're looking at how we position the brand and how we bring up what it's known for. So -- question mark."