By Published on .

Most Popular
How do you take a slightly tired, formulaic, but highly successful women's magazine and make it better? Dress it up and stay the course, as Cosmopolitan Editor in Chief Bonnie Fuller sees it.

"The essence of the magazine never really changed," says Ms. Fuller, who took over for the retiring Helen Gurley Brown last February and whose reviews from the ad world so far have been nothing short of glowing.

"I always believed in the Cosmo philosophy. I felt that it was empowering, and realistic, to encourage women to go after all their goals, to be the best and reach for the stars in their careers, their relationships, in bed, whatever. I never thought that was out of date."

Although it remains to be seen whether Ms. Fuller can keep the reputation she gained for brand-growing while at Marie Claire and YM, she appears to be off to a strong start at the Hearst Magazines' title.

Its mega-circulation is holding steady, the rate base is heading up, ad figures are soaring and the consensus among ad clients is that Ms. Fuller has breathed new life into the sex and dating bible of millions of young women.


Ms. Fuller found in focus groups that readers liked the magazine pretty much the way it was, and her changes have been subtle for the most part. In her own words, she simply did "a little window dressing."

Editorial pages now are less copy-heavy, and feature updated design elements and more photos. More substantially, Ms. Fuller has beefed up coverage of beauty, fashion, health and fitness.

The food and travel sections, which were perceived as out of step with the magazine's mix, were eliminated to make room for a regular feature on decorating and entertaining, more reader-feedback columns and the relationship-oriented articles that are Cosmo's claim to fame.


The magazine also has incorporated its high-profile "Fun, fearless female" marketing campaign, via Lotas Minard Patton McIver, New York, into editorial elements, and is planning the first "Fun, Fearless, Female" issue next February.

Cosmo remains the best-selling fashion/beauty magazine by far, with single-copy performing especially well.

As Cosmo Senior VP-Publisher Donna Kalajian likes to point out, the book beats its closest rival, Glamour, by more than 700,000 copies on the newsstand, and outsells Vogue, Mademoiselle, Self and Allure combined.

"There's no better indication that what we're doing is right than to watch what happens on the newsstand," Ms. Kalajian says. "That's where the consumer has to make the choice to select Cosmo."


But its monstrous circulation-down from a mid-1980s peak of 3 million-is virtually flat. For the first half of the year, Cosmo's total paid circulation dipped 1.3%, to 2,525,317, from the first six months of 1996, with single-copy gaining 3.5% to 1,771,501 and subscriptions suffering an 11.1% drop to 753,816, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Parent company Hearst Magazines attributes the falloff to price increases and voluntary circulation cuts companywide two years ago.

Despite the declines, Cosmo announced last month it will boost its rate base by 50,000 copies as of January to 2.3 million.

Cosmo's recent ad results are exceptional. Ad pages for January through September shot up 13.2%, to 1,395.31, over the same period last year, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. Ms. Kalajian says the September issue earned more ad dollars than any other in Cosmo's history.

The magazine has attracted a score of new advertising clients-including Ralph Lauren, Esprit, The Gap and Isaac Mizrahi-largely due to Ms. Fuller's emphasis on fashion. (Cosmo's circulation and ad performance mirrors that of its competitors. Circulation across the category remains stagnant, while ad revenues at such rivals as Glamour, Vogue, Marie Claire and Allure also have seen double-digit growth this year.)


Advertisers and agency people are unified in their enthusiasm for the new Cosmo.

"They made a very smart decision, which was to spruce it up and tweak it a little bit and yet not really change it," says Roberta Garfinkle, VP-print director at McCann-Erickson Worldwide. "They kept the heart of Cosmo but just made it a little fresher. And they've taken the features and made them more reflective of the times we're living in."


"I definitely think Bonnie has started to show her style, and it's a terrific style," says Melissa Pordy, VP-associate media director of Hill, Holliday/Altschiller. "Sometimes you take the covers off these magazines and they all seem the same. But Bonnie has brought in an editorial style that really cuts through the clutter."

Lisa Denzer, group media strategist for Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, whose clients include VF Corp.'s Lee Jeans and Timex Corp., says: "I think Cosmo was clearly in need of some new energy, just a modern makeover.

The magazine is still very provocative and titillating and sexy, and that's their formula. But she's contemporized it. When you look through Cosmo, you see it really has the latest in haircuts and fashions, but with its sort of sexy twist on them."

One of her clients, Lee, is doing more advertising in Cosmo this year than in years past, largely because the book has reeled in such big fish as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. "It makes it a better environment for us," Ms. Denzer says.

"We love Cosmo and we've always loved it, and we love the fact it has more beauty and fashion coverage than before," says Muriel Gonzalez, senior VP-marketing for Estee Lauder Cos., a major Cosmo advertiser. "The beauty edit is comprehensive and user-friendly, but fun and easier to read."


Estee Lauder has advertised in Cosmo since 1975 and increases its business with the magazine every year, Ms. Gonzalez says. "It really delivers an unduplicated reader. It gives us great coverage."

Ms. Fuller "has done a fine job continuing what Helen Gurley Brown created," adds Neil Katz, president of Liz Claiborne Fragrances, another Cosmo advertiser. "She's modernized it somewhat but is reaching the same woman Helen created the magazine for. They're a core book for us, and they will remain a core book for us."

Clearly, those in the ad community are big fans of Cosmo-but some claim the relationship has become too chummy, that the holy line separating editorial from the business side is getting blurry.

A special makeup section in the September issue was criticized for promoting Cover Girl; aside from sporting several ads for the Procter & Gamble Co. cosmetic brand, the editorial piece featured Cover Girl models and included various mentions of Cover Girl products.

And in the October issue, Estee Lauder model Elizabeth Hurley is pictured not only on the cover but on editorial and ad pages throughout-to such an extent that it's

tough to tell at times where the stories end and ads begin.

"It looks like collusion, and readers are very smart," says the publisher of a top fashion/beauty book. "They wonder who paid for that page. For the reader, it raises all kinds of questions about who's driving this car."

Ms. Kalajian counters the complaints "have no validity at all."


On the makeup section, she explains, "The model our editors chose to use is the model chosen by Cover Girl. And because she's signed with Cover Girl, we must credit the cosmetics to her."

As for the Hurley-heavy issue, the publisher says: "I don't know who the cover model is going to be from month to month. Estee Lauder runs a lot of advertising in this magazine. They're guaranteed positions a year in advance, way before we know who editorial will use."

Not only is advertising under fire, but some old criticisms about Cosmo's editorial content-that it is sex-obsessed, that it appeals to the lowest common denominator and, in the more-direct words of a competitor, that it's "trashy"-continue under Ms. Fuller.


Feminists have long accused Cosmo of holding women back in the workplace, while championing their sexual freedom. The magazine under Helen Gurley Brown was scolded for paying too much attention to the libido and not enough to such issues as sexual harassment and AIDS.

Ms. Fuller says Cosmo is devoting more space to social and health concerns. The October issue features pieces on breast cancer, anorexia, condom etiquette, even cloning.

"I think it's important to have something hard-hitting," she says.

But the editor disagrees that stories on bedroom problems are somehow unimportant.

"I don't think you can dismiss emotional issues and relationship issues as trivial," Ms. Fuller says. "On a daily basis, women and men spend a lot of energy and time concerned about those issues. Hey listen, if your marriage is a mess, that's a big issue in your life."


Most barbs being cast in Cosmo's direction are from rival camps, of course. The women's category has long been competitive-and is getting more so as upstarts like Fairchild Publications' Jane and Conde Nast Sports for Women enter the fray.

Ms. Kalajian and Ms. Fuller claim they aren't preoccupied with competitors.

"We have some strong competitors out there, and it would be naive of us to not be aware of what they're doing," Ms. Kalajian says. "But Cosmo has been the leading young women's magazine for the last 30 years, and our biggest competition, as I always say, is with ourselves."

Adds Ms. Fuller: "Your biggest responsibility is to your reader, and you can't get distracted by these other magazines nipping at your heels. You've got to remain focused on the woman you're serving . . . to keep on track. That's the most important thing."

In this article: