THE BEST MAGAZINES: ESCAPE FROM PIGEONHOLE PUSHES 'BH&G' FORWARD: MEREDITH STAR TAKES AD-PAGE LEAD IN WOMEN'S SEGMENT

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When Jean LemMon took over as editor in chief of Better Homes & Gardens in May 1993, she posted four words on the office wall of the Meredith Corp.'s flagship book: "Achievable. Deliverable. Affordable. Comfortable."

"Every story has to measure up to these standards," she says. "I was given a charge to change the magazine but don't change the magazine .*.*. to freshen up the editorial product but don't mess with the deeply imbedded philosophy this magazine has stood for."

APPROACH WORKING

Four years later, that approach-combined with demographic trends that have revived the magazine-is paying off. BH&G took the ad-page crown among the women's service magazines for 1996 with an increase of 9.4%, from 1,654 to 1,809.9. Circulation, too, climbed slightly to 7,605,325 as of Dec. 31, a jump of about 2,000 copies from the year before.

In addition, the title has expanded its franchise through an online presence, an advertiser-backed CD-ROM and a TV show, among other entries.

Because of these accomplishments, Advertising Age has named Better Homes & Gardens as one of its Best Magazines for 1996.

Ms. LemMon gives some of the credit to changing times.

"We have always catered to home and family," she says. "In the 1980s, we were looked at as Pollyanna-ish, not so hip. But home and family is very important to everybody right now. There's been a coming together [with] a much more receptive audience. This is a 75-year-old magazine and it's a pistol right now."

CHANGING PRIORITIES

Still, not all the credit goes to society's changing priorities.

"My staff and I have worked hard to bring this older matron into the late 20th century," Ms. LemMon says. "We are truly a driven group, both free-lance and staff. I don't think I have ever seen such a finely tuned machine."

Changes instituted under Ms. LemMon's regime have been gradual-"Magazines are living, breathing entities that grow and evolve," she says:

Ms. LemMon tarted up the editorial presentation a bit with new photo styles, layouts and type while adding a new department dedicated to children and parenting issues.

The evolution, according to a Meredith executive, has made it easier to sell to advertisers. Business-side successes have been driven by Publisher Alex Mironovich and VP-Magazine Group Sales Jerry Kaplan.

"People notice it more than they used to because it is much more handsomely designed and executed," says Christopher M. Little, president-publishing group.

Mr. Little says there are two main reasons for BH&G's renaissance.

"The one we'll take credit for is that I think we've built a truly extraordinary team of circulation, editorial and advertising and marketing people," he says. "The part that was just our great good fortune is that Better Homes just turns out to be right where demographics and psychographics are going. Even the tail-end of the baby boom is heading into the homeward years, and we are benefiting from that population moving into life changes that make them want to read Better Homes."

Relentless line-extension also plays a crucial role in building the Better Homes brand. "We will have 78 [special interest publications] this fiscal year, an all-time record," Mr. Little says

WEB SITE AND CD-ROMS

At the same time, the magazine has created a World Wide Web site (http://www.bhglive.com), a CD-ROM titled "Better Homes & Gardens Remodeling Your Home" sponsored by five marketers of home products and a TV show; it is preparing for the fall launch of Family Money, a personal finance spin-off.

Even as it brings in more ad and circulation dollars to the parent company, "Expansion reinforces the basic magazine franchise," Mr. Little says, while at the same time "the underlying strength of the magazine is driving the franchise expansion."

In many ways, BH&G doesn't really belong in the women's service category at all. Ms. LemMon points out the magazine doesn't "do beauty, fashion, fiction or celebrities.

"On the other hand," she continues, "We don't exactly fit in the shelter category exactly. What [the shelter books] don't have is that crossover. We do parenting, education, health and fitness. There really isn't a category to fit us in."

By way of illustration, Advertising Age has traditionally referred to BH&G as one of the Seven Sisters in stories but places it in the "Home" category in its quarterly chart of consumer magazine ad linage.

TROUBLE PLACING MAGAZINE

Roberta Garfinkle, senior VP-director of print media at McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, also has a little trouble placing BH&G in a specific category.

"I've always thought of them more as a shelter and home book rather than a women's service," she says.

However, she adds, BH&G does compete for many of the same accounts as women's service magazines. When Hearst decreased rate bases and raised ad rates in its women's books last year, the company lost a lot of ad pages to competitors such as BH&G, Ms. Garfinkle adds.

"Part of Better Homes' recent growth could be attributed to that," Ms. Garfinkle says. "Just how much of it I don't know."

Regardless of category, though, "They have been around a long time and they do what they do very well."

Jill Otto, media supervisor at Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, also gives BH&G high marks. Client Hallmark Cards does not buy a lot of print, she says, but the title offers "perfect synergy" for the brand's campaign.

"We are looking for a certain type of reader-a reader that takes pride in their home and family-and that is what Better Homes & Gardens provides," she says.

LIKES BOOK'S REACH

In addition, Ms. Otto says, "The numbers speak for themselves. [BH&G] offers incredible reach and efficiency."

To give an idea of how big those numbers are, Mr. Little likes to point out that "If you pick up the magazine and pull out just one page .*.*. It takes a whole boxcar full of paper to print that one page that one month."

And as long as the trees hold out, there is no reason to expect Better Homes & Gardens is going to be doing business any different.

"No editor will ever disturb the editorial philosophy of this magazine," Ms. LemMon predicts. "The subject areas will stay the same but the content will

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