Magazine A-List 2009

Essence Is No. 6 on Ad Age's Magazine A-List

With the 'Pulse of a Community' Firmly in Grasp, Marketers Benefit

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- To hear Essence Communications President Michelle Ebanks tell it, the Essence Music Festival was envisioned as a one-off celebration of the magazine's 25th anniversary, a "party with a purpose" to both entertain and enlighten. That said, even she's a bit amazed at how it has grown into one of the country's mega-gatherings, complete with tie-ins aplenty. To wit: In a year when consumers' travel dollars were tight, a jaw-dropping 428,000 people attended the festival over the July Fourth weekend, up from 270,000 the year before.

"We were astonished and humbled," Ms. Ebanks said. "Entertainment and inspiration -- that's what the Essence Music Festival is about."

Grow your off-the-page events into something that breathes on its own, without losing the voice that underlines them.
Michelle Ebanks
Angela Burt-Murray
The same sentiment holds true for the magazine brand that birthed it. Though ad pages are down somewhat -- Ms. Ebanks estimates it will see a 137-page drop, which would represent an 11% decline from 2008 -- Essence remains one of the preeminent vehicles through which to reach black women.

"It has the pulse of the community," said Neil Golden, chief marketing officer of McDonald's, a major sponsor of the Essence Music Festival this year, alongside CoverGirl, Ford, Pantene, U.S. Army and Walmart. "It's a proven, successful way to engage African-American consumers where they are most receptive."

Marketers as diverse as Pantene and Disney have clearly taken note. This year, the former tasked Essence's marketing team with showing how their products were relevant to women of color; the program ultimately expanded to include a model search. The "Our Disney Story" program revolved around a video series in which three families chronicled their visits to Disney World.

Some observers, in fact, think that those who label Essence as a niche title don't give it enough credit. "It's a crime to place Essence only in the African-American bucket -- which is what has happened traditionally but is changing," said George Janson, managing partner-director of print at GroupM. "I can think of few other titles that have such a high degree of loyalty and engagement across demographic groups."

1. Women's Health
2. Better Homes & Gardens
3. Family Circle
4. The Economist
5. People
6. Essence
7. The Week
8. Backpacker
9. Cosmopolitan
10. National Geographic
Ms. Ebanks cites that loyalty as one of the title's key selling points for marketers -- "when 37% of your target demographic reads you three out of four issues, that's a wonderful position to be in," she said -- but she believes that the brand's continued prominence has plenty to do with factors outside its control. "Despite the economy, [our readers] are more optimistic this year than any other segment of the population. ... They see their reflection in the White House, and they're realizing what that means for the further advancement of their careers and education. We're riding that wave of optimism."

To that end, look for Essence to continue to help educate marketers about its target audience. "There's still not enough of an understanding of how African-American women are distinct," Ms. Ebanks said, pointing to Procter & Gamble's assertion that 25% of its growth will come from black and Hispanic consumers. "It's upon us to bring those insights to the fore and help marketers bring them to the audience."

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