'This Old House' shows way to build brand foundation

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There's something just wrong when a guy who lives in an apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side weighs in on the restoration of 1850s farmhouses in Massachusetts. But although this column focuses on "This Old House," it's actually about brand philosophy. A philosophy that, properly executed, serves as an exemplary business model for magazine publishers (or any brand stewards) interested in innovation, product extension and a diversified revenue mix.

Newer shelter shows such as "Trading Spaces" have grabbed headlines in the last year. But "This Old House," while the granddaddy of the genre at 25 years old, is far from a faded franchise. It's a multimedia, multi-revenue-stream brand powerhouse that's still growing.

Much of the credit goes to Eric Thorkilsen, an unassuming executive who first developed his media-brand vision as the launch publisher of Martha Stewart Living (no, he doesn't want to talk about her current situation, thanks for asking). The first time Eric sat down with me to talk about that magazine, he drew a circle with spokes coming out of it. But instead of putting the magazine at the center and its line extensions on the outside, he placed the brand concept in the middle. The magazine was just one of the spokes, along with TV shows, books, videos and other expressions of the brand.

A simple concept, but a relatively radical one in the early `90s. It's a model that still works today, perhaps even better given marketers' focus on integration, media neutrality and consumer touch points. But it hasn't been successfully replicated in too many places.

In 1995, Time Inc. asked Thorkilsen to launch This Old House magazine, having licensed the name of the popular PBS TV series. It took six years, but Thorkilsen convinced his parent company to acquire the TV shows, library and trademark from WGBH, Boston, in 2001. Again, he drew the wheel. The TV show, like the magazine, became a spoke. "It's just one of the distribution mechanisms to bring the brand to people," said Thorkilsen, now president of This Old House Ventures.

Thorkilsen, who cringes at being "lumped in" with newer home-improvement programs, particularly reality shows, says marketers would rather spend their money with established, substantive brands. He believes the multimedia model gives "This Old House" another competitive advantage. While he won't discuss financials beyond saying that the group is profitable, an educated guess pegs annual revenue at between $60 million and $80 million.

A quick rundown of his group. There are now four first-run TV shows: "This Old House" and "Ask This Old House" on PBS; "Inside This Old House" on A&E; and a weekly interior design series called "Find" on PBS. After the PBS runs, the shows move to a cable window and then on to domestic and international syndication, giving them slots all along the dial.

There's the magazine, published 10 times a year, with a dual audience and a rate base of 950,000. There are special-interest publications. Custom magazines. Branded books. A Web site. A live tour about to hit Home Depot parking lots. There will soon be DVDs and videos. And there's a new foray into licensed merchandise that starts with high-end paint and will expand to tools. Almost every brand extension includes an opportunity for sponsors such as Andersen Windows, GMC and State Farm to ride along.

"It's all about brands," said Thorkilsen. In the current economic recovery, which seems at times to be bypassing print, he noted that "the money is gravitating towards the strongest brands and the strongest audience connections."

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