Magazine A-List 2007

Reinvented Better Homes Sates Idea-Hungry Readers

Homing In: New Team Figures Out How to Serve a Massive Base Across Platforms: 'Talk About the Brand Vs. Just the Magazine,' With Advertisers Involved From Start

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- If you're a 20-something media buyer renting a place in Manhattan, the odds are decent that you don't spend much time thinking about, say, Better Homes and Gardens. For one thing, most of you don't live in big homes with cultivated gardens.
Photo: Darryl Estrine

Gayle Goodson Butler, Andy Sareyan and Jan Studin (seated).

Magazines: The A-List
Full Coverage from the Special Report

The thing is, you aren't far from the spot in which the magazine's own top staffers found themselves last year. Time Inc. veteran Andy Sareyan was named Better Homes' president in February 2006 -- and was essentially a blank slate on the magazine. "All I knew about Better Homes was that it was big," he says.

Jan Studin, who'd been publisher at Parents, was brought over as VP-publisher a month later. At least the new editor in chief as of July 2006, Gayle Goodson Butler, had a real background with the brand after many years as executive editor at Better Homes and Gardens Special Interest Publications.

But the trio still wasn't sure how to meet its charge: to grow a magazine already in its 80s, already very widely circulated and concerned with content perhaps out of sync with a digital dawn or high-design age. Dwell magazine it wasn't; it couldn't be Blueprint or Domino either. Could they really reinvigorate Better Homes' ink-on-paper personality, reapply its brand to an online-video world and make the other moves necessary to do more than survive in this environment?

From scratch
As it turns out in 2007, the answer is a surprising "yes." But to get there, the team just started out basic -- really basic.

"We asked a lot of fundamental, hard questions," Mr. Sareyan recalls, "about 'Why is it so big?'"

Better Homes readers, it turned out, were interested in a constant replenishment of ideas, Ms. Butler says. "It's not only about the results but also about the joy [the reader] has, how much she enjoys accomplishing things in her home. Based on that, everything we did was to fuel her creativity, surround her with ideas, give her the direction to accomplish what she set out to accomplish."
PUBLISHER: Meredith Corp.
WHY IT WON: Consumers and advertisers are embracing the Better Homes brand strategy on a huge level.

The changes came almost as soon as the calendar turned. With its February 2007 issue, Better Homes introduced a redesign that added architecture to help readers find the content they want, more white space to rest the eye, better separation between advertising and editorial, new typography, shorter articles, and a new emphasis on the designers and personalities that contribute to its pages.

The results have been gratifying, not least among the magazine's owners at Meredith Corp. Newsstand sales, perhaps the best measure of a title's vitality in the short term, shot up 35.5% from the first half of 2006, before the redesign, to the first half of 2007, according to figures filed with the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

"We are unbelievably excited about what's going on around here," Mr. Sareyan says, sounding more credible than the usual crowd of magazine executives claiming excitement. "We have taken an 85-year-old brand and made it as exciting and vibrant and fresh as any brand out there today -- and not just as a magazine."

Lot to work with
More on its life beyond the page in a moment. We're not even done with Better Homes' success in print. Its total average paid and verified circulation increased 0.8% to 7. 7 million, for example, during the first half of 2007. Excluding the association powerhouse AARP the Magazine and titles such as Parade, distributed inside newspapers, only Reader's Digest has bigger circulation. Better Homes has a rate base of 7.6 million.

Pushing the needle up at all is a feat when the base numbers are so huge. Maxim, which guarantees paid and verified circulation of 2.5 million, slipped 0.4% in total circulation in first-half 2007. People, which guarantees 3.45 million, lost 2.2% in total circulation during that period. National Geographic, with a rate base of 5 million, just missed coming in flat -- down 0.2%. With a guaranteed paid and verified circulation of 10 million, Reader's Digest reported 0.5% lower total circulation in the first half. The print Better Homes also has expanded its advertising in ways many much younger books should envy. Ad pages from January through October 2007 increased 5.1% to 1,669.2, according to Media Industry Newsletter, reversing an unhappy 8.2% slide for full-year 2006.

"In the case of Better Homes and Gardens, I think age is irrelevant," says Scott Daly, exec VP-executive media director at Dentsu America. "The print product is as strong as ever. Check out the 310-page November issue. Second-half revenues are up 10%, which is pretty remarkable given the doom and gloom that is frequently heaped on the print industry."

Mr. Daly allowed, however, that the brand's work is hardly done.

"On the online front, has a ways to go before becoming the 800-pound-gorilla brand that it is in print," he says. "It has a long way to go before coming close to Better Homes and Gardens' 38 million print audience."

Extreme website makeover got its own total makeover in the spring. That helped drive the number of unique visitors to 3.6 million in August from 3.2 million in March, according to ComScore Media Metrix. The real test comes with this year's Halloween, Thanksgiving and winter holidays, when the site will be expected to beat traffic of 5.7 million unique visitors in October 2006, 4.4 million last November and nearly 4.9 million last December.

Around the same time, the brand also introduced the broadband network, a video site organized into 20 channels of original content and programming based on material from Better Homes and other Meredith properties such as TV stations and books. Although the site still doesn't get enough traffic to meet ComScore's minimum for reliable measurement, it's helped broaden the Better Homes platform in the minds of marketers.

"For the first time ever in our interactions with clients and agencies, we're really talking about the brand vs. just the magazine and how consumers are opting into the brand everywhere," says Associate Publisher Carey Witmer.

And outside the universe of mass media, Mr. Sareyan and Realogy Corp. on Oct. 8 announced a long-term deal to create Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate, which starting next year will sell houses across the country -- primarily outside the narrow confines of media buyers' Manhattan.

'Secure, important place'
Amid these advances, Better Homes keeps occupying a secure, important place in American media, says Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys.

"It resonates with a large swath of values that continue to pop up as being important year after year," he says. "Trends come and go and things like that, but the fact is that they have had a very stable brand."

The Better Homes team has worked carefully to establish the branded realty service and other extensions, Mr. Passikoff adds. "They've just been consistent in what they've done and how they've managed the brand -- and that's what's important."
Most Popular