From magazine to ‘superbrand’: How Vogue Australia plans to combat print decline rhetoric

For a magazine, it can be hard to thrive in a world of cost cuts, reduced circulation and advertising spend. But what if a magazine can transcend its printed form and become simply a brand? Zoe Samios sits down with Vogue Australia's editor-in-chief and editorial director of Vogue, Vogue Living and GQ, Edwina McCann, to discuss what the future of the brand looks like.

Almost 60 years ago, a former shoe salesman and Jewish German refugee launched what was to become one of Australia’s most respected magazine brands.

Bernard Leser, who was asked by the then managing director of British Conde Nast, Reggie Williams, to launch the Australian edition of Vogue, could never have known what was to become of the brand.

Vogue Australia’s first edition from 1959

He probably didn’t predict the rapid and aggressive rise of digital at that time, nor could he have foreseen growth that would ultimately cause an axe to fall on numerous titles along the way.

More than 30 years later, a young woman named Edwina McCann landed her first job as a fashion assistant at that same magazine.

McCann began at Vogue as a fashion assistant, working with a team armed with a sole computer. She went on to work at The Australian and Grazia, later joining Harper’s Bazaar Australia as editor-in-chief.

It would be 20 years before McCann returned to Vogue Australia, this time at the helm of the luxury fashion title. But by that point the idea that she worked for simply a ‘magazine’ had left her, a way of thinking which she argues has helped Vogue Australia continue through the volatile digital age.

Edwina McCann has never really though of Vogue as a ‘print’ title

“I don’t think Vogue is just a magazine. It’s not. I’m going to be editor-in-chief of Vogue the brand,” she told The Australian at the time.

“I would like obviously to get print sales up but digital is very much a focus – digital is the long-term future.”

McCann has a number of different roles, depending on who you ask. She’s the editor-in-chief of Vogue Australia, editorial director of the Conde Nast titles at News Corp, chair of The Australian Ballet and the UTS Business Advisory board. Outside of work, she’s a mother as well.

But as she sits in a meeting room at News Corp’s Holt St, exhausted from a trip from Melbourne that day, her attention is solely centred on the Vogue brand.

“Vogue is a superbrand,” she says.

“You can get into any taxi or Uber and say you work at Vogue and people you know what that is.

“If you are the superbrand in your category you seem to grow and even flourish. If you are anything like what I would say – if you’re anything like and I don’t say this disparagingly but the bridesmaid brand – if you’re not quite there, still a wonderful brand but not quite the super brand, it has been harder.”

When McCann says it has been “harder”, she has a point. Job cuts, closures, and digital-only products are just some of the many consequences for those magazine brands which don’t quite have the Vogue effect.

But establishing a superbrand isn’t as straightforward as it seems. More difficult it establishing that superbrand in its local market.

One of the biggest challenges for an international brand, particularly in Australia, can be lack of autonomy, which ultimately means that brand has no distinct difference, thus failing to attract local audiences and advertisers.

Autonomy is something McCann is passionate about.

“We believe very deeply in some autonomy in different markets, which is why if you look at it in print, Paris Vogue is very different to British Vogue or Australian Vogue,” she explains.

It’s all about using a local voice for Vogue Australia

“They all have very unique aesthetics and very unique voices. And for that reason it’s had a global identity but a distinct local relationship with its readers.”

It’s a different approach others in market, which tend to focus more on global alignment, rather than a focus on engaging local audiences. The advantage, for McCann, is that autonomy allows a brand to own and create their own content.

And the idea of owning content is something Anna Wintour, Vogue’s longstanding editor-in-chief said to McCann in the pair’s first meeting.

“If we didn’t own our own content, which we can now amplify and create videos of our cover stories… if you don’t own that content then what are you. There’s a reason why you are shooting certain people at certain times,” she says.

But as with any editorial director or editor-in-chief, McCann has to deal with the negative rhetoric which surrounds print and magazines.

McCann believes Vogue has been ‘caught up’ in the negative decline story

And although the rhetoric doesn’t come from nowhere – major decline in circulation and reduced advertising spend are a fact – McCann is adamant this is not the case for Vogue.

She argues that the brand has a different advertising model to the other titles.

“My concern, and it really saddens me, is that especially with the with media buyers there’s this overall negative story that we get swept up in. I worry that we cease to be front of mind not necessarily for our luxury partners with whom we’ve been in business since we’ve started, but certainly with some media strategists and buyers who aren’t saying to them ‘oh you should be considering this brand’, because they think of it in very simplistic terms as a magazine brand’.

“If we grow subscribers even if the yield isn’t as good on a subscriber sale as a newsagent sale, they’re really one in the same thing,” she says. “It’s just retraining an audience who stopped visiting places where they used to buy magazine, that they can now get this magazine at home.”

Since her return to Vogue Australia, McCann has pushed for a focus on Vogue the brand, not Vogue the magazine, or the digital product, or the video channel.

For McCann, providing different content to different platforms to meet the needs of the title’s broad audience is key to the survival of a brand.

Vogue Australia’s September edition, featuring Kylie Jenner, was reprinted

“There is this just this overall view in this company [News Corp] that it is about a brand,” she says.

“There is an understanding that there are all these different ways that you can talk to consumers and readers and just because you create content for a print magazine doesn’t mean that it won’t be utilized in a digital way.

“It’s actually a responsibility to make sure that this brand has a very sustainable future and I think ultimately that’s been the motivation for me all along,” she says.

In Vogue’s case, cross-platform content has also been of benefit given the title’s ‘intergenerational audience’.

Vogue Australia has a different audience to others: preferring to focus on both the 13-year-old and the 65-year-old. With that comes challenges, but as McCann explored recently, it is important for the brand to explore the interests of all readers.

The September issue of Vogue Australia was one of the magazine’s highest circulating print editions. On the front, sat the youngest of the Kardashian clan, Kylie Jenner.

“In print I always think about my woman in the Toorak news-agency or the Mosman supermarket and say what’s in this for her. I feel like if within three covers there hasn’t been one for her we risk ostracising her.”

“We know the talent that appeals to her and works for her and they tend to be people who don’t do as much in terms of the social media activity. So we try to do that every two or three issues. It’s a rare thing for a brand to be able to achieve.”

But what does a sustainable future look like for Vogue? Does it involve McCann being the forefront of the brand?

“I hope not because my view was always if this brand – whilst you know it’s very nice that people ask you to come and speak and I don’t take for granted – I would hate to think that if I fell over tomorrow under a bus that the brand wouldn’t go on,” she says.

“I do try to set up the brand so it isn’t about me, it’s never been about my profile, my social media, or anything like that. It actually has to be what’s in the best interests of the brand and really to be a successful editor I believe in this day and age you have to have a holistic view of your brand and you have to be a business person.”

For McCann, who expressed her passion for business as well as editing, the future is in diversifying streams and building out a subscription offering.

“We have now a package subscription and our news website, and I imagine it will always be a hybrid. Our subscriber and certainly the Vogue reader is showing no signs of not loving a print product anymore,” she says.

“Our yield is very healthy in print. Sales are very healthy. Our subscribers are very healthy and they’re renewing and growing. And I think that’s because it is that entry point luxury good. It’s a different proposition to even a newspaper or newsprint or a weekly magazine that’s disposable. It’s almost like a coffee table book or something people collect.

“So we actually built on that idea at the subscriber, the woman in the country originally, who was had sophisticated tastes and wanted a window to that to the world. And today that’s exactly where I feel our future lies.”


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