Samir Husni is not called Mr. Magazine for nothing. He’s the only person I know who would notice that an issue of Ladies Home Journal selling at Walmart has a different cover than the same magazine selling everywhere else. And he thinks the practice is wrong.
“I do not think that when you have mass circulation magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal it is fair to treat the Wal-Mart chain differently than the rest of the retailers, and to add salt to injury, confuse the readers. I think it is about time for our magazine publishers to start treating all their customers the same. It should make no difference whether I buy my magazine from Wal-Mart, Kroger or Seven-Eleven I should at least get the same coverâ€¦if you want to give me a bonus for purchasing at a specific store, that is fine. However changing the magazine to cater to a specific store is where I draw the line.”
However, on this rare occasion, I’m going to disagree with Professor Husni. I see nothing deceptive or unfair, or even salty, about this. Indeed, many mass-circulated magazines are filled with selectively bound — even custom printed — content so that the version of, say, Southern Living someone receives in Nashville is different than what one receives in Birmingham — indeed, with Southern Living, I suspect the versions readers receive in different neighborhoods of Nashville contain different content. And I’m not just referring to the advertising, but to the editorial content. Even at Hammock, we produce single issues of magazines with 50 or more editorial versions — and if there were a reason to justify the cost, I would encourage clients to offer 50 different covers. (However, I don’t think I’d suggest they do what Reason magazine did last year to demonstrate just how far one can take this personalization/customization thing.)
As Samir has written about over the years, split-run covers (two or more covers of the same issue of a magazine) have become a common merchandising practice: For example, leading up to the 2004 election, Ladies Home Journal ran two cover versions of the same issue, one with the Kerrys and the other with the Bushes.
Frankly, the versioning of magazines is one way magazines can utilize quickly changing printing technology to compete with other forms of media, and that’s a good thing. That it would be used to help sell a magazine in one retail environment vs. another retail environment seems not only logical, but compellingly brilliant, to me.
If Walmart can share its retail sales data with a publisher to help the publisher better sell their magazine in Wal-mart stores — a retail channel responsible for 15% of all magazine newsstand sales* — then that is a good thing for the publisher, the retailer and the reader.
Sidenote: Marketers often sell the same product using multiple labels. Automobile companies certainly do. Even Excedrine Extra Strength and Excedrine Migrane are just different names for the same product.
*Source: BusinessWeek, October 6, 2003. It’s probably a bigger percentage now.