Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Rodale: When Organic Wants to Become a Noun

I keep an eye on Rodale out of both interest and fondness.  I got my start in publishing at Rodale and remain grateful for the generous publishing tutorials provided by ex-President Bob Teufel and other executives.  This newly minted PhD had a lot to learn about the media business.

When the late Chairman Bob Rodale interviewed me for a position, he asked me what I thought about the company’s magazines.  I said from what I had seen of Prevention and Organic Gardening, they looked a little scruffy.  He laughed and hired me anyway.  I would soon learn how powerful and profitable these two scruffy magazines were.

The 1980s and 1990s were a dizzying time for Rodale in terms of acquisitions and startups including Runner’s World, The Runner, Bicycling, Cross Country Skiing, Men’s Health and Backpacker, some no longer in the fold.  These initiatives substantially enlarged Rodale’s demographic and editorial base, bringing young men and upscale advertisers to a company that had been largely down-market. 

Rodale had just announced the launch of Organic Life, which would subsume Organic Gardening where I spent a few pleasurable years trying to find the right positioning for a back-to-the land, largely mail-order magazine that was losing some of its luster and margin.  Rodale has long wanted to define “organic” as both a marketing and an editorial category, one that could attract a substantial advertising base.

In the early 1990s, Rodale, with help from Martha Stewart as a consultant, took Organic Gardening from digest-size to a full-size magazine, at the same time expanding the editorial base from gardening to cooking and décor.  This was a major and expensive undertaking by a company that had long enjoyed the financial befits of digest-size magazines.  Neither the company nor the market was then ready for this kind of repositioning.  The magazine remained full-size but settled into a predictable how-to editorial offering.    

Rodale hasn’t always been lucky combining core company values with the vicissitudes of the marketplace. The company launched Spring, the Magazine of High Energy Living, in 1983 without fully thinking through its advertising policy which rejected cosmetics that were made with chemicals.  That was not the message Madison Avenue wanted to hear.  Spring was shut down in less than a year.

The company tried again in 2001 with Organic Style to push the definition of organic to include designer dresses, European makeup, and other upmarket offerings, but the magazine was closed in 2005.  The timing was bad, the editorial was not compelling and the market has apparently not yet ready to embraces “organic” as an advertising and marketing category--in other words, as a noun.

But the third time or so might be the charm.  Organic Life, with the existing Organic Gardening as its base property, will be launched in 2015 into the so-called healthy living category that includes Hearst’s Dr. Oz The Good Life and Naturally, Danny Seo, a joint venture with Harris publications.  Rodale has hired James Oseland, a well-regarded editor from Saveur, to run the show.

Both the Hearst and the Harris titles are selling briskly on the newsstand, a good indicator of the vitality of a new title.  These magazines have an advantage in that Dr. Oz and Danny Seo are well-known and are celebrities in their own right with multiple platforms available to promote their titles.  Rodale possesses the same assets.  Perhaps a strategic question is whether the management is willing to let the new editor become a celebrity of sorts to compete in this very personalized space.  The company wasn’t pleased when the editor at Men’s Health assumed an oversized role.

Perhaps even more important is that Rodale doesn’t try to too narrowly define “organic” as it has done in the past.  The word has entered the marketplace as both lifestyle and slogan.  On the practical level, there is no evidence that organic food is necessarily better for you, but there seems a growing interest in organic, holistic living and health.  Editor Oseland promises a magazine that is community and a “clearinghouse of beautiful, authoritative information that will weave together food, shelter, gardening and good living.”

I wish Oseland every success, although I have seen this memo before.  Rodale’s other entries in the category covered similar terrain.  The key will be in the tone and the editorial voice; it will be all in the weaving. 

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