Brand Health Check: OK!

All celebrity magazines are losing readers, but none more so than OK! magazine.

When Hello! publisher Charlotte Stockting said last week that it was 'wonderful to see OK! doing so badly for once', there was more than a touch of gloating in her comment.

Stockting was quick to highlight that the Northern & Shell magazine, which had a cover price of £2.60 last year, could now be bought for 49p when using the vouchers given out by stablemate newspapers. She described it as a 'Harvard Review marketing disaster - how not to develop your brand'.

The predictably scathing words of an arch-rival aside, the numbers speak for themselves. OK! has suffered the worst circulation decline in the sector, with a year-on-year slump of 23% to 450,946 copies, according to the latest ABCs.

As a member of Richard Desmond's media stable, the magazine could well benefit from the brand's extension onto Channel 5 in the form of OK! TV. Last week's debut programme pulled in 449,000 viewers - up 60% on Zoo Days, which occupied the same slot in the previous week, but a far cry from the million-plus viewers who tuned in to watch Home & Away just beforehand.

However, with Denise Van Outen pulling out as lead presenter just days before the show aired, is the OK! brand destined for more trouble ahead?

We asked Mark Jones, editorial director of customer publisher Cedar, which produces magazines for  Tesco among others, and Jenny Biggam, founding partner of media agency the7stars, which works with publishers and lifestyle brands.

MARK JONES, editorial director, Cedar

A US author has just published a 224-page book about the history of the word 'OK'. The history of OK! magazine could be done more succinctly - perhaps in the style of one of its own celebrity marriage break-up stories.

'OK! magazine is sad to announce it has officially separated from its readers. They met in the mid-90s. OK! was glamorous yet accessible - a breath of fresh air after all those minor European aristos in Hello!

'In the next decade, OK! branched out into wedding photography - and made millions. But today, despite numerous facelifts, the old allure has gone. Sources close to the readers say OK! has become obsessed with Z-list TV stars. It has tried to put a spark back into the relationship, experimenting with threesomes - polybagging with Star and New!

'"It just feels a bit cheap and desperate," said the readers, regretfully.'

However, we shouldn't write OK!'s obituary too soon - unlike the magazine itself, which did just that to Jade Goody, while the poor woman was still alive.

The fault is not just on one side; readers are notoriously promiscuous. But the steadier charms of Hello! are holding its circulation together, while OK! chases the celeb weeklies into the gutter. They might be gazing at the stars, but things get pretty mucky down there.

Remedy

- Research Generation Y to death and find out what readers' daughters want. Work out how their attitudes to celebrity are changing.

- A GSOH is important. As attitudes to celebrity culture change and become more irreverent, move with them.

- If you have to get into threesomes, at least choose classier partners. How about Prospect and New Scientist?

JENNY BIGGAM, founding partner, the7stars

Even in a poorly performing sector, OK!'s 23% circulation drop stands out.

It seems to have lost its way.

Some of its failings can be ascribed to a trend across the sector, with readers getting their celeb stories and gossip online. Why buy a magazine when you can follow your favourite celebrity in person on Twitter?

OK! relies on big exclusives, babies and weddings, but there haven't been many of these in the past few months. And by big, I mean big names, not five-page spreads on Big Brother contestants.

In some ways, it's a seasonal thing and the summer could be better. The title is already selling Royal Wedding ad packages, though this event will boost the sector as a whole and may well be more beneficial for OK!'s slightly more aspirational competitor, Hello!

OK!'s circulation is now comparable to that of Stylist, a magazine that is growing and with a guaranteed readership, albeit with a free model. Moreover, with OK!'s strict sales rules, advertisers could be tempted to look elsewhere.

OK! needs to improve its online offer and use that to drive loyalty. Also, if readers want big-name exclusives, then OK! needs to work harder to get them.

Remedy

- Offer readers something they can't get online - negotiate the big exclusives and retain image rights.

- Develop an online offering that supports loyalty - perhaps exclusive access via a code for mag readers.

- Continue to diversify beyond OK! TV and the My OK! Wedding site and app. The main app needs more investment - it is slow and tends to crash.

- Or consider the nuclear option and become the first magazine in the sector to go free.

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