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Coronavirus Is Rewiring the Symbiotic Relationship Between Brands and Media

Plunging marketing budgets are disrupting the traditional value exchange between fashion brands and the magazines that cover them — with both sides wondering if the fear of missing out on editorial coverage can still drive hefty ad investments in an increasingly digital world.
Bernard Arnault and Anna Wintour at Paris Fashion Week in October 2016 | Source: Getty Images
By
  • Robert Williams

PARIS, France — Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, deep cuts to marketing budgets have disrupted the traditional value exchange between fashion brands and magazines, whereby buying advertisements typically helped secure visibility in editorial shoots.

The change has become most glaring during fashion month. In past seasons, editors used to generate a frenzy of coverage for advertisers: posting on social media from the front-row at runways in New York, London, Milan and Paris and cranking out show reviews that often struggled to generate reader interest outside the industry. Now, travel restrictions and budget cuts have grounded most fashion editors in their home markets, while the likes of Prada and Dior are not just reducing but also recalibrating their marketing budgets, and increasingly acting like media brands themselves.

This season, brands are not just live-streaming their shows from every angle, but also creating short films and pushing into what had been squarely the territory of journalists, staging their own backstage interviews, for example. For their debut show as co-creative directors of Prada last Thursday, Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons scrapped the traditional press conference format in lieu of a carefully orchestrated Q&A, answering pre-vetted questions from their digital fandom.

Raf Simons in conversation with Miuccia Prada after the Prada Spring/Summer 2021 show in Milan | Source: Courtesy

To be sure, as brands try to revive their businesses post-Covid lockdowns, they're even hungrier for media coverage than before — but the fashion press now has to compete for marketing dollars with the likes of WeChat, TikTok, Instagram and a bevvy of influencers who post on each platform. Then, there is the growing importance of a brand’s own channels, as labels not only aim to keep consumers engaged but also to funnel them towards making purchases from their e-commerce stores, which took on greater importance in recent months.

It’s hard for anyone to decide which shifts are one-off adaptations and which ones are here to stay. But the notion that the fashion media system might return to its old model, with brands paying tens of thousands of dollars for an advertisement and crossing their fingers to be rewarded with meaningful editorial placements, seems increasingly farfetched.

Katie Grand's new project, called The Perfect Magazine, isn't so much a magazine in the traditional sense as a "brand content agency," the founding editor of British glossy LOVE and prominent stylist for Miu Miu and Marc Jacobs says. The new venture is structured around one-to-one partnerships that channel her team's creative talent towards brands' specific needs.

Branded content is hardly a novel product for glossy magazine editors, as major fashion publishers including Condé Nast and Hearst have launched consulting arms and boosted “advertorial” content in recent years. But the fact that Grand, a star editor, is making pay-for-play coverage her explicit focus — eschewing the traditional (if, at times, performative) “church and state” division between advertisements and editorial content — says a lot about the shifting state of fashion media in 2020.

"It used to be during fashion week you'd do appointments and hustle for your double-page spread. You'd say, we're going to do this beautiful magazine, would you buy an ad? Now, every brand requires their own conversation, they want something tailor-made," said Grand, speaking by phone during a break from styling a promotional film for the Italian luxury label Tod's.

With brands needing more content as well as honing its narrative quality, they're both ramping up in-house creation and turning to marketing agencies. Fashion media are racing to secure their piece of the pie.

"All of these things were happening slowly. And now, well, we’re in it. Everything's up for grabs," Grand said.

Spending on print advertising, still a major source of revenue for fashion magazines despite the consumer migration to digital, fell 32.2 percent from January to August compared to the same period last year, according to media monitoring service DMR Group, which expects the drop to worsen to around 50 percent for the full-year (their data tracks both advertising spending and editorial coverage in 46 major media markets).

What’s more, with marketing budgets under pressure across channels this year, and with platforms like Instagram taking a bigger piece of the pie, the shift to more digital advertising is unlikely to plug the gap for fashion media.

Faced with collapsing revenue, magazines are either closing shop or downshifting their operations at dizzying speeds. Whether it's Elle Italy moving from a weekly to a bi-weekly cadence, W suspending operations for several months and Vogue printing fewer issues in the US, or Grazia ceasing print in France (like Elle in India, or Harper's Bazaar in Australia), it's a brutal moment for fashion media.

[embed]https://www.instagram.com/p/CFpWD2XAMUp/[/embed]

"The magazine industry hasn't exactly been a pillar of stability. Now it's just that much more precarious," said Nick Haramis, editor-in-chief of Interview. After cancelling its summer print issue and shifting to online coverage through the summer months, Interview came back with what it calls a "healthy, if thinner" September issue.

But the way forward remains uncertain, and editors and publishers aren’t the only ones worried. Seeing their products enshrined in the rarefied context of fashion editorials is still precious to many fashion executives, and hosting editors who post and publish about their collections is still key to amplifying a brand’s message during fashion week, a critical marketing moment.

Advertisers have been on tenterhooks to see how coverage will evolve, wondering if magazines will stop covering their products after budget cuts — or double-down on favourable editorial in a bid to win back their business.

At present, there is certainly less coverage being generated: editorial pages are down 20 percent, according to DMR Group.

And even after months of cancelled award shows, film festivals, and parties left fashion media starved for content, Paris Fashion Week's online men's and couture editions in July garnered 30 percent less attention on social media and in the news than last year, fashion data consultancy Launchmetrics said — in part due to a dip in editorial coverage from fashion magazines.

Looking ahead, editors, CMOs and analysts said that they expect more titles to close. For those that remain in business, frequent travel for covering fashion events around the world is unlikely to bounce back completely — or would more often require big advertisers to foot the bill. And other cost-saving strategies, including publishers finding synergies among the various international editions of a magazine, are expected to gain momentum.

In future seasons, Vogue plans to consolidate its runway coverage, publishing just one review for each collection, which will be translated and syndicated to its titles around the world, and lead Global Director of Global Vogue Runway Nicole Phelps in New York. Fewer reviews means less required from the fashion critics currently on the payroll at Vogue's many editions, who may have to find other ways to justify their budgets for attending shows, and possibly their positions more broadly. (If those editors had already been competing with influencers, since coronavirus the call has been coming from inside the house: Vogue Italia tapped German influencer Xenia Adonts to post videos from this week's Paris fashion shows. This summer, Vogue Paris's video about Dior's haute couture collection presented by influencer Lena Mahfouf garnered a buzz on social media that Launchmetrics valued at $311,000.)

There have also been some highly visible signs that the content mix itself is changing — with implications for which brands are being covered and why.

The September 2020 issue of American Vogue, illustrated by Jordan Casteel
| Source: @voguemagazine

In September, following months of social justice protests and a national reckoning over entrenched racism, US Vogue's coveted September covers did not feature glossy shots of celebrities wearing big advertisers but paintings of looks by Black designers Virgil Abloh and Kerby Jean-Raymond (the designer and founder of Pyer Moss.) In previous years, Vogue's September cover had gone to Taylor Swift in a Louis Vuitton jumpsuit, or Beyoncé in a Gucci dress. Meanwhile, the title's new web series "Good Morning Vogue"— which positions itself as "fashion's wake up call" and is sponsored not by a luxury fashion advertiser, but by Samsung and Volvo — aired an interview with Jean-Raymond, who asserted that "fashion embodies everything that's wrong about capitalism."

But whether or not attempts by fashion media to “meet the moment” signal a deeper or longer-term shift is less clear. For now, there’s evidence to suggest that gestures to include previously snubbed designers and connect with readers over zeitgeisty topics like racism and the climate crisis haven't changed the shape of fashion coverage on the whole. DMR said that on the whole, the share of editorial placements going to big advertiser brands has been stable so far, with no dramatic changes to which brands are most represented.

In fact, rather than snubbing their former advertisers in response to budget cuts (or to refocus coverage on serving readers,) the internal directive at some fashion publishers seems to have been to support the big brands wherever and however they can.

“The magazines and big luxury labels have been in business together for 20 years or more. These brands are backed by very strong families who will invest in relaunching,” said Enzo di Sarli, DMR Group’s founder. The share of coverage going to big luxury labels will more likely increase, if anything, to the detriment of small and medium-sized brands who may have never bought print ads and which are now being forced to cut their online marketing budgets, Di Sarli added. “You're going to concentrate your energy where there is the money.”

That strategy could backfire, though, as publishers will struggle to get advertising budgets back on track once brands know they can count on editorial support while spending much less.

Then, there’s brands’ growing focus on their own media channels. Over the summer, the importance of these channels surged, driving about 50 percent of brand media impact versus around 20 percent during previous fashion weeks, fashion data consultancy Launchmetrics said. While brands may miss the amplification effect that came from media covering their events, they’re also getting better at telling their stories directly.

This autumn, eager to return to some sort of normalcy, fashion publications are looking for ways to cover fashion week despite mostly not being able to travel to the shows. But for brands, producing slick content they can broadcast themselves is the priority.

“Brands are becoming media themselves,” Launchmetrics Chief Executive Michael Jais said. While “earned” media from third parties talking about your brand used to be the holy grail, consumers have warmed up to watching content directly from brands. “Digital audiences don’t care anymore who owns the content or who paid for it. They just want to feel stimulated and not interrupted.”

Going forward, fashion media will need to find new ways to monetise their storytelling skills, their brands and their audiences (even if that audience is now smaller than what brands can attract themselves: Gucci, for example, has 41 million Instagram followers, more than American Vogue's 28.7 million).

Rather than getting back to their old pace of buying paper spreads, brands are likely to partner on content that can run on their own accounts as well as via the traditional media. To promote Louis Vuitton's menswear show in July, GQ China took over the brand's Weibo feed to facilitate coverage of the live-streamed show, posting celebrity endorsements, co-branded editorial shoots, and commentary throughout the day. This kind of integrated approach feeds brands' own channels and drives customers to their e-commerce stores, while the single-brand focus makes it easier to measure return on investment: any "likes" on such a post can clearly be counted as publicity for the client, and they can pay to promote the media title's posts as well without also giving free buzz to a competitor. (Traditional editorial placements, which usually mix and match products from various designers, offer the more fuzzy reward of the right "context," positioning a brand within a high-end universe of its supposed peers).

"We've long realised that partnering on branded projects and custom publishing were more likely to sustain us than a single ad page," Interview's Haramis said. The magazine has already been doing more and more single-brand projects, updating and reprinting a 1983 issue for the opening of Gucci's Wooster store in Soho, or hosting Studio 54-themed party and posting related online editorial for Michael Kors.

Magazines might also try to beef up partnerships with advertisers from outside the fashion and beauty industry. In the "Good Morning Vogue" series, presenter Paloma Elsesser (a model and influencer) delivers monologues standing in front of a Volvo on the street and is "interrupted" by receiving calls on her Samsung flip phone.

As to whether moments like Vogue's Pyer Moss cover will continue, or whether lost ad revenues could "free" fashion media to take more critical stances and show new, different, or more affordable clothes, editors are more sceptical.

“The cover credit still carries a lot of currency with advertisers. As exciting as it is to support an emerging designer, and it is, who wears what on the cover is obviously not decided without considering the business,” Haramis said.

With fewer major titles producing fewer print issues, “everyone’s going to be vying for what’s left” in editorial placements, Katie Grand said. “Advertisers aren’t going to just let that go.”

Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 30 September 2020 at 8:45 BST to correct spelling of Enzo di Sarli’s name. This article was also updated on 2 October 2020 at 19:00 BST. A previous version of this article said Vogue's runway coverage will be lead by the American team in New York. The coverage will be lead by Global Director of Global Vogue Runway Nicole Phelps in New York.

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