FEATURE 

Covers: Four trends and a truth

Covers still count! Even in this age of declining print sales, a great cover can still drive sales and, when picked up by social media, can create unstoppable momentum for an issue – just ask Vanity Fair. Andy Cowles looks at trends in cover design.

By Andy Cowles

Thanks very much for glancing through this article. I trust that you’re also looking at your phone, talking to the kids or eating a packet of crisps. I’m looking for maximum distraction as I recreate the conditions of the magazine cover marketplace.

Unlike any other media, bar perhaps radio, a magazine cover can cut through the noise and distraction of everyday life. In short, it can create impact, both online and off.

In an age when digital is everything, we are still fascinated, obsessed even, by a cover. They are real world events; they get talked about, shared, and the best of them are never forgotten.

Along with rock music and photography, a magazine cover is a legitimate 20th century art form. For the first time, an individual could declare their identity, claim allegiance to specific beliefs and connect with like-minded souls just by being seen with a magazine cover.

A cover is a complex thing; it’s got to communicate a tremendous amount in the shortest space of time. It needs to be coherent, concrete and as easy to understand as a poster in all manner of circumstances.

It has to remain entirely consistent, but unlike retail packaging, it also has to constantly change, to always refresh itself, to be both timeless and completely in the moment.

That’s why making truly great covers is so hard, particularly now, when mere ‘content’ is no longer enough. Today, a cover needs to address three key areas:

* Identity: Do we see ourselves in the brand?

* Trust: Can we believe the promises this cover is making to us?

* Engagement: Are we willing to go past the cover and look at what lies beneath?

Identity is critical, as here is the mouth of the sales funnel. It’s this search for who we are, or might want to be, that’s fueling current cover trends.

Trend one: Courting Controversy

Actually, this is hardly new. Possibly the greatest magazine cover of all time features Muhammad Ali, a Muslim, being persecuted for his religion, but replicating the pose of San Sebastian, a Christian martyr. Controv-ers-ial!

Last year’s most controversial cover was, of course, Vanity Fair’s Caitlyn blockbuster. Taken by Annie Liebowitz, the picture is uncannily similar to the Esquire cover. Caitlyn may not be actively persecuted for her life choices, but she certainly represents a whole bunch of people who are.

The cover was the best selling in five years, 432k on newsstand, double the average. But more notable is the vast amount of online attention it generated.

The cover shoot video alone generated 13m views, with comments surging to over 100k. On the website, the story did 9m unique users in the first 24 hours and 24m for the month.

Elsewhere, the story was such an event that People, the world’s biggest magazine, featured a cover mini on its own splash, the first time I have ever seen one title’s cover reproduce the logo of another. Down in South Carolina, someone chose to have the entire cover tattooed up his or her leg, whilst Chelsea Manning was threatened with solitary confinement for merely having a copy.

But the brilliance behind this story is that it’s all bang on brand. This is what Vanity Fair is all about; world class Hollywood access.

Controversial covers have to align with your brand DNA; otherwise the gesture can become empty. UK’s Women’s Running got it right with their recent plus size cover girl, but only because the main coverline backed up the promise: ‘Get fit, strong and confident whatever your shape or size’.

Trend two: A Desire For Intimacy

In a world where we’re closer to everyone than ever before, yet emotionally, more distant, magazine covers are subconsciously striving to create intimacy.

This has been seen in the tremendous growth of the independent sector; short run titles produced to uncompromising editorial agendas designed to appeal to highly niched audiences. The downside can be irrelevancy, but the upsides are often vibrant covers that proclaim the reader’s independence and point of view. Mushpit is a fine example; you can buy the latest copy in the newly opened magCulture shop, a real life newsagent devoted exclusively to independent titles.

Mainstream titles have long attempted to create this sense of one-on-one intimacy with special subscriber covers attempting to reassure the reader that they are special.

Handwriting is appearing on covers everywhere; much like selling craft beer or artisanal bread, this technique creates that oh-so-authentic appeal to their otherwise run-of-the-mill offerings.

However, none of this matters if your market is just looking at their phone, which is why titles from Metal Hammer to the New Yorker are all making animated gifs out of their covers to encourage social sharing.

On a recent project for Motor Cycle News, I proposed the hashtag #mcntuesday with nothing but images of the printed newspaper, to encourage the fetishistic appeal of ink on paper to an audience that really does like that stuff.

Trend three: Pressure On Distribution

A newsagent is a terrible way to distribute magazines. It’s chaotic, you can’t control the presentation and the shelf space is declining all the time. But subscriptions aside, it’s what we’ve got, so the challenge is how to get maximum cut-through without smashing great big yellow panels all over the cover. Because that’s a trend, and with good reason.

Due to yellow’s unique properties of high colour and low tonal values, combined with black, it’s an excellent way of getting visibility to your marketing messages. Just take a look inside a Sports Direct store for evidence of that. The downside is that when everyone is using the same technique, everything feels oversold, and all the titles look the same. More than that, they can all look cheap.

This is why colour control is absolutely the number one way of both creating cut-through and keeping your brand intact.

Trend four: Owning The Story

Content alone is rarely enough for a title to set the agenda. A cover needs to be an event, one of a kind. The window of attention is so small, it needs to create a drop-everything, must-pick-it-up sense of urgency. Even more so with a subs cover, as readers can be inclined to ‘look at that later’. And as we all know, later never comes.

Social media can add real value in both creating and amplifying a sense of cover urgency. Kerrang’s editor James McMahon is good at this, using his 40k follows to both crowd-source cover ideas as well as set up tension between split run covers, which are themselves a burgeoning trend.

Interview magazine’s split run selfie special featured Kim Kardashian, J-Lo, Madonna, Selena Gomez, Zayn and Victoria Beckham, generating massive amounts of attention. Likewise Sports Illustrated’s US soccer world cup special, which featured 27 squad members, each on their own cover. That’s a fantastic amount of social media power at the brand’s disposal.

A truth

Good covers are made by delivering ‘audience’, ‘benefit’ and ‘tone’ - the three corners of a ‘content triangle’. Miss any one of these, and your cover will have no shape.

* Audience: As discussed at the outset, audience is key. If you don’t know whom you’re talking to, you have no chance. But if you really know your reader, you can make your brand feel like it’s the one for them.

Identifying the reader at a granular level can really help. Farmers Weekly is brilliant at this in both print and digital. Here’s a recent coverline: ‘Lincs grower aims to take the 15.7-hectare crown from the Kiwis’. If I was a farmer, I’d be totally down with this guy.

* Benefit: Often the hardest thing to be really clear about. Unlike the English double deck coverline style, American titles are great at getting straight to the point. Witness this recent hunting line on Field & Stream: ‘HUGE DEER NOW!’

* Tone: When content is ubiquitous, and audiences shared between many brands, tone often is all a title has to compete with.

Bloomberg’s presentation of the New York City power outage after Hurricane Sandy is a perfect example, brilliantly parlaying what they believe their readers think into a political statement.

Coverlines are just the best thing. In the tiniest space and the twinkling of any eye, they can tell you everything about a brand, allowing you to buy into the fantasy. This, from Tatler: ‘Help, I’ve inherited a castle!’

Sometimes, a quiet voice is the strongest of all. Take a 70s cover of The Lawyer, a B2B title, now digital-only. A beautiful Bob Gill illustration of a copper crossing his fingers. And just one tiny coverline, ‘Police evidence’. That’s great work.