Cooking Light Gets Fat on Ad, Reader Growth

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Cooking Light is on a rich diet of growth.


The food and fitness magazine ends 2004 with 1,468 ad pages, reflecting an 18 percent increase in revenue to $112 million and new advertisers like Wachovia, TiVo, eBay and American Airlines. The October and May issues, with 156 and 150 ad pages, respectively, were the largest in Cooking Light's 17-year history.


"We've never had a down year to deal with," said Christopher C. Allen, New York-based vice president and publisher of Cooking Light.


Cooking Light targets educated women in their mid-40s with household incomes of $70,000 and who like to eat and live healthy. Its test kitchen staff vets 5,000 recipes annually for publication. The latter half of an issue includes recipes, and the rest is devoted to fitness, health and wellness.


"People come to the magazine because of the food, and they end up staying because there's so much more," Allen said. "We've rarely had anything without a food cover. Actually, we've done it twice, without much success [in terms of reader response or newsstand sales]."


The formula, reflected in its "Eat smart. Be fit. Live well" tagline, seems to be working. Readership of the 11-times-a-year magazine from Time Inc.'s Southern Progress Corp. subsidiary is growing at a clip faster than others across several categories.


A spring 2004 MRI report claims that Cooking Light's readership rose 10.8 percent from last year to 11.4 million. And it is growing younger. The median age fell to 46.9 years, making its audience the second youngest in the epicurean category comprising Bon Appétit, Gourmet and Food & Wine.


The magazine is increasing its rate base -- circulation guaranteed to advertisers -- by 50,000 to 1.7 million copies with the January/February issue. Subscriptions account for 85 percent of the circulation, and newsstand sales the rest. An 11-issue subscription costs $16 as part of the standard offer. The cover price is $4.50.


The magazine's growth in its first 10 years was ensured by deep coverage of recipes. The Internet's arrival led to a partial pullout from direct mail efforts. Internet-sourced subscriptions brought in younger customers and eliminated bad debt.


But things changed within a few years of the Internet's acceptance as a customer acquisition tool. The high-tech boom withered, the new-subscription rate fell and newsstand wholesalers consolidated.


"We're recommitted to mail in a big way, and we've reinvested in our displays around the country," Allen said. "We've gone back to more conventional methods ... we'd been a little more reactive in the past. We're more proactive now."


The biggest push in the past three years on the new business side has been via direct mail. In 2002, Cooking Light sent 1 million direct mail pieces to acquire new subscribers, down from 3 million in 2001. However, the total jumped to 7 million in 2003 and reached 9 million this year.


The magazine sends direct mail five times annually. Most of the mailing is done in the first half of the year, mainly to acquire new subscribers.


"That's the most predictable way of getting new subscribers who are interested in getting Cooking Light," said Michelle Turner, Birmingham, AL-based circulation director of Cooking Light. "Direct mail is the most targeted. We can control not only who gets the offer but when they get it, basically making rate base management a little more efficient."


What works best for the magazine is its control package: a voucher with a hard offer of 11 issues for $16. However, the control pricing varies from mailing to mailing or campaign to campaign.


ParadyszMatera, New York, is Cooking Light's list broker. The control creative is produced in-house. Other mailings may be farmed out on a project basis.


"Because Cooking Light is such a recognizable brand, we don't find it necessary to have a four-color, 6-by-9-inches package with all the bells and whistles," Turner said. "It's just not necessary for us. We don't need to explain what Cooking Light is."


That does not diminish the Internet's role in attracting customers. There are partnerships with sites like WebMD.com, cooking.com and eDiets.com. The site at www.cookinglight.com helps with newsletter signups, sweepstakes and giveaway promotions.


"The Internet still is a big piece for us," Turner said. "Of course, it's still far from 1998, when the Internet was becoming a topic of conversation for publishers. We get well over 100,000 subscriptions a year from that source."


A recent on-pack promotion with Kraft Foods for its Light Done Right salad dressing was designed to yield cents-off the product. In return, the magazine pushed a special $18 annual subscription offer with two risk-free issues. Kraft approached Cooking Light to associate with a popular media brand. That promotion generated 3,500 paid subscription orders from nearly 10 million light salad dressing bottles.


Also, a Cooking Light hard subscription offer of 11 issues for $12 appeared on cartons of regular Diet Coke along with recipes that complement the beverage's lemon and lime flavors. Fifty million Diet Coke packages ran the offer, resulting in 12,000 paid subscriptions.


"We were kind of nervous of a free issue offer on 50 million cartons," Turner said. "We didn't want to take that risk. We didn't know what that would do."


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