NEW YORK — Atoosa Rubenstein has always been a little, well, different.
As founding editor of Cosmogirl, she turned that quality to her advantage, offering herself as a role model to quirky teens who were interested in standing out, not fitting in.
Now, one year after becoming editor in chief of Seventeen, Rubenstein is once again seeking success by going against the grain. In a category that has become ever more segmented into distinct editorial and demographic niches, Rubenstein’s heavily revamped Seventeen is trying to position itself as the go-to resource for teenagers of every race, region and social clique. “It is everything to all girls, and there is no reason, if you’re strategic, you can’t be that,” said Rubenstein.
So far, the numbers seem to be bearing her out, if not quite resoundingly. In its circulation statement for the first half of 2004, Seventeen reported a 2.3 percent increase in newsstand sales, to an average of 310,500. While modest, that increase is the first for the magazine since 2000. Rubenstein adds that the January issue, featuring a redesigned logo, sold poorly, but each of the next five issues was up by double digits.
But Seventeen also dropped its cover price last September, from $3.99 to $2.99. It’s not clear whether the reduction had much effect on sales, which were lower in the three months following the price change than in the prior quarter. At any rate, Seventeen’s newsstand uptick has yet to have any effect on the magazine’s advertising woes. Through September, ad pages are down 15.4 percent to 883.2. The title’s market share is also down slightly, said publisher Jayne Jamison. “We’re working very hard, but the reality is we expect to see the major gains next year,” she said. YM and Teen People are down for the year as well, while Elle Girl, Teen Vogue and Cosmogirl are up in pages.
Hearst Magazines bought Seventeen from Primedia Inc. in April 2003; three months later, Rubenstein was appointed editor, replacing Sabrina Weill, her former number two at Cosmogirl. “The magazine I had inherited was a little bit of a lot of magazines and a lot of nothing,” she said. After replacing a significant portion of the masthead, Rubenstein set about reinventing Seventeen as a comprehensive “beauty and fashion guidebook,” the role she believes it played until losing its way in the Nineties.
This story first appeared in the August 13, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The magazine’s response to the fragmentation that has overtaken the rest of the teen category is to reflect that within its own pages. Fashion and beauty stories overflow with a diversity of skin tones, hair textures, body types and aesthetic sensibilities. The most obvious manifestation of this multifarious approach is in the “Elements of Style” pages, where each look is presented in four different permutations: girly, boho, wild and classic.
If that reminds you of the Spice Girls — Scary, Sporty, Posh, Baby and Ginger — believe it or not, it’s no accident. “It sounds silly now because they’re so out, but the Spice Girls actually created the template for this,” Rubenstein said. “These readers all grew up hearing their message that you could be yourself and still be cool.” Or at any rate, you could be yourself and appear on millions of lunch boxes.
Speaking of boxes, Rubenstein’s newest innovation is “retail boxes” —thumbnail pictures of storefronts that appear next to pictures of that retailer’s products. Rubenstein said the boxes are a service to consumers, who tend to shop by retailer, looking for items they like from stores they frequent.
Not surprisingly, however, the retail boxes are a hit with advertisers. “They love the fact that she’s driving the kids to purchase,” said Jamison. (Rubenstein insisted the advertiser-friendly nature of the boxes was irrelevant to her: “I never make decisions oriented to advertisers.”)
Going broad at a time when everybody else seems to be going niche is a risk, but one with the potential for a big payoff, said Michael Wood, president of Teenage Research Unlimited, a marketing research firm. Rubenstein, he believes, has taken the right step by playing to the Seventeen brand’s strengths rather than simply reacting to the trends within its market. And if anyone is in a position to make a big-tent strategy work, he said, it is Seventeen.
“There’s so much equity in the Seventeen name that the other titles just don’t necessarily have.”