Zena Hao, a 24-year-old publicist, avid follower of fashion trends and proud owner of four Prada handbags, has a new passion: fashion magazines. She carries home hefty copies of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and studies the pictures for inspiration.
“Before university, I didn’t read them that much because the photographs weren’t that good,” Ms. Hao said. “But now in the last three to four years, they’ve gotten so much better.”
Ms. Hao’s enthusiasm for fashion magazines thick with advertisements for Louis Vuitton handbags and Chanel lipsticks are a welcome source of revenue for magazine publishers based in New York. While fashion labels are spending more on magazine advertising in the United States, they’re pouring even more money into magazines across mainland China.
Publishers willing to contend with censorship, relationships with local business partners and low-level corruption common in many Chinese businesses are being rewarded so far.
Late last year, Cosmopolitan editors in China started splitting its monthly issue into two magazines because it was too thick to print. Elle now publishes twice a month because issues had grown to 700 pages. Vogue added four more issues each year to keep up with advertising demand. Hearst is even designing plastic and cloth bags for women to easily carry these heavy magazines home.
“We never take anything for granted. But so far this year, we look like we’re having a pretty good year of growth,” said Duncan Edwards, president and chief executive of Hearst Magazines International, which has agreements to have 22 magazines, including Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, published here. “There is an enormous hunger for information about luxury, and there aren’t many other places you can get that information than in fashion magazines.”
Many Chinese women will spend far more of their income than their Western counterparts on these magazines and the products featured inside them. According to a 2011 study conducted by Bain & Company, mainland China ranked sixth in the world for spending on luxury goods ranked by country. In 2010, it was a $17.7 billion market. Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Gucci remain the most desired luxury brands.
For example, both Vogue and Cosmopolitan cost about $3.15, which is significant when the average monthly individual income in Beijing is about $733. Mr. Edwards added that it was fairly common to find Chinese women who earn $15,000 a year spending $2,000 on one luxury item.
“We’re going through this wonderful period where huge numbers of women are coming out of poverty into the middle class and beyond,” Mr. Edwards said. “Many of these women are choosing to spend on luxury goods.”
Lena Yang, general manager of Hearst Magazines China, who oversees nine publications including Elle and Marie Claire, says that the typical reader of Hearst Magazines in China is a 29.5-year-old woman who is more likely to be single than married. She has an average income of about $1,431 a month and spends $938 a season on luxury watches, $982 on handbags and shoes and $1,066 on clothes.
Ms. Yang says these women often live at home and turn to their parents and grandparents to pay for them. The study also showed that many readers in their 20s saved little.
“Most of them, they are a single child,” Ms. Yang said. “That means they don’t have to pay for their rent. So all of that goes to pocket money. They have the parents support them and the grandparents. They actually have six persons to support them.”
That’s why so many different advertisers want to appear in these magazines. Next to Gucci and Prada in the pages of women’s magazines sit some of these homegrown brands, with names virtually unknown outside China, like Ochirly, Marisfrolg, EIN and Mo&Co.
IDG, which works with more than 40 magazines in China, said that advertising spending for women’s consumer magazines jumped 16.9 percent through June 1, even as demand to advertise in technology and business magazines slowed. Ms. Yang predicts plenty of growth potential in second- and third-tier cities, where 60 percent of all store openings have taken place in the last three years.
“In China, for them it’s still a new experience,” Ms. Yang said.
Ms. Hao, the daughter of engineers, is eager to embrace and spend on the goods she finds in these magazines. She said that she made more than $1,587 a month as a publicist and that her husband’s event planning business was also growing. While her mother has only one real Prada handbag, she continues to shop for them because, she said, “for my job, it’s important that I have the real thing.”
But she also doesn’t want to read these magazines digitally. While China remains the second-largest market for iPads behind the United States, and magazine executives fear that readers could all migrate to digital publications, Ms. Hao prefers the paper version.
“Magazines are just like books. People want the real thing, not just a flash on the iPad,” she said. “It’s different. Reading magazines shows you’re taking fashion seriously.”
Of course, for publishers who often profit from licensing agreements, the arrangements in China come with a price. Mr. Edwards said that because all magazines are owned by the Chinese government, Hearst has relationships with two local companies that license the names of the magazines to local publishing companies.
The first company, Hearst Magazines China, which the company bought from Hachette last year, includes magazines like Elle and Marie Claire. Hearst also profits from its 20 percent stake in the Trends Media Group, which has licenses to publish magazines like Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar.
Bob Gutwillig, who introduced Elle to China in 1988, said that in the early days, the Chinese government was so involved in the magazine that it had an employee from the Communist Party assigned to sit in the editorial room. But Mr. Gutwillig said that Elle was largely spared the censorship challenges other types of news organizations faced because the official was less concerned with images in fashion magazines than what appears in traditional news outlets.
Publishing in China also carries its potential for corruption. Magazine publishers interviewed for this article offered widely varying circulation data. There are no widely accepted independently audited reports the way there are in the United States.
Additionally, Angelica Cheung, editor in chief of Vogue, said that advertisers’ paying for content was expected and even demanded in this business. She says the magazine stresses that it refuses to do under-the-table deals.
Of course, the publishers recognize that this market could evaporate as the Chinese economy slows. They’re especially vulnerable because the magazine industry gets a much smaller overall percentage of advertising than other media, like television, Mr. Edwards said. But for now, as long as their stories of movie stars and fashion trends steer clear of censors, the magazine industry is enjoying the profits.
“We’re pretty low-risk,” Mr. Edwards said. “Cosmo and Elle and magazines like this are not deemed to be highly likely to offend the relevant government bodies.”