Brand Strategy

Why some brands are making small-scale zines and magazines

While many brands have abandoned their editorial ambitions in the past decade, others are embracing a more niche approach to publishing.
article cover

Oatly, Getty Images

· 4 min read

Not long ago, brands like Asos, Bumble, and Casper were dabbling in the magazine space, creating branded publications as part of their marketing strategy. Some brands even created multiple: Uber started with Momentum, then Arriving Now and Vehicle; Airbnb had Pineapple, then Airbnbmag.

But in the last few years, all of these brands have either sold or stopped publishing their magazines, and only a handful of brand magazines seem to remain in circulation.

Perhaps one reason? Branded magazines aren’t great at driving sales, Polly Wong, president of direct marketing agency Belardi Wong, told Marketing Brew.

Now, it looks like some brands—such as Recess, Jones Soda, and Oatly—are turning to smaller-scale, mostly unbranded publications, hoping to tap into a niche audience as marketers seek to build brand communities via organic interactions.

Print size: small

Bohb Blair, CMO of Jones Soda, told Marketing Brew he worked with Airbnb and Hearst to create Airbnbmag, which began publishing in 2017. Now, he’s spearheading this month’s rollout of Mary Zine to go along with Jones Soda’s cannabis brand Mary Jones, which went live in April.

“Airbnb was one of my biggest clients at my last job, and so a very big part of the inspiration was that magazine,” he said. But by choosing the zine format, he said this was a “purposeful pivot” away from the work he did with Airbnb.

According to Blair, Mary Zine will be available for pick-up in California, where Mary Jones is sold. Contents include budtender profiles, coloring pages, playlists, and photojournalism essays. The goal, he said, is to remind readers of their positive interactions with the brand.

Blair noted that 10+ years ago, brands like Airbnb were partnering with publishing companies to create magazines rather than working within their internal content teams. That approach, he said, “automatically attaches you to the machinery of monetizing and publishing a magazine” rather than “community management and content strategy.”

By working independently, Blair said he has more control over determining the creative vision, how often the zine publishes, and how to allocate the budget. One benefit of a zine from a cost standpoint? “I don’t have to make it fancy to make it effective,” he said.

Tip (for) your barista

Oatly is also tapping into a more niche market with its new magazine, Hey Barista. The brand sent 10,000 copies of the print version to Oatly’s independent coffee-shop partners in the US and Europe upon launch in October and also made it available online.

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Mary-Kate Mele Smitherman, Oatly’s senior director of communications, told us that “the project is a way to not only tap into interesting stories, but to also give photographers, illustrators, and writers in the barista community a forum for their work.”

Jeremy Elias, global editorial director at Oatly, told us that “it’s a conversation with the coffee community, but other people are allowed to listen.” The magazine comes from Oatly’s editorial team, which has also taken on other projects for the brand, like the docuseries “Will it Swap?

In both Mary Zine and Hey Barista, Blair and Elias noted that branding is minimal. Oatly’s logo does not appear on Hey Barista, and the brand is only mentioned in the letter from the editor around funding and on the last page, where it states that “content is developed by an independent editorial board with financial support from Oatly.”

When asked if the goal was building the brand image, Elias said that “might take a little bit away from the nonbranded element of the magazine.” Still, he said he hopes it strengthens Oatly’s “connection and relationship to the coffee world, knowing how much we owe them and continue to rely on them to bring Oatly to individuals that haven’t yet experienced it.”

As far as what’s next? Mele Smitherman said, “As of now, we’re not sure what exactly Hey Barista is or what it’ll become, but if it’s a raging success, we will definitely fund more issues.”

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