Reader's Digest parent company bets its life on hearth-and-home, wholesome audience

trustedmedia-740Bonnie Kintzer has had plenty of experience as a publishing consultant and executive as well as earning a Harvard MBA degree. Still, when she signed on as CEO in April 2014 to turn around the twice-bankrupt Reader's Digest Association, it may have looked from the outside like Mission Impossible.

"I came in with my eyes fully open," Kintzer said, beginning a progress-report phone interview earlier this month. While not yet achieving fabulous financials, Kintzer now has in place a new executive team, new digital strategies and a much expanded digital audience.

In late September, after more than a year's preparation, the company took a plunge and rebranded. Reader's Digest, the magazine, is still Reader's Digest.  But the venerable Reader's Digest Association has been rechristened Trusted Media Brands Inc.

Say what?  The admittedly bland and generic name is meant to signal that the company has  67 other titles. In conversations with advertisers or investors, Kintzer said, "we were always in the defensive position" of  explaining that there was more there than the flagship.

"CEOs for 15 years were thinking about" a better umbrella name," Kintzer continued, but wouldn't pull the trigger.  :"We are a portfolio of brands....There's nothing fancy (about the new name). It's just who we are."

Also "trust" is something of a magic word unifying the family of brands, which focus heavily on homemaking, health and a country lifestyle.  The idea is that tradition-minded rural readers, most of them women, have a special affinity for the tone and content. that runs through the titles.

"We are a snark-free zone," Kintzer explained. "We celebrate the goodness of your life and your neighbors."

Exemplar of the repositioned company is Taste of Home, which began over 20 years ago as a recipe exchange among home cooks and has stayed that course even as foodies, cable cooking shows and celebrity chefs came into vogue. The print edition has about 2.5 million circulation and the digital version attracts 11.5  million monthly uniques (the latter three times as many as Reader's Digest itself).

"We were social before social existed," Kintzer said.

One of her initiatives has been to roll out two-day live cooking schools around the country. The events, she said, "are a little hokey with lots of chanting,  but that's what our readers want. When you see 800 women and an open bar in the ballroom of a Holiday Inn an hour West of Chicago, it's quite a scene.."

Headed into 2016, Kintzer said, most of the properties have positive operating margins, but the company overall is not yet profitable. "We're still investing"  -- particularly in customer acquisition and  toning up its digital game on sites like Snapchat and Pinterest. Trusted Media Brands claims it has 48 million uniques monthly  visitors across its properties and 45 million social media fans, with Taste of Home alone up 143 percent in 24  months.

Owner Goldentree Asset Management., a privately-held restructuring group, "realizes that it takes time and money" to pull off a turnaround, Kintzer said, and has been satisfied with progress.

Reader's Digest Association once owned Every Day with Rachel Ray (acquired during an earlier tour of duty there for Kintzer) but sold it during a period of financial distress.

That leaves the company on the sidelines for the lucrative cable network tie-ins that dominate in food and related topics like do-it-yourself and home decorating.  Lifestyle television is a great business, Kintzer conceded, but for Trusted Media Brands it has become too expensive to enter and hope to make money..

What of Reader's Digest itself? I only touched on the years of decline in talking to Kintzer. Print circulation has fallen from a peak of 17 million to 3 million.  High-priced ads to general audiences have been a particular casualty of the much more targeted marketing options of the digital era.

Kintzer insists there's life in the old brand.  Even diminished, it is among the highest paid circulation titles in the U.S, publishes two international editions and licenses dozens more.

New editor-in-chief  Liz Vaccariello, a veteran editor at health publications, has written several books on diet and fitness, and the Digest features its own proprietary "Stop & Drop Diet."

More important, Kintzer said, Vaccariello has figured out a way to showcase the magazine's traditional values but with a more contemporary flavor.  "In preparing for the job she read many of (founder) DeWitt Wallace's letters from the 50s, and you feel like Wallace's heart is in the magazine we publish today."

With condensed, easy-to-read articles aggregated monthly from a variety of sources, Kintzer said, Wallace was "not necessarily targeting a less educated audience. But if you didn't live near the city, you might not have access" to all Reader's Digest offered.

Kintzer said that Reader's Digest content is still for people "who are tired of negative news" with such current articles as "Thanksgiving Food Fails Fixed, and "5 True, Old-Fashioned Christmas Miracles That Will Restore Your Hope for the Holidays. It's about education and inspiration (and treads a delicate line since the subjects and perspective are not explicitly religious).

Trusted Media Brands offices are in midtown Manhattan with the imposing campus-like headquarters Wallace built in Pleasantville, N.Y. long since sold.

But the company's focus and soul are elsewhere.  A re-launch marketing slide deck this fall features a prototypical small town scene -- a bird's eye photo of downtown Jonesborough, Tennessee.  The Trusted Media Brands logo appears in the style of a stitched jeans label with the slogan "genuinely connected."

Kintzer and her associates are putting a curious proposition to the test -- that 15 years into the 21st Century, there is still a marketable audience to be built around Main Street sensibilities and interests.

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