March 14, 2016

A New and Improved Better Homes & Gardens? Perhaps so.

I was sent a complementary copy of the newly rebranded Better Homes and Gardens magazine. Maybe it's because it's the gardening issue, but I have to admit that I like it. Do I sound surprised? Ready on, and see why.

Ok - total honesty here. I received a text last week from an assistant at Better Homes and Gardens  magazine asking me for my address because "Stephen Orr is a big fan of your blog".  Which is very nice. I accepted the request to review the magazine, for many reasons - (one definitely not being because 'said magazine' had just nominated this blog for an award - (well, you the audience nominated it - but still).

It's not a secret that I too love graphic design, magazines AND gardening, but I am well aware that we are talking about Better Homes and Gardens, which may cause some of you to roll your eyes -  I know this, since I've received the emails. Here's what I can say -  I can appreciate Better Homes and Gardens efforts, and why not? We should all be supporting any effort to improve the visual design and content of our beloved sport known as gardening.

Better Homes and Gardens apparently has gone through a bit of a renaissance over the past few months, call it a re-branding or re-design, it does look much more hip. Well, a little more hip. After all, it still needs to not distance itself too much from its core audience.  All of this change is likely due to their new Editor-In-Chief Mr. Stephen Orr (formerly a gardening editor at Martha Stewart Living). Both magazines ( now both under various umbrellas of Meredith Corp. in one way or another), they are both in the process of refreshing themselves in an effort to escape survival mode in a world where digital media is challenging the established print media.

I always appreciate a gardening issue that doesn't cost $9.99 at the register because it's a 'special', and comes with a regular subscription. The April of the newly designed Better Homes and Gardens demonstrates how a brand can update itself to be more relevant. This could potentially attract a broader duel-gender audience, without alienating it's core reader. At least, I would buy this issue.

I received my complementary issue of Better Homes and Gardens  yesterday, and it is indeed much better than the previous design (but I will admit that it looks more like Martha Stewart Living, than perhaps Martha Stewart Living does. More on that, later. Really, it looks quite nice, I have to admit.

Sure, it's a story on pesto, but nice enough not to be boring, which means that I took the time to read it. I'm not being snarky at all, for it's images and nice typography like this, that I want to curl up in bed with (does that sound dirty?).

You will soon see the beautiful cover design on your newsstand  - a bright, cheerful image of various tomatoes on a white background. This surprised me because I was half expecting a young mom on a porch with a white picket fence and hydrangeas, with lots of call out type in bright, well curated colors somehow themed to some seasonally-approprate content  like - "Mellow Yellow" or something less-than pithy, but cheerfully banal about...let's say, "spring!".

So this new cover concept which shows an honest, yet clearly curated studio shot, - trying to look like nothing other than a gorgeous studio show, is refreshing and real, and for this magazine that has desperately needed a refresh, it is rather progressive. That said, I do wonder if Meredith will ever have enough balls to someday show a guy on the cover? It couldn't hurt - (um....think Brawny folks - I think even girls like a little boom boom to break through all of the clutter of a busy life, and.... sometimes a little 'sexyness' sells). Just sayin'.

So well done BHG - and even if the covers in future issues end up just showing beautifully curated images? This will all be an improvement over the usual slick casseroles and pastel flower motifs featuring sunflowers and sunny, yellow curtained kitchens. I know, I know, it's a ladies magazine and there are clear boundaries here to never cross, but it is also 2016.

My other (slightly bigger) issue is probably the thin paper stock,  but I understand the realities of economics of this (although, is it me, or does this issue feel better than the January one?). Of course, I shouldn't forget to mention the reduction of the word 'Gardens' in the masthead. <sigh>.

Oh marketing team, really? (smile).

Even a story on Peas, could fail with bad photos, but if crafted properly, even an expert cook or gardener can find escapist pleasure in it. Magazines today must work harder, to earn our time, which is so precious.

After the January issue was released, on that very next day, a few of my designer friends (graphic design friends -  the sort who like to crit such events, like those from RISD) texted me to chat about the issue (yeah, we do things like that). We shared what we liked, and what we hated. Surprisingly, we 'liked' a lot, in an 'nice improvements sort of way', and we all agreed with the issues above - - thin paper stock  and cover, but kudos for better typography, and what seemed like a lot more content. I think originality will always be an issue in a world where Pinterest and blogs seemed to have covered everything three times, but personally, I would like to see BHG develop it's own voice and visual language, if not one which is stylish and current, perhaps even one which could lead rather than follow. I think it's too early to be judgey about that, yet.

The January re-design was not  thick magazine, and the thin paper stock didn't help, but I reminded them that it was the month of January, first quarter - and traditionally  January was a 'thin' month for advertising pages, and that maybe they'll have to work to get advertisers back now that Orr is at the helm?

I also added that maybe they are trying to find a new audience, ( which seemed pretty clear) since the market for 'granny mags' is getting thinner as well each and every year. Just look at how Redbook drastically changed it's design and audience, (although, perhaps not for the best).

I should mention that the website looks different as well - not sure if it is better or not, but I do like it better than the current Martha Stewart web experience. If it wasn't for Martha's Blog, I would be so frustrated with the endless pop-ups and video ads, that I would never visit it again. I'm sure they will evaluate that soon, but the BHG.com site is looking nicer and more usable.

My concerns now are - are the two magazines becoming too similar?

Look - a man, in Better Homes and Gardens!

 I imagine that  Meredith, who to make it clearer, officially only licenses Martha Stewart Living from the Sequential Brands Group, the magazine's owner, is busy rebuilding their entire magazine  shelf space, and that these both are approached more as franchises. Thinking of the brands in that mode, I have to put some thought to who the audiences are, are they different and are they merging? I did notice that the Martha Stewart Living advertising guidelines listed their core audience and women ages 45-55 now while last year, the demographic was ten years lower. That's interesting, but probably more accurate. I would also imagine that the Better Homes and Gardens demographic perhaps earns a bit less per household - only guessing here, I am just basing this on their brand positioning - in my head.

 So approached from that  perspective, the two may be able to exist if the content can remain on-brand for each, without cannibalizing each other. Where gardening factors into the mix, I don't know. I would wager a guess that 'the idea of gardening' for Martha Stewart is currently in a stage of flux, trying to find it's new audience, while the gardening consumer for Better Homes and Gardens might be more accessible, or open to growth. I only base this on my personal beliefs about each property, assuming that the Martha audience is slightly more affluent and thus, more concerned with status and appearance, while the Better Homes and Gardens consumer may want 'easy casual beauty' that is attainable and achievable. Martha Stewart Living equals 'style', while Better Homes and Gardens equate with leisure time projects that are fun and family oriented.

Look another one! And, Pinterest-worthy ideas. Perhaps not sensible for the Northeast, but, I'm always open to new ideas that I haven't seen elsewhere.

Here is a weird observation.

This issue feels a bit, dare I say, 'duel gender'?

Now, maybe my gender antenna are sensitive lately since I've been secretly (or not-so-secretly after last months press announcements at International Toy Fair) working on a huge duel-gender project at work,but I 'feel it' here in the magazine, as well. Much of what I was secretly working on drove a duel gender aisle at major retailers, so maybe.....Better Homes and Gardens is realizing that the old Martha audience was either female, or guys not afraid of 'feminine pursuits'?  It all looks attractive, but aside from the make-up and beauty articles, I could leave this in our manly bathroom and not feel too embarrassed as it sits next to Men's Health. Looking nice' doesn't necessarily mean 'gay' in 2016.

 Again, just an observation, guys. Not judging.

The newly designed Better Homes and Gardens is both contemporary and content rich, especially in this gardening issue, April, 2016. I good mix of everyday mass market with good design and fresher-than-normal, content.

That said, this gardening issue, is well endowed at 148 pages, and call me crazy, but the cover stock feels thicker than that January issue. Not that it's all about size, but it does add to the experience.


back to those inner pages (I know, paper stock again!) they are thinner than Martha Stewart Living, but not quite at that cheap-toilet-paper-from-the-New-Jersey-Turnpike-sort-of-way.  I 'get' cutting costs in mailing weight, as as long as they ink doesn't bleed through, and the binding holds, I' guess I can live with that. I mean, we all throw them out eventually, but - now that the photos and recipes are more usable, I may want to save them as a hard copy. Many of us still have most if not all of our Martha Stewart Living issues.

Over all, this gardening issue is a big improvement over last-year's version of the magazine. It is well curated, I actually could read the content, and it is beautifully photographed. Expected? Sure, but there is different between "nice and stylish' and dated. It is no longer dated. best part of all, it has gardening features on REAL gardening topics - - like a story on Baptisia selections (I know, right? Baptisia selections in Better Homes and Gardens? Who'd a thunk?).

I should give credit also to the BHG's gardening editor Jane Austin Miller - and by the way...when did they get a gardening editor, anyway?  Somehow, I missed that!

 Jane seems to have contributed in any ways throughout the magazine, and the idea that BHG now having a gardening editor on staff, sends the message to me that there may be more gardening articles in issues beyond the gardening one.  Jane's article on container gardening is worth pointing out, as it presents a refreshing take on that cliche of all subjects, container ideas. Finally, a story where you can tell that they really grew the plants in the containers shown, rather than shoving in a bunch of full grown plants to fake, and instant display that feels more disposable than an actual, practical story. Good job!

The tomato article is spectacular, with both tomato cultural information and original recipes. I really can't imagine how any lifestyle magazine can survive today in a world were ideas are shared instantly, but this story is an excellent example of how a magazine can, and does, deliver content in a high-value way. It's not just a story on heirloom tomatoes arranged in a bowl.

The food photography is bright and visually relevant as I am getting a little sick of the dark moody shots that look as if they were shot on the floor of a gas station in a third world country. ( ahem - Food & Wine).  I love great design, but micrograms and foamy soup shot on rusty, greasy metal with denim just isn't that appetizing. So aside from the fear of one getting lockjaw, I usually don't find the idea of getting depressed when reading stories about holiday spreads. That said, I don't want the old bright, sterile and cheerful studio lighting (ala-Kraft 1995 either). This issue offers a nice middle ground style, perfect for mass market, and probably for the brand.

The gardening photos are meh - and  I can't say that the planting schemes will give me any specific memorable ideas, but then again, I am not the target audience I suppose. Still, a story about a butterfly or pollinator garden could have been called most any theme, so it felt too 'positioned'.

At the end of the day, did I find this issue truly inspiring?  I didn't hate it.

I mean, I am ordering more Baptisia now, but of the other articles and stories while again, I am not the target audience, should appeal to the beginner and the intermediate casual gardener. This redesign does not position the magazine as Gardens Illustrated or Garden Design. It's more like Martha Stewart Living lite (I don't mean that in a bad way, either). It's WAY better than Family Circle (do they still publish that?). The old Better Homes and Gardens was exactly like Family Circle, and that was NOT a good thing!

If you are interested in subscribing, you can find a subscription to BHG here.
This is not a sponsored post, and even though their logo is in my sidebar, no one has paid for this review.


  1. I was just looking at the gardening magazines here in Germany - I am visiting relatives here this week - and felt similarly: everything was either ridiculously dumbed-down step-by-step instructions for beginners or fawning over the latest fads in run-of-the-mill commercial landscape design - plus every magazine except two or three of the oldest now has some sort of reference to "country living" in the title or tag line.

    1. True, but even I need to remind myself that there are always beginners, and they need to start somewhere. Once they have discovered gardening, they tend to move on to more complex sources for content. So, although targeting beginner or casual gardeners, at least it's making an effort to move up to the bar, rather then mindlessly staying behind. That's not an easy thing to promote or design towards, when one is completely main stream and as big as Meredith.

  2. With our Mercer Arboretum membership we've been getting a free subscription to BHG. I didn't fill out my card for the subscription again this year, mostly because of a lot of what you wrote here. But now, maybe I should have.

    Tomatoes on the cover would get me any time!

    I really miss Organic Gardening magazine. Sure, the rebranded Organic Life is nice, but not gardening focused.

  3. Anonymous12:18 PM

    You have to check out the "new" (well, year and a half old?) quarterly Garden Design magazine. Someone else bought the name and it is nothing like it used to be. No advertising, book-heavy paper, advice from insiders, and lots of PLANTS.

    1. I have looked at the latest issue of the new Garden Design, and the content is quite good. The first couple of issues were disappointing, and the design still needs work, but this latest issue was very nice - especially that article on German Bearded Iris. The cost is high though, and even though there are no ad's, for a quarterly, I could choose to subscribe to a British magazine like Gardens Illustrated or even Curtis' Botanical Journal for the same price.

  4. I'm reveling in the novelty? strangeness? of you giving a thumbs-up (however qualified) to BH&G. I buy and look at ALL the magazines even though most are disappointing and, actually, require persistence to page through before adding them to the contents of the recycling bin. I'm usually disappointed by the "special publications" because they simply rehash the best of the archives. And if, like me, you've paged through and remember past issues, you'll find very little new content in the special publications. On your recommendation, though, I'd be willing to check the magazine racks for this new issue. I used to be a member of RHS so I could receive "The Garden". Maybe I should renew that one? It was good for having a different take on things than that shared by all the US publications.

    1. Emily - the new BH&G is not THE GARDEN, not even close, so hold in your expectations. I would say that it's on the same level as the current Martha Stewart Living as far as content goes, but no nearly as horticulturally interesting as The Garden, or any other RHS publication for that matter. It's just a nice value read with some decent content which is far better than the original Better Homes and Gardens. I should push the bar for other main stream magazines however ( as in the Baptisia story), but it is still just a brief article.
      I give them credit for raising the bar as far as they could, right now.

    2. Also, look at the new BH&G through the lens of the core consumer. The Mass Market lifestyle magazine buyer - walking through Target or Walmart, and choosing between the garden magazines available this month on those shelves. I have to look at it through those lenses. Am I the target audience? OR You? Not quite.

  5. That article with the vertical potted wall showcases one of my favorite garden blog's creators. The Horticult is awesome, and their backyard oasis is so cool.

  6. Interesting. I love magazines and used to get BH&G but stopped due to the tiny amount of gardening and the fact that all of the kitchens they showcased all looked the same (I must be the one reader that is not really into white kitchens). I'll have to check out the magazine for curiosity's sake now!

  7. "Mellow Yellow" or something pithy about Spring made me laugh out loud :)


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