Hearst Magazines’ newest product, the Backslash Fit, looks like something that would whiz past in your Instagram or Facebook feed.
The millennial pink yoga mat, which uses the same design concepts you find in a snap bracelet, features great pictures on its product pages, a snazzy Alexa integration and plenty of features – an adhesive bottom, thicker foam – that set it apart from all the other yoga mats of the world. It costs a pricey $89.99.
But unlike the sea of direct-to-consumer products coursing through our mobile devices, the Backslash Fit’s promotional strategy isn’t anchored by Facebook and Instagram; it isn’t investing in search marketing; it does not yet have any direct-mail strategy.
Instead, the Backslash is Hearst’s attempt to prove that it can sell a product to its audience by flexing its promotional muscles: Product reviews on Hearst sites, salted with purchase links; display ad campaigns; targeted promotions via email newsletters. Hearst has skin in the game with the success of the yoga mat beyond affiliate fees from clicks.
While Hearst didn’t create the yoga mat entirely from scratch – it’s based in large part on the YoYoMat — it did create the Backslash brand. Sheel Shah, Hearst’s head of consumer products, encountered the YoYoMat’s creators at an arts and crafts fair in Los Angeles this spring. Shah thought the founders had done a good job of turning the project from a Kickstarter pitch into a reality, but he said he saw a real opportunity to get it in front of people that might need one and make it part of a person’s broader lifestyle.
“People really do believe in buying products from our brands,” Shah said. “So how do we go a little deeper and have more skin in the game but have deeper connections with our audience? That’s important to us over the next couple of years.”
Over the past year or so, publishers including BuzzFeed, Clique Brands and PopSugar have started behaving more like consumer brands companies, standing up physical products either on their own or in partnership with advertisers, partly to prove that their media assets and creative content studios are capable of driving sales for advertisers. The 15-person product studio team Hearst has built to do this work, from the creative ideation, product development and marketing all the way down to fulfillment and customer service, operates down in Easton, Pennsylvania. It was built up from a 10-person consumer products team Hearst acquired with Rodale at the beginning of 2018. Its organizational structure has been overhauled as well: Instead of running product development and marketing out of separate corners of the organization, the two now work side by side.
That team also connects regularly with Hearst’s editorial brands in part to gauge editors’ interest in coverage of the products but also to figure out how to leverage their talent to improve the product. For example, the Backslash Fit’s Amazon Alexa skill, which guides customers through yoga routines and poses, was developed with the help of the editorial staff at Women’s Health. The Easton team developed all the marketing collateral, such as the videos and its website. It will eventually roll out Facebook and Twitter profiles for the Backslash Fit too.
While Shah said he intends to make a profit, he sees Backslash as a test case for its plan to roll out more products. To figure out what kinds of products it could sell, Shah said the product studio examines the top-performing stories Hearst’s brands have published, and also identifies which stories have carved out strong positions in search results. It also looks at sales conversion data generated by its growing affiliate commerce business, which Hearst Magazines President Troy Young said is on pace to generate $200 million in transactions in 2018.
Hearst chose not to attach the yoga mat to an existing editorial brand like Cosmopolitan or Prevention, Shah said, because building a new brand allowed consumers to approach it with more of an open mind. A new name also makes it easier to promote the product across Hearst titles, Shah said.
“It’s not going to be easy, especially with the rates increasing on Facebook and Instagram,” Shah said. “That’s why [DTC brands have] gone to the subway and the bus stations and traditional, terrestrial radio; those are all things we’re exploring. But we have a huge audience, and you can think about how strategically that can go up against those that don’t.”
When it comes to coverage, Hearst says editors will not be required to write about Backslash. Shah stressed that the product studio will have to pitch Hearst’s editorial staff just like any other brand or product seeking coverage might. Only titles with a good fit will get a pitch: “It’s not like we went to Popular Mechanics and tried to make them write about it,” he said.
In time, Shah said, he will pitch the mat to non-Hearst publishers for coverage too. But those rave reviews from Hearst’s biggest titles will be a crucial component in whether the brand studio succeeds or fails.
“When you do get a great piece of earned media, the best thing you can do is repurpose it for customer acquisition,” said Melissa Duren Conner, a partner at Jennifer Bett Publicity, which works with DTC brands including Naadam, Material and Parachute.
Since the Rodale acquisition, Hearst has seized on the opportunity to diversify the revenue for some of Rodale’s titles, pushing more toward commerce and services for Bicycling and Runner’s World, for example. Going the extra step of owning the brand and the media that promotes it is a model that intrigues some observers.
“In order to get maximum communication, exposure, and operating leverage, brands need to get more content in their consumers’ hands,” said Richard Kestenbaum, a partner at the investment banking firm Triangle Capital. “There’s a big opportunity to capitalize when they own both the media and the product.”