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What's in 'Cosmopolitan' Magazine's Special Sauce?

At the first Fashion Culture Design conference, Editor-in-Chief Joanna Coles let us in on what makes the world's largest women's media brand tick.
Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

When Joanna Coles became editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan in Sept. 2012, the magazine still featured cover lines like "Sex He Craves" and "Mostly Naked Men." Snapchat had just 10 percent of the users it has today. (Also, Kim Kardashian was still technically married to Kris Humphries.) It was a very different media landscape then, and the field continues to evolve just as rapidly.

It's no secret that Cosmopolitan has been at the forefront of much of the change. With 27 people on its digital masthead as of April 2016, its online presence has proved that, yes, print brands and their websites can do more than coexist — they can even benefit from each other in both a commercial and editorial sense. According to Hearst Digital Media, enjoys an average of 14.9 million unique visitors a month while company competitor hits much lower at 7.7 million; over at Condé Nast, and receive 11 and 10.3 million, respectively. In a transitional era when many media brands are adopting expensive, showy projects to move print copies, Cosmopolitan's message has kept its focus; clearly, many women are drawn to the "fun, fearless life" message that the title projects. 

On Thursday afternoon, Coles sat down with Simon Collins at his first Fashion Culture Design conference at Parsons. In a segment titled "The New Renaissance Creative," Coles attributed Cosmopolitan's universality to the brand's ability to maintain an authentic voice across its many channels. "We have so much fun at Cosmo," she said. "The point [of] Cosmo as a magazine for on Snapchat or online is that it should always give you a laugh. It should make you feel upbeat about everything in your life, even when you're waking up after a night of blackout drinking and go, 'Oh my God, what did I do?' We're on your side. We get it. We're not pretending the world is perfect."

This frank tone was the same secret weapon used by legendary Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown during her tenure, empowering readers to be secure in their sexual and professional desires. But Coles has also embedded social issues — three in particular — into the magazine's current DNA: standing up for women's right to choose, promoting gun safety and closing the wage gap. They're big, broad and certainly polarizing topics, but they directly impact the Cosmopolitan girl's life. Coles explained:

"One of the really frightening conversations that's going on is women's health and women's access to choose or women's right to choose to have an abortion. We have been really, I think, quite powerful on the Cosmo website in standing up for that, for women's rights and access to contraception… We talk a lot about gun safety and how important it is to remind people of the responsibility they have when they have a gun and how scary it feels… My other great passion is the wage gap. I mean, it's [an] absurdity that a man and a woman sitting in neighboring cubicles might actually be paid differently. That, to me, feels so wrong."

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Such political viewpoints may alienate readers and impact business. What does that mean for Hearst, which owns Cosmopolitan and surely looks to make a profit from its operations? Brands no longer have the luxury of removing themselves from the conversation, said Simon. Coles said: "We write about these things and you realize that there is a tipping point among readers — the people who weren't interested in this issue realize you have to be interested in these issues now because of what's going on politically."

Cosmopolitan's fearlessness has not been received without criticism. For its special 50th anniversary issue last fall, the magazine had Kris Jenner and her five daughters Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, Kylie and Kendall on the cover and declared them "America's First Family." This, Coles explained, did not go over well:

"There was a tremendous reaction online. It turns out there's a tremendous reaction online to almost anything these days, but there was a very specifically big reaction to that. A lot of people called me up personally and said, 'You are ridiculous. You don't realize that there is actually a real First Family and they live in the White House.' It was quite strange, the fact that people didn't realize we were being a little bit tongue-in-cheek about the Kardashians… That was a moment where I thought, goodness, people are slightly out of their skin with what we are trying to do."

The print issue didn't sell spectacularly, either: Coles publicly said it sold "millions," but according to the Alliance for Audited Media, Cosmopolitan sold just 436,500 newsstand issues. This, however, still topped Vanity Fair's viral "Call Me Caitlyn" issue, the magazine's most successful in five years, which sold 432,923 issues at newsstands, according to WWD.

But as is the case with all such backlash, that reaction faded and Cosmopolitan continued doing what it does best: connecting and resonating with the "Cosmo girl" via whatever channel she may choose. Collins asked when the magazine decided to expand the way it reaches its millions of readers. "I don't think it's when you had to do everything — it's just when you were able to do way more because that's what the technology has allowed us to do, and the ability to reach people via phone, desktop, iPad, newsstand or television," Coles answered. "If you have all that available to you, why wouldn’t you want to do that — to engage with your audience and tell a story?"

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