Vogue Hits Indian Newsstands

The beauty bible is late to India's fashion party, where global magazines Cosmopolitan and Elle and local player Verve arrived a decade ago

Condé Nast's fashion bible Vogue is about to hit India. The first issue of the Indian version of the magazine is slated to make its debut on Sept. 22. Like Vogue in the U.S., Vogue India will include high-end features on global fashion and beauty trends, but its editors say it will also seek to celebrate the Indian woman and the richness of traditional Indian fashion.

All the same, Vogue is a latecomer—other international women's magazines have been in circulation on the subcontinent for a decade. Although Marie Claire only entered India in the summer of 2006, Cosmopolitan's Indian edition launched in 1997, and Elle's in 1996. Condé Nast's top India executive is confident the privately held American company will be able to close the gap. "We've been studying the Indian market for over a year," says Alex Kuruvilla, chief executive of Condé Nast India. "Our timing couldn't be better."

That's because Vogue's arrival comes at a time when the Indian print media are entering a new era, one in which they are set to capitalize on a booming economy producing new wealth and changing attitudes and tastes. While magazine publishers in the U.S. struggle as advertisers move to the Internet, PC ownership and broadband use remain low in India. That's one reason many ad executives believe India's print industry is at the beginning of an ad boom, particularly in the luxury retail segment.

More Competition on the Way

According to Indian management consulting firm KSA Technopak's 2006 study on luxury trends in India, the country has more than 1 million households with an annual income of at least $100,000. Catering to these well-heeled consumers is what's fueling the creation of new magazines in niche areas that run the gamut from fashion to music. Titles such as Men's Health, Maxim, and Golf Digest kicked off their Indian editions last year; Rolling Stone is also looking to launch an Indian edition very soon, as is Harper's Bazaar.

The editor of one of Vogue's biggest local rivals says she's not spooked by the arrival of the Americans. Anuradha Mahindra, founder and editor-in-chief of Verve, India's first high-end fashion magazine, says the industry has grown up a lot since she launched her magazine a decade ago. Back then, Mahindra was behind just about every aspect of its launch, from styling photo shoots to the magazine's layout. "The model on the cover of our third issue was even wearing my earrings," she recalls. Now Verve has a staff of close to 30 employees, compared to 4 when it first started, and is the vehicle of choice, Mahindra says, when personalities such as actress Elizabeth Hurley or Queen Rania of Jordan wish to address an Indian audience. "These women select Verve as their first choice for speaking about their lives and their achievements," she says.

Print Ads Flourishing

After the launch of Vogue, Condé Nast's plans to launch other Indian titles, including local versions of Vanity Fair, GQ, and Glamour. "We have done a year of research, talked to over a million consumers, and really done thorough research on the Indian market," says Kuruvilla, who headed up MTV Networks India for six years before joining Condé Nast. "The Indian economy is only set for further growth and the luxury advertiser is only just entering India, so our timing couldn't be better."

In other parts of the world, print advertising may be struggling, but not in India. According to a recent study by consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry, print media in the country are global investors' favorite sector. Timmy Kandhari, executive director and leader of PwC's Indian entertainment and media practice in New Delhi, says the industry is slated to grow at an annual rate of about 13% over the next five years. In India, Kandhari says, Internet penetration is still very low, thereby allowing greater growth opportunity for print media. The sector has also benefited from measures taken by the Indian government to promote foreign investment in the industry, in particular allowing 100% ownership by a foreign entity in the non-news and current affairs domain, and to permit more investment from overseas in the future.

Lots of Licensing Agreements

As a result of regulatory changes, Condé Nast has the unique advantage of being the first international publisher to obtain 100% ownership of its Indian subsidiary, something media industry insiders believe will give the company an edge in the race to get advertising for Vogue and the publisher's forthcoming titles. Other international magazines in India operate under licensing agreements; Marie Claire's India edition, for instance, is the result of a licensing agreement between Hearst Magazines and Indian publishing powerhouse the Outlook Group. Rodale and the India Today Group have a similar arrangement for Men's Health. But industry insiders say titles based on such partnerships are less attractive to the kind of high-end advertisers that are increasingly looking at India; these advertisers typically prefer advertising in magazines with foreign backing, because such backing gives the publication both prestige and a firmer guarantee of financial survival.

While the entry of Vogue will certainly result in more competition for local magazines, it will also up the ante in terms of professionalism and output, Verve editor Mahindra says. "There will be new benchmarks for suppliers and new standards to maintain," she says. "One could sit back and have a knee-jerk, paranoid reaction to the arrival of Vogue, but I think it's important to look at the entire industry and how standards as a whole will be raised." She adds that, despite the Vogue brand name, it might be tough for the magazine to really get the pulse of the Indian woman in the same way Verve does because Vogue is an import.

Kuruvilla has no doubt about the success of Vogue and any forthcoming Condé Nast launches, not least because the luxury brand boom in India is just beginning. He believes Vogue can easily capture 50% of the high-end advertising that is up for grabs, not only because of the Condé Nast and Vogue brand names, but also because there is plenty more to come. According to the PwC/FICCI study, for the entire media industry in India, print as well as other segments, advertisers spent 163 billion rupees, or $4 billion, in 2006. As more advertisers come to India, targeting an economy whose gross domestic product may be nearing $1 trillion and is expected to continue to grow at an annual rate of close to 9%, there will be plenty of scope for more spending. "We've met advertisers from Milan and Paris who are already in India, but there are lots of others that have been sitting on the fence and waiting for the right time to come," Kuruvilla says.

Niche Success Not Certain

Print media in India are slated to become a 232 billion rupee (about $5.7 billion) industry by 2011, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, compared with $3 billion today. And the sector has the potential to grow even more because there are about 369 million literate people in India who have not yet been reached by any publication. Nevertheless, the segment of people who would want to read English-language consumer magazines, particularly those that are niche-focused, is extremely small, Kandhari says, and by far the real growth engine in India's print media industry is the popular press, readers of which are about as far removed from Jean-Paul Gaultier and Brioni as Uranus is from the earth.

So even if Vogue offers high-end advertisers the kind of visibility they are looking for in India, there just isn't enough scope yet for true niche publications, says Kandhari, particularly if they are priced at $2.50, or 100 rupees, an issue, as Vogue will be.

While there's little doubt that with Condé Nast's deep pockets and the expectations of a very wealthy minority in places such as Mumbai and Delhi, Vogue could succeed, other foreign titles, those that are either already in India or looking to launch here, must have a more "widespread approach to the Indian market, as opposed to focusing only on particular niche areas," Kandhari says, if they are to appeal to readers. For now, there is enough advertising—foreign as well as Indian—to go around, but it remains to be seen how new launches will fare in the coming years.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.