In an empty downtown Toronto furniture design store in early March, 200 people meet to see, listen and eat the new Homemakers magazine. “It is an experience of the brand,” explains editor-in-chief Kathy Ullyott. At one booth, a life coach teaches time-saving strategies. Beside it is the energizing smoothie stand and five-minute pilates demonstrations-all part of the magazine’s new tag line: “Eat well, live well.”

photography by: Robbie Owen-Wahl

photography by: Robbie Owen-Wahl

With a 34.4 percent drop in run-of press ad pages last year (the biggest advertising loss in its sector), the 43-year-old Homemakers has to prove to buyers it indeed has a place on the crowded shelf of women’s service magazines. So it hands advertisers a slice of the low-fat cheesecake featured on April’s cover and talks fitness.

With slumping ad sales, especially an estimated $17-million-dollar decline in toiletry and cosmetics advertising, life is getting harder for magazines-especially women’s service titles. In a report by Leading National Advertisers Canada, two-thirds of the 31 goods categories surveyed had experienced negative revenue growth compared to the previous year. Toiletries, which are the mainstay of women’s general interest magazines, fared the worst, aggravating an already competitive category. “It’s a very crowded market,” says Ullyott. And it keeps growing. Within the past decade, despite the recent closure of Wish, competition fromElle CanadaGlow and recent entrants More and Best Health has changed the scene for veterans such asChatelaine and Canadian Living. Before, these magazines “had lived fairly comfortably together in the same stable,” says Ullyott. Now the barn is bursting.

The competition has become cutthroat in a sector that once got the bulk of the ad revenue in the magazine industry. But instead of cutting costs, Transcontinental has been making some serious investments. Last June, the company hired Ove Design & Communications, a branding and strategic design firm that has also worked with Rogers Communications, to hold focus groups and conduct interviews and surveys. The result is the health-oriented Homemakers introduced at the luncheon.

The magazine has tidied its content into three sections: healthy living, eating well and living fully. Fashion and home decor are now covered in sporadic features on such topics as clothing made from Bamboo and organic cotton, or how to grow a healing garden. The strategic committee’s research showed overwhelmingly that readers cared most about improving their health. Not the most original subject matter, but Ullyott says her audience is mainly comprises “armchair health enthusiasts” who like the encouraging information, but don’t necessarily follow it. Homemakers‘ approach to health is notable for its supportive tone, “so it comes from a non-confrontational place,” explains Jessica Ross, executive editor since 2005.

But maybe confrontation is just what Homemakers needs to assert its place-and a $300,000-range facelift is a good start. Publisher Lynn Chambers explains the investment: “To stay competitive you have to continuously innovate.” The last redesign was in 2006, three years after the magazine upgraded from its digest size. Along with the promotional luncheon, the magazine has also expanded its newsstand positioning.

While it has a well-known name, Homemakers had slipped off the advertising radar. As Michele Beaulieu, senior vice-president, group director at communications planning and buying company Starcom Worldwide, says, “It became a publication that was easy to not include when you’re putting a magazine list out for your client.” The general interest magazine was just that-general. Senior vice-president and general manager of consumer publications at Transcontinental, John Clinton, says Homemakers wasn’t differentiating itself enough to attract advertisers: “The challenge in the media market is clutter.”

While readers liked the breadth of subjects in Homemakers, media buyers were unsure of the audience ad pages were reaching. More, on the other hand, attracts driven, 40-plus women; Chatelaine is younger and community-oriented; while Canadian Living focuses mostly on service pieces. Homemakers fits somewhere in the middle of this. “There was always a magazine that did something better than Homemakers did,” says Beaulieu. Despite dwindling advertising dollars in the industry, More, which launched in 2007, fared the best among consumer magazines last year, with a 46.1 percent increase in its ROP pages-just as Homemakers‘ plummeted. Ullyott laments, “When More came around … it was even easier for advertisers to buy around us.”

Gloom aside, Homemakers‘ personality is clearer than ever. Beaulieu says the redesign was “a necessary next step.” The team is just as hopeful, but the timing isn’t in its favour when the words downsize, closure and bankruptcy buzz amid a pessimistic economy. And a makeover can only do so much.

In the middle of February, Transcontinental folded Canadian Home & Country just weeks after the redesigned February/March issue appeared. To win back readers and advertisers, the magazine had repositioned itself, emphasizing recycling and cost-effective decor in an attempt to weather the same recession that would eventually put it out of business. “It’s a self-inflicted wound at Transcontinental,” says Masthead editor Marco Ursi, who says the company “shot itself in the foot” through its in-house competition in women’s service publications-most recently with More. “At this time, with the drop-off in the market, is there room for all these magazines?” Perhaps not, as all media are vying for shrinking ad funds. But Homemakers‘ staff isn’t worried. “With all the challenges of recession, I thought long and hard about whether I should just cancel the luncheon and save the money,” says Chambers, who believes she made the right decision because “the stronger brands will survive this next period.”

Now she just has to hope that “eat well, live well” is the regimen that will return the brand to its former strength.