In just five years Cereal magazine has grown from a small independent title into a global brand. Rosa Park, the editor of the magazine, share the story of how they did it.
Rosa Park has been moving around her whole life. When she was a child, her family moved from South Korea to Canada and she spent her childhood travelling between Vancouver and Seoul. As an adult, she studied in Boston and worked in New York until she landed in England for a Master’s in English literature. In the resort town of Bath she met Rich Stapleton in a kafé in 2012, a random encounter that led to the launch of Cereal magazine that same year. The first print run was 1500 copies. Today, Cereal has a run of 40.000 copies, publish books, do licensing and take on projects for clients. This week, at Oslo Design Fair, I had the change to sit down with Rosa Park for a talk on stage. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
You launched Cereal almost exactly five years ago. Can you tell us a little bit about your initial motivation for starting the magazine?
Like so many people that start their own magazine, I’ve always loved print. I collect magazines and I think that when you’re in that mind-set, you eventually want to create your own. But first I had to get an understanding of what kind of magazine I wanted to make. When I met Rich all the pieces fell into place. He was working as a graphic designer and a photographer, I was working as a writer and editor, and together we shared a similar upbringing where we both constantly moved around with our families. We realised we wanted to make a magazine that adresses how our generation travels and present it in a way that was appealing to our own demographic.
Cereal has a very specific identity and look. What that something you were conscious of from the beginning?
Well, when we started Cereal we had to ask ourselves a) if Cereal was a person, who would that person be? and b) what did our reader look like? By connecting these two dots I think you form the identity of your title. For Rich and me, Cereal is this androgynous, slightly male, slightly female entity, a combination of the two of us. I think the main identity is a kind of modern simplicity. We would like people who read Cereal to feel peaceful. Whether we’re in Tokyo or Singapore or Hong Kong we manage to find these beautiful serene spaces and I think that is the biggest part of our identity: Our way of looking at the world and then sharing that with our readers.
You don’t offer lists of things to see and do, but rather text that are almost like little essays presenting the traveller’s state of mind. How do you see yourself in relation to other travel magazines?
Like you say, a lot of the mainstream titles do a really great job at doing hotel coverage, restaurants openings and so forth, and we do need that information as well, which is why we launched our guidebooks. The magazine was never really about telling people where to go and where to sleep, it’s a slower narrative of the city. When we go to a place, we stay there as a team. We do a lot of research in advance, and we do tend to create three to five long features, hoping to paint a more comprehensive portrait of a place.
The covers form an important part of your identity. How has your cover design evolved over the years?
We’ve altered our cover design about every four issues. We didn’t plan for that, it just happened. We’re a small company and, essentially, we do what we like, but the changes we make are not drastic departures from the way it was before. It’s not like “ta-da”, now we’ve completely abandoned our identity. Our most recent cover is grey and on a textured, uncoated paper. We realised that we really like grey, so we thought maybe our covers should be grey too (laughs).
One of the things that impressed me with your magazine early on was how integrated your advertisers are in your visual profile. How did you achieve that?
I have no advertising background, but I always knew that we wanted advertising in the magazine. We didn’t in our first year, but that was simply due to the fact that we printed very few copies so we needed to build our readership until we came to a place where we had something to offer to the brands. I personally think that if you do advertising well it makes your magazine better. We all have brands that we love, right? So Rich and I made a dream list of 100 brands we would want to advertise in our magazine. Then we reached out to these brands, introduced ourselves, went to meetings. It’s not easy to get these huge brands to take a chance on a growing independent title but, you know, we’re luckily in a place now, four years into our advertising where we’ve built a reputation and reliability and trust and we have some incredibly advertising relationships.
On your latest issue, for example, the back of the magazine is Hermès, not the easiest advertiser to get on board.
Hermès is one of my favourite luxury brands in the world, if not my favourite, so I was super happy when that happened.
They’re quite connected to travel too.
Have you ever felt that you had to compromise your visual identity when it comes to your collaborators?
No. We really haven’t. We’re very strict when it comes to our visual identity. If we want to do a story on Farnsworth house, like in our latest issue, which is a beautiful building by Mies van der Rohe, it’s not so easy to get clearance to photograph a house like that. They’ll say: You can’t shoot here, but we will give you our press images. Then our reply has always been: Then we can’t do the story. What I often found was that because we’re so strict, they come back after a while and say: Wait a minute, let’s work together. You can take your own photos and have complete creative control. By doing that repeatedly I think we’ve set a standard for how we work.
You mention business model. Let’s talk about that, because when you start a magazine, very often, it’s all about romance. Then reality kicks in and you have to make the magazine sustainable. How did you figure out how to make money?
People often ask us what business model we have or if we did a lot of market research in advance. Rich and I look at each other and go: Business model? Market research? Cereal started very much as a passion, on a whim, but it was never an after school project, I mean, I quit my job to work full time with Cereal even before it launched, and it was always driven by my interests and the faith that it would all work out. Thank God it did! We’ve been lucky to be presented with business opportunities and have taken them, opportunities that allowed us to grow and make the company financially viable. We do print and digital advertising, we have healthy sales of the magazine, we do licensing to foreign publishers, and have also been hired by brands to do products separate from Cereal because they wanted “a Cereal look”. These things happened at stages over time and this is now our business model.
That’s interesting that you created a specific look and you can actually sell that look to clients. It’s nice.
It is really nice!
We have to talk about social media, because you have a very strong presence there. Close to one million followers on Instagram when I checked this morning, and that’s just the main account. You also have Cereal guides on Instagram and then you and Rich have your personal accounts, also with a lot of followers. You’re on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest too. How do you work with these different platforms?
Social media is an important part of most business today, I think. Of course there are magazines that take a stance not to engage in that, but we have embraced it and created a social media identity that works for us. We started on Instagram, but we are also on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest as you say, and they serve different purposes. We found that certain parts of the world tend to use one over the other, so when we target audiences we kind of know how to go about doing that. It’s incredible when you post a photo of a book and you can just see the sales happening on your online channel. That’s amazing for a small company like ours. But then there’s another side of social media that can be frustrating, especially when you work with a travel magazine: You see so many pictures of a place before you get there and when you arrive, you feel like you’ve already been there. You don’t want to feel that. You want to be excited, have a sense of discovery.
How many people work for the company now?
Rich and I are the only full time members, but we have a team of nine in our office. The other seven people work three to four days a week, because we only put out two issues a year, so it’s not the most fast-paced environment to work in. Then we have a team of writers and photographers around the world that contribute to the magazine.
It used to be four issues a year when you started, right?
Yes, but we weren’t big enough of a team in my opinion to put out four issues to the standard I wanted the magazine to have. I thought that by switching to biannual the standard of the magazine would improve, and I think it has. We also went from 120 to 200 pages.
You also had a website from day one?
Yes, and that has also been redesigned many times. We launched the new site last May and that would have been our website number four. What a website can do changes so quickly, so I think you have to keep updating it to keep up with the times. Normally, we share about four to five features from the print magazine online to give people an understanding of what it is, the rest is created specifically for the website. We approach digital and print very differently because the way people interact with it is very different. Our digital features tend to be highly visual with shorter word counts.
What other areas have you expanded the brand to?
We formed a parent company, Francis, when we started publishing books and it is now printed on the spine of our magazine. People think we’ve been bought, but it’s still us! We have a partnership with a publisher in the US who will publish our guidebooks there with sixty percent new content, something that takes it to a level we could not have achieved on our own.
And you just published your first children’s book?
Yeah, that was launched two days ago. I love books, and when we got to a point were we knew what we were doing with the magazine, we thought, what’s next? I said to Rich: I want to make books! I’m a huge lover of print in every sense. I love looking at paper, finishes, binding, I love print for print’s own sake.
readcereal.com. Images courtesy of Cereal Magazine.