Mills & Boon woos new readers

Mills & Boon woos new readers

Mills & Boon (M&B) has revealed a “huge” relaunch lined up for January, the first facelift for the brand in a decade. The rebrand features a sleeker logo and revamped covers, refreshed point-of-sale material, a beefed-up book club and the brand’s first engagement with the blogging community. There will also be a raft of commercial partnerships and retail promotions for the romance imprint which will go live on 1st January.

Lisa Milton, executive publisher of its Harlequin UK publishing division, unveiled the plans to The Bookseller with Jo Rose, who was promoted to the new role of M&B brand director in January. When Milton joined the publisher two years ago, what she found “exciting” about the brand was realising “how big and how hidden” it was. M&B became an imprint of HarperCollins in 2014 following the publisher’s acquisition of Harlequin, but Milton conceded that while the brand is “big and profitable”, in the past 12 years its retail sales have been in decline. M&B went from selling two million copies in 2009 to 700,000 in 2016, according to Nielsen BookScan. Strong e-book sales - digital formats accounted for 45% of its business in 2014 - have come at the expense of its direct business.

The 18-month transformation project began with an internal steering group, which led to “some bonkers ideas”, according to Milton. The resulting plan included commissioning consumer insight from research agency Blinc and polling 1,000 women. Rose said: “We went into it with an open mind - to the extent that we asked, ‘Should we still be called Mills & Boon?’ There are 300,000 people [in the UK] who are loyal to the brand and it delivers to them fantasy, escapism and it’s like a bar of chocolate - it’s cheap, easy and always delivers in the same way.”

A new-look paperback from Mills & Boon.

HC “tested the elasticity” of these readers and whether they would stay with M&B through various changes, and judged that the group “is so loyal that these readers will”. Rose said: “One of the researchers went into a shop and said, ‘No one’s buying Mills & Boon’. And the manager said, ‘You’re here on the wrong day. Everyone comes on the day they come out, they come in knowing what they want.’ It’s like magazine publishing in a way: the titles are on the shelves for a month and then they’re off. So the researcher went back the following Thursday and said, ‘I was nearly knocked down by all these people’.”

The research also explored those who “aren’t reading Mills & Boon”. Rose said: “There’s a universe of around 2.5 million women who are reading romance at least once a fortnight. They have a positive association with [M&B] but this association is fixed in time, when they were 17 or remember their gran reading them... [But] the branding and the packaging was wrong for them.”

The research led to a brand proposition - instant romantic indulgence - and a style guide used to refresh the branding, communications and web presence. The 12 existing series have been revamped with slicker covers, some with new titles and new taglines, with the “sexiest ever” series, Dare, launching in January. The team worked with design agency Pentagram to look at how it could deliver things in a different format to reach a different audience, according to Rose. The new logo downplays the ampersand, which had dominated, instead focusing on the words Mills and Boon.

Milton is putting her name as a point of contact to the revamped book club, through which readers subscribe to monthly mail-outs, which Rose said provide useful opportunities for upselling through promotions. She said: “We are growing it. It’s smaller than it was but very profitable, and we’re recruiting into it. There is definitely a growth area for direct mail.”

New point of sale for Mills & Boon features a revamped logo.

The transformation also led to engagement with the blogging community for the first time, with 150 bloggers now working as “brand advocates” who will help the publisher “reach and connect with romance readers and reading communities”. Meanwhile, Milton said retailers have given “fantastic responses” to the new point-of- sale, which features a teal shade as part of the new “grown-up colour palette”, veering away from pink.

Branching out

Milton declined to disclose further details about point of sale, the “huge PR campaign” planned with communications company Taylor Herring, or elaborate on promotional partnerships, but did reveal she wants to widen Mills & Boon into wider retail spaces. She said: “It’s my ambition to see it stocked in places where it hasn’t been sold. I’d love Waterstones to be a stockist, and I’d love a few independents.”

Milton also declined to share the financial details of the “significant investment” or the desired sales uplift she has in mind, but told The Bookseller she is keen to recruit more staff if the relaunch goes well. She said: “We have taken on new staff [over the past 18 months], including in the press office and sales team... more than that, it’s predicated on growth. I hope we will take on more people because we would have grown so much.”