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Cooking Light Magazine: Celebrating 30 Years By Redefining “Healthy” & Showcasing A New Approach To Cooking – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Hunter Lewis, Editor In Chief, Cooking Light Magazine…

March 13, 2017

“But what’s most important, and if I’ve learned anything about the business, it’s that you have to be adaptable. You have to be flexible, but you have to remain true to the fundamentals, and print is absolutely a part of the fundamentals. And as long as we’re making compelling content for each platform and as long as we’re strengthening our core, which is print; as long as we’re making a product that is even more engaging and is a lean-back and a lean-forward experience, and by that I mean something that people continue to dog-ear the recipes and use them every day, that gives us more license to try new things in digital.” Hunter Lewis…

With this year, Cooking Light celebrates its 30th Anniversary starting with the April issue: What Healthy Means Now. In April 1987, Cooking Light launched to empower people to cook more for good health. With fresh, accessible ingredients and weeknight-friendly techniques, Cooking Light’s recipes enabled busy home cooks to make healthy and delicious food choices for their families. But 30 years ago “healthy” meant eat this, not that. Traditional staples like beef, butter and eggs were swapped for lean poultry, fish and reduced-calorie butter.

Cooking Light’s editor in chief, Hunter Lewis, believes that the word restriction is something that no longer applies. I spoke with Hunter recently and we talked about Cooking Light’s redefinition of the word “healthy” and the progression of more and more fresh and whole foods within the perimeters of our supermarkets. Hunter said that no longer to people have to deny themselves taste and diversity when it comes to eating for overall good health. The 30th anniversary, April 2017 issue will showcase the magazine’s rededication to everyone’s own personal definition of healthy.

And with the upcoming November issue’s redesign, the magazine is setting a new course for the next 30 years by opening up the food space to be more inclusive of all forms of health and well-being through the art of each individual’s own food choices, and by showcasing this new definition of personal healthy across all of its many platforms.

So, grab your own idea of a healthy snack and enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with a man who has a long-term vision for Cooking Light that includes turning down the “light” just a bit and turning up the “healthy,” Hunter Lewis, editor in chief, Cooking Light magazine.

But first the sound-bites:

On what differentiates Cooking Light today from all the other magazines out there: I think what sets us apart today and what has set us apart over the years is brand equity. We have 30 years of brand equity; 30 years of building and pushing this great brand forward, and I really credit the team that launched it in 1987 for having the wherewithal to really read the marketplace and to think about where the consumer was going. That consumer demand for fresher food is what drives us today, and it’s the reason so many other players are getting into the game now.

On the major challenges the magazine has had to face: The major challenges in the marketplace and the major challenges that consumers have faced has been the evolution of the American diet. When we launched, a healthy plate looked much different then than it does now. What the government recommended was a bit different then than it is now, and we hadn’t had this great awakening yet, in terms of consumer demand for all things fresh and clean.

On whether he thinks all of the reported digital “spying” will hurt magazines’ digital futures, or as long as the brand is trusted like Cooking Light, digital will remain strong: I can’t speak to the spying piece, but I think that as artificial intelligence becomes an even bigger part of our daily lives, such as adding recipes into the virtual assistant Alexa, or Amazon’s Echo, people are using their Smartphones to solve more food problems. I think companies are learning more and gathering more data about that consumer so that they can solve even more problems for them. But what’s most important, and if I’ve learned anything about the business, it’s that you have to be adaptable. You have to be flexible, but you have to remain true to the fundamentals, and print is absolutely a part of the fundamentals.

On something different that he’s doing today with the print component of Cooking Light that wasn’t being done when he first joined the team: The biggest thing is that in our 30th anniversary year, and now that healthy is becoming even more mainstream than it has been in the past 30 years, we’re putting a bigger stake in the ground to own healthy. And we’re putting a bigger stake in the ground to empower consumers to define what healthy means to them. And to give them even more solutions and more recipes and tips to take control of their own health through the home kitchen; at the stove, at the grocery store, and at a dinner party, using food as a solution for that. As we’re embracing healthy, we’re subtly positioning away from “light.”

On the theory behind the new approach to the cover, and in also using a lighter color for the word “Light” so that the word “Cooking” is what’s jumping at consumers: With this cover we wanted to make a statement. This is the first of our key moments for 2017 as we celebrate our 30th anniversary, and as we continue to seize momentum for 2018/2019. We wanted the cover to be a moment. We wanted the cover to make an impact on newsstand, and we wanted to photograph and design this in a way that felt like a statement. And that’s what we delivered.

On whether someone can get a completely wholesome experience from just reading the magazine without visiting all of the platforms the brand utilizes: I think our audience is slightly different on each platform. And I think the key to delivering compelling content on a particular platform is to understand that audience and to see visually and through the text, through the video and the sound, how best to capture the brand on each platform. If you’re just coming to us and you understand the brand only from Instagram, that’s awesome. If you just understand the brand through print; we love that too.

Cooking Light Ed Note Photography Caitlin Bensel

On how the magazine is using its DNA from 30 years ago to combine with today’s definition of the word healthy: I think healthy goes way beyond food and fitness. Healthy is very broad and very inclusive. Healthy goes beyond food, fitness, sleep and wellness. And what we love about healthy is that it means something different to every, single person. Our point when it comes to this whole repackaging and the call to action for the consumer to go and use the hashtag, to go and shoot a photo and caption it with their definition of healthy is that each person owns their own healthy. It’s personal and you define it. Use Cooking Light to help you achieve it.

On whether he’s afraid his colleagues at Health Magazine might feel Cooking Light is infringing on its territory with the new “Healthy” movement: No, but what I will say is I’ve seen a massive change here at Time Inc. in the way that with the way that we collaborate with our sister brands. And it’s one of the most exciting things that’s happening in the building right now; I’m actually in New York at the moment. The way that the brands are talking to each other and the way that these digital desks are communicating and syndicating and sharing stories is amazing.

On anything he’d like to add: Just going back to the licensed products and the new revenue streams, we talked about extending Cooking Light onto the supermarket shelves; I think you’re going to see an evolution of the Cooking Light diet that’s a two-year-old product that has been a successful launch.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly to his home one evening: You would find my wife and I wrapping up dinner. We have a five and a three year old, and we’re at the point now where we can sit down and have dinner together, which is the high point of my day. And yes, having a glass of wine.

On what keeps him up at night: My three year old, who still wants to wake up a couple of times per week at 3:00 a.m. (Laughs)

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Hunter Lewis, editor in chief, Cooking Light magazine.

Samir Husni: When Cooking Light was started 30 years ago, it was one-of-a-kind. Now, there are plenty of imitators in the food magazine marketplace, especially when it comes to “cooking light” or “cooking clean” or any of the things that Cooking Light introduced 30 years ago. What differentiates Cooking Light from all of those other magazines that are out there today?

Hunter Lewis: I think you’re right, and I think Don Logan and the whole team at Southern Progress and at Southern Living was very prescient. They were way ahead of the curve and they knew the marketplace really well when Cooking Light launched out of Southern Living 30 years ago. In 1987, the world was a different place and how we ate was much different, and to have the foresight to create a new brand and to launch that new brand with healthy messaging was super-smart.

And I think what sets us apart today and what has set us apart over the years is brand equity. We have 30 years of brand equity; 30 years of building and pushing this great brand forward, and I really credit the team that launched it in 1987 for having the wherewithal to really read the marketplace and to think about where the consumer was going. That consumer demand for fresher food is what drives us today, and it’s the reason so many other players are getting into the game now.

Samir Husni: What have been the major challenges that you’ve had to face and how did you overcome them?

Hunter Lewis: The major challenges in the marketplace and the major challenges that consumers have faced has been the evolution of the American diet. When we launched, a healthy plate looked much different then than it does now. What the government recommended was a bit different then than it is now, and we hadn’t had this great awakening yet, in terms of consumer demand for all things fresh and clean.

And so, it was the very dawning of this whole American food obsession and the very dawning of this new American food movement. You have to think about that in the context of, if you look at the recipes that were published in the April 1987 issue of Cooking Light, you see a lot of low fat, low-calorie recipes. And you see cornstarch in recipes to thicken sauces and things like that; you see gelatin used. So, what has happened through this, and I bring up recipes as an example, because that’s our bread and butter, but what’s happened is the definition of heathy and light has changed in a big way.

Now, if you look at our recipes, it’s much more about whole ingredients and eating a diversity of plants, and more than anything, it’s less about restriction and more about addition. We want to add healthy ingredients to our diet; we don’t want people to restrict their diet because eating a more diverse diet and eating a variety of foods and a more plant-based diet is the best way to hedge your nutritional bets against diet-related diseases. I think the consumer piece of it and how the American diet has changed and what the American dinner plate looks like now versus then, is vital.

In terms of challenges in the marketplace and in the industry; there have been many. But I’d say none more than this continued digital revolution, but that has also been the most fun challenge. Continuing to push the brand forward in print and continuing to protect and grow the core product, which is the print brand, while also making compelling video, growing our Instagram audience, doing compelling Facebook live videos, and going on Snapchat. So, we think about all of the places where the brand is, and making that content, making those videos and those digital articles and that food photography really pop. And making a joyful experience and empowering people to cook more at home for good health is our mission across every one of those platforms in a fun way. That has been our challenge and I would say that we’re succeeding.

Samir Husni: I recently tweeted that if you want another reason why print will be with us forever, it’s that print never spies on you, like the digital world has been reported as doing. Do you think these reports of “spying” and “watching” is going to hurt our digital future or as long as we have a trusted brand like Cooking Light, digital will remain strong?

Hunter Lewis: I can’t speak to the spying piece, but I think that as artificial intelligence becomes an even bigger part of our daily lives, such as adding recipes into the virtual assistant Alexa, or Amazon’s Echo, people are using their Smartphones to solve more food problems. I think companies are learning more and gathering more data about that consumer so that they can solve even more problems for them.

But what’s most important, and if I’ve learned anything about the business, it’s that you have to be adaptable. You have to be flexible, but you have to remain true to the fundamentals, and print is absolutely a part of the fundamentals. And as long as we’re making compelling content for each platform and as long as we’re strengthening our core, which is print; as long as we’re making a product that is even more engaging and is a lean-back and a lean-forward experience, and by that I mean something that people continue to dog-ear the recipes and use them every day, that gives us more license to try new things in digital.

Samir Husni: Give me a few examples of what you’re doing different today with Cooking Light in print that wasn’t being done when you first came onboard.

Hunter Lewis: The biggest thing is that in our 30th anniversary year, and now that healthy is becoming even more mainstream than it has been in the past 30 years, we’re putting a bigger stake in the ground to own healthy. And we’re putting a bigger stake in the ground to empower consumers to define what healthy means to them. And to give them even more solutions and more recipes and tips to take control of their own health through the home kitchen; at the stove, at the grocery store, and at a dinner party, using food as a solution for that. As we’re embracing healthy, we’re subtly positioning away from “light.”

And I’ll say this, if we were launching a brand now in 2017, we wouldn’t call it Cooking Light. That is nothing against the brand; I’m just being honest, because “healthy” resonates in the current marketplace more than “light” if you look at past packaging. “Light,” in 1987, meant something different than what it means now. We’re not apologizing for the brand, it has amazing brand equity as I said, but in our 30th anniversary year we are really embracing healthy moving forward and that gives us more permission to be in the health and wellness space.

As we do this, I’m seeing this as three major editorial tent poles for the year. The first is “What Healthy Means Now,” the 21-page cover story, and this is our first big stake in the ground. Defining what healthy means now across several different categories and encouraging consumers to go and to use hashtag “the new healthy” on their social platforms, to define what healthy means to them, to retweet and repost those definitions, to build our social communities, and to really remind people when they’re talking about healthy foods, they’re talking about Cooking Light. That’s the first thing.

The second one is, you asked what we’re doing in print, we’re redesigning the September issue. And we’re working on that now and kicked it off this week. We’re going to give it a fresher look. The key to the redesign will be to drive even more engagement on a page; to celebrate our beautiful photography even more, and to create a little bit more space around the text to make it feel even fresher. And then the November issue will be a double-issue, and that will be an anniversary issue for the advertising community.

All of these things translate beautifully to digital. The beauty of working for a food media brand is that our gorgeous imagery and our delicious recipes play well across the entire food space. By that I mean what we shoot for a feature story, in terms of a photo and a recipe, is also going to pop on Instagram; it’s going to drive traffic from Facebook back to our website; it’s going to get reviewed and commented on and printed off from our website and people are going to go to the store, buy the ingredients and cook it. It’ll show up on Pinterest. We might cook that recipe on Facebook live and have a highly-engaged group of 100,000 or so people watching us cook it live and bringing the brand to life through their computer screens or phones.

What I’m getting at in this day and age, in 2017 with food media, what we do in print we have to make it work across all platforms. And what’s so interesting about the long tail of a recipe at Cooking Light and at Time Inc. is that we can also put it into books. We’ve done cookbooks and bookazines, and as you know, bookazines have been driving a lot of great business over the years. So, there’s great print and digital value; there’s great long-term value in the type of content that shows up first in print. And now, more than ever, it shows up on Cooking Light.com before it ever goes into print. And that’s not really a digital-first mentality.

Samir Husni: I’m looking at the first issue of Cooking Light, the magazine for food and fitness, and I’m also looking at the April 2017 issue of the magazine, the 30th anniversary issue. And while the name is still the same, a lot has changed. With the anniversary issue, you’re giving me six tips immediately on the cover, answering your question of “What Healthy Means Now?” Even before I go to Page 82, you’re telling me to fill half my plate with crunchy veggies and to eat nuts, etc. What’s the theory behind the new approach to the cover, and in also using a lighter color for the word “Light” so that the word “Cooking” is what’s jumping at me?

Hunter Lewis: With this cover we wanted to make a statement. This is the first of our key moments for 2017 as we celebrate our 30th anniversary, and as we continue to seize momentum for 2018/2019. We wanted the cover to be a moment. We wanted the cover to make an impact on newsstand, and we wanted to photograph and design this in a way that felt like a statement. And that’s what we delivered.

If you look at the design assets on this cover, and how the assets translated through the 21-page cover story, and then if you look at the 30 Faces of the New Healthy that we launched on Cooking Light.com recently and how the design is translated through that impactful list, and then you look at the way it’s shown on Instagram, you begin to see what I’m talking about when it comes to how everything flows from print to our digital, social and video platforms in a seamless way to elevate the look, feel, tone and the sound of the brand.

Samir Husni: Let’s say you have some readers who only care about the printed magazine, some are only Instagram followers, some are only digital followers; do you think the experience of each of your platforms can be necessary, relevant and sufficient? If I don’t go to your Instagram or your web; I can get a completely wholesome experience from reading the magazine?

Hunter Lewis: I do. I think our audience is slightly different on each platform. And I think the key to delivering compelling content on a particular platform is to understand that audience and to see visually and through the text, through the video and the sound, how best to capture the brand on each platform. If you’re just coming to us and you understand the brand only from Instagram, that’s awesome. If you just understand the brand through print; we love that too.

Long-term, as we think about new revenue streams and engaging consumers on new platforms, part of what this 30th anniversary issue is about and part of “What Healthy Means Now” is about and what the redesign will be about is not just words and pictures. It’s about really capitalizing on that brand equity, carrying us into the next 30 years, and thinking about where else Cooking Light could play. By that I mean, if we think about where consumers are shopping now and healthy consumers are shopping now, they’re on the perimeter of the supermarket. They are shopping all fresh goods beyond just the produce aisle.

The perimeter of the supermarket, and we wrote about this in the story, is a battleground for everything fresh. It’s where all the companies want to be and where they want to play and sell their goods. If we play our cards right, we can have more Cooking Light products, more fresh products sold on the supermarket shelves. We can extend our meal kit partnership that we have with FreshRealm into the grocery store. There is no reason Cooking Light shouldn’t be selling meal kits at the grocery stores right now.

And that’s also what this is about. How do we solve for consumers as they’re planning and shopping, in addition to how they’re cooking? The American consumer and the way that they’re making dinner today is much different than it was 30 years ago. They’re using their phones as a tool nearly every minute of every day. The way that people shop for groceries and the way that they have ingredients delivered; I think that we can play in all of these spaces to extend the brand and create even more value.

Samir Husni: Am I assuming correctly then that you’re taking the DNA of Cooking Light from 30 years ago, the magazine of “food and fitness,” and you’re combining that phrase with the word “healthy?”

Hunter Lewis: I think healthy goes way beyond food and fitness. Healthy is very broad and very inclusive. Healthy goes beyond food, fitness, sleep and wellness. And what we love about healthy is that it means something different to every, single person. Our point when it comes to this whole repackaging and the call to action for the consumer to go and use the hashtag, to go and shoot a photo and caption it with their definition of healthy is that each person owns their own healthy. It’s personal and you define it. Use Cooking Light to help you achieve it.

Samir Husni: So, you’re not going to get your colleagues at Health Magazine mad at you for infringing on their territory?

Hunter Lewis: No, but what I will say is I’ve seen a massive change here at Time Inc. in the way that with the way that we collaborate with our sister brands. And it’s one of the most exciting things that’s happening in the building right now; I’m actually in New York at the moment. The way that the brands are talking to each other and the way that these digital desks are communicating and syndicating and sharing stories is amazing.

Two desks that I’m involved with everyday are the food and health desks. Health does an amazing job at writing compelling science stories. So, we could syndicate those stories. And they can syndicate our recipes, and so there is a mutually symbiotic relationship here where we can tap into their expertise. We can talk to Time’s health editors and share what we’ve got coming out about gut health or brain health and we can tap into that expertise, and then we can share that content socially and to a wider audience.

And that’s really what this is about, this collaboration among the brands. It’s not just about a brand’s audience, it’s about who is the overall Time Inc. food audience and how do we tap into that in a bigger way? How do we share across all of the platforms and how do we maximize that 40 million-plus social audience that clamors for Time Inc. food across all brands, including health? And what’s happening with this company is an amazing transformation.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Hunter Lewis: Just going back to the licensed products and the new revenue streams, we talked about extending Cooking Light onto the supermarket shelves; I think you’re going to see an evolution of the Cooking Light diet that’s a two-year-old product that has been a successful launch.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly to your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing; having a glass of wine; watching TV; cooking; reading a magazine or your iPad; or something else?

Hunter Lewis: You would find my wife and I wrapping up dinner. We have a five and a three year old, and we’re at the point now where we can sit down and have dinner together, which is the high point of my day. And yes, having a glass of wine.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Hunter Lewis: My three year old, who still wants to wake up a couple of times per week at 3:00 a.m. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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