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Hearst is anchoring its new educational franchise, Design U, to four of its luxury and design titles — Elle Decor, House Beautiful, Town & Country and Veranda — as a way to quadruple audiences and subsequently increase sponsorship potential.

Design U is debuting as a two-hour-long, virtual master class on Wednesday that consists of four editor-led panels. The event is free for attendees and is relying on the support of five launch sponsors: Caesarstone, Design Within Reach, Kohler, Longaberger, and Obakki. The company would not disclose how much revenue the initial Design U franchise will bring in, or the exact terms of each sponsorship, but a spokesperson for Hearst said that it is a profitable event.

Event panelists include designers Bobby Berk, Malene Barnett and Jonathan Adler, as well as educators from Parsons and the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Taubman College at the University of Michigan, and USC Roski School of Art and Design, who will appear in pre-recorded conversations along those magazine titles’ editors. Session topics include the importance of nature, building design business, and designing for a better world.

The goal for Design U is meant to appeal to interior design professionals and design students as well as the magazines’ readers, all of whom are able to attend the event for free. Hearst claimed several thousand guests have registered but declined to say exactly how many. Keeping in mind a range of viewers, Hearst designed the content around balancing consumer content and business-to-business content.

Each of these magazine brands report having professional designers among their readers, but Veranda editor-in-chief Steele Marcoux said that even those who are classified as “design enthusiasts” versus professionals will find the program valuable. “This platform will almost serve as adult education for them, where our other content is maybe more inspirational or something to escape into,” she said.

While the master class is the formal kick-off to Design U, the individual magazines will populate a new site designed for the program with original and aggregated written content and webinars, which will be added periodically throughout the year by their writers and editors. The microsite will also have a free and a classifieds section vetted by editors for students looking for their first jobs and internships in the design world. A second master class-style event will also take place in the second half of the year, said Jenn Levene-Bruno, CRO and vp, group publishing director for the Hearst Luxury and Design group.

“We envision this as a real design destination and resource for the design community that we are building,” Levene-Bruno said.

Ahead of the Wednesday event, Veranda led a six-week elective course at SCAD where about 40 students participated in a mentorship program that had them designing outdoor living spaces under the guidance of designers including Scott Shrader and Wambui Ippolit. Broken into four groups, the students designed mock-ups of backyards and gardens that focused on environmental impact, sustainability and food growth, and relaxation in urban areas. The final projects will be shared during Veranda’s master class panel. The terms of the partnership with SCAD were not disclosed.

The students did not get college credit for participation, but were given access to professionals in the space to learn about an area of design that is not otherwise taught in the university curriculum, Marcoux said.

“So many designers have so much more to offer to students and when we’re interviewing them for our typical content, we’re not really engaging with them from that point of view. Since we’re creating content for [Design U], it will challenge us to engage with our designers in a new way that will produce some exciting material,” said Marcoux.

This is the second time these Hearst titles were leveraged together for a joint program and sponsorship opportunity at this scale, said Levene-Bruno. The first event, Design Unites, was a charity auction for Habitat for Humanity that took place in April 2020.

Longaberger and Obakki are new to advertising with Hearst’s Luxury and Design group, according to Hillary Koota, executive director of partnerships and brand development, who was the lead on Design U. The program also brought back Kohler and Design Within Reach as advertisers for Hearst after a couple of years without the brand as an ad partner.

As advertisers look to make the most out of their media buys, both in the midst of a pandemic and in the looming cookie apocalypse, buyers say that anything publishers can do to gain more scale in their offerings is appealing. 

“I think it’s all about the combined firepower of all those titles,” said Alice Sylvester, a partner at Sequent Partners. “The four titles and their own audiences combined will expand the reach potential of the message exponentially, so conceivably that’s [four times] as much attention being paid to the effort.”

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