Melcher Media is built around three main areas. One of them is translating brands into print to create a deeper connection with the consumer. Examples include a coffee table book for Lexus, a celebration of designer Michael Graves for Target, and the 100 Years of Harley-Davidson book.
The second category comprises media tie-in books for entertainment vehicles such as Sex in the City (HBO), South Park (Comedy Central), and In Style magazine (Time Inc).
The third category is best described as quirky, with offerings like The Pop Up Book of Phobias and a completely bath-worthy book of erotica. There are several other areas like photography and cartography that make it hard to summarize the Melcher line. The features that all the titles appear to share is that they are high quality and well illustrated.
“Every project is different,” Melcher admits, “but often it starts with creating a brief or figuring out what the problem is or what’s the goal. And then we try to figure out how to accomplish that.”
For the brand-focused books, Melcher helps the client choose the right voice or angle for its audience. “Sometimes they want to talk specifically about their brand, like Lexus, where the book is the story of the company. Other times it’s something that the company wants to promote that has a reflective value for the company.”
For an example he points to a book on Michael Graves sponsored by US retailer Target Corporation. In this case, Target took no part in the editorial process. Says Melcher, “[Target] didn’t even want their name on it. In a way it was a gift to Michael Graves to help support him, and then in other ways, it was an opportunity to have a great book out there that would celebrate somebody who was very important to them. Certainly if you tell his story, you have Target; it’s a big chapter in his life. But it’s not a book about Target at all.”
For Harley, the challenge was to create something really spectacular that would complement the other activities surrounding the brand’s 100th anniversary, while at the same time add something new and meaningful to the excessive pantheon of books already out on the celebrated brand. For Melcher, the solution was partly in immersing himself in the culture to better understand the mindset of the Harley Owners Group. “It was an interesting challenge to try to create a book that would speak to the Harley hardcore—to be authentic. I grew up in a family with a father who thought that motorcycles would kill you instantly. So to do that book, I had to get on a motorcycle. I got a leather jacket[…]. It was a great experience to ride a motorcycle.”
For The Lexus Story, Melcher sought to create a book in line with the automaker’s brand qualities. The book comes in an elegant black cardboard case to protect the leatherbound tome. “Lexus means luxury,” he explains. “[Lexus] thought through the sound of the door closing; we thought through the sound of the case closing. We had to literally think of every piece to embody what the brand meant. The leather, the emblem, all that is very consciously translating from what Lexus as a car company means to what Lexus as a book means. “
Making a product that is both meaningful to the client as a positive experience while not appearing to the reader to be a thinly veiled shilling device is a challenge. As Melcher says, “It needs to be true to the brand. It needs to be original; it needs to be commercial—so that people really want to buy it.”
“We’re not out there to expose the dark underbelly of the company. We’re working with the company, but we try to have as much integrity as [possible],” says Melcher, admitting to the delicate balance. Indeed the books hint at hard decisions: Harley’s outlaw culture is not celebrated, while Lexus’s “perfect recall” of the LS400 series is addressed—a daring move on behalf of the brand owners, but one that makes the story more compelling.
Melcher points to his objective position for being able to bridge the gap between the needs of the client and the interests of a reader. “We don’t come from the branding side; we come from the publishing side. We’re coming at it from a consumer side and saying, ‘okay, we understand what your needs are but we also understand what a consumer’s needs are.’ ”
If done well, the reader will buy a book that effectively conveys a brand’s story or message. It’s the equivalent of selling t-shirts with your brand name on them; the customer pays to advertise for you. “If we make a really interesting book then it has a life of its own,” Melcher says. “There’s 6,500 bookstores in North America that will carry it and there are hundreds if not thousands of book reviewers that could potentially write about it and cover it. And that is valuable free coverage. I mean there’s nothing better than getting someone to pay to interact with your brand.”
Melcher suggests that the permanence of a book makes it an ideal medium for investment, over a PDF or printed brochure (which arguably can be done a lot cheaper and more easily). He admits that the medium can be expensive and time consuming, but compared to other communication methods, he insists it’s a good deal. “For what you spend on one national ad for 30 seconds on TV, you could print probably 20,000 books and put them in the right hands. And have a long lasting impact there. It’s not for every kind of message but it’s not relatively expensive to other media.”
As for Melcher Media’s own alternative marketing techniques, the company thinks beyond the bookshelf to offer product in unusual but relevant scenarios. Brand books can be sold at point-of-purchase outlets for the product, and entertainment books might appear in a general clothing store targeted at youth culture. For Seasons Gleamings (a book celebrating that homage to kitsch, the artificial Christmas tree), the publishers supplied silver trees for stores that would agree to do a window display. On the other hand, the waterproof book The Soothing Soak is displayed in a fishbowl filled with water to demonstrate its durability.
Of course Melcher is not a one-man operation and he points to his small but dedicated staff as a secret of success. He also looks on the bright side of being dwarfed by huge publishing firms and media conglomerates. “Being small and nimble and creative, we can do really good work. We’re not bogged down by bureaucracy or levels of management, or all sorts of things that might stifle really good work.”
This helps keep the work creative and quirky, but Melcher admits that not specializing in any one subject area and using different materials for different books, targeted at different audiences, is not the most efficient way of working. As he puts it, “Our approach is […] we’re going to build the form and content to work together in a unique way, and we’re going to market it in a unique way—all appropriate for the subject that we’re working on. But if you do that, guess what? Consumers do pay attention. They actually love the things that come in a box or pop up, or they can take in the bath, or has 3D glasses, or whatever it is. I believe that by crafting these individual unique works of art books we do better.”