International Business Media: Upper Class Content

Bespoke media can be an economical means of targeting an international business audience, Lucy Aitken writes.

The international business community is a tough crowd to please. These high-flyers don't seem to watch much TV or relax with phone-directory-sized magazines. They tend to prefer short news programmes and briefcase-sized publications containing digests, analysis and business tips.

Their universe comprises conference calls, presentations, business travel, hotels, airports and an umbilical attachment to mobile phones and laptops.

Research by PHD before BT's first global business-to-business campaign, which positioned the brand as an alternative supplier to HP and Accenture, also revealed they are sceptical of advertising. So increasingly, brands targeting this group are looking to create bespoke content.

One route is advertiser-funded programming. Creating a branded TV programme makes economic sense, Mark Cullen, the chief executive of the content creation company Enteraction, argues. "Imagine IBM is trying to hit a market of 40,000 people by using ITV1 and Channel 4 alongside cable, digital and satellite channels," he says. "That's using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It would be much more sensible to have a TV relationship with a few of those people instead of blowing £10 million on a campaign."

Some brands have already tried it, including Cisco, Sun Microsystems and Oracle. All three used the branded content company Fact Based Communications (FBC). Oracle, for instance, had its own branded show, The Players - a series of interviews with chief executives such as Virgin's Richard Branson and Nissan's Carlos Ghosn. It ran on CNBC Europe as well as on national platforms in Germany, Sweden, Holland and Italy. A CNBC Europe viewer was moved to comment: "I am a regular viewer of CNBC Europe because it carries a lot of information and, unfortunately, a lot of commercials. The Players is far more clever and less irritating."

More recently, FBC developed a show called Dolce Vita for a consortium of 18 Italian luxury brands including Alessi, La Perla and Versace. Alan Friedman, the chairman and chief executive of FBC, describes the show as "good quality entertainment which looks at the magic of Italian design".

The idea for Dolce Vita grew out of FBC's show Fashion House, a Nokia-branded pan-European reality TV show which aired last year. Dolce Vita already has distribution in 15 countries, in addition to the in-flight TV entertainment of 15 airlines. FBC estimates that it will attract a total of 100 million eyeballs over 12 months.

Friedman comments: "The 30-second TV spot is just not reaching all the demographics. Branded entertainment means that brands can have a new relationship with the media product."

Another client that has used FBC is Visa, which created a series before the Olympics called The Road To Athens. It was broadcast on Sky News and Sky Sport in Italy using the company's strategic alliance with News Corporation.

Intense competition in the credit card sector means this is another area where high-end brands are eager to find new ways of communicating with their target audiences. American Express, for instance, held an exclusive black-themed fashion show to celebrate five years of its elite Centurion card. It also siphoned a hefty chunk of its Green Card budget into "webisodes" starring two of America's most famous icons, Jerry Seinfeld and Superman. Utilising the direct-response nature of the internet, the webisodes positioned Amex in a new light: as a content provider, a la BMW films.

Many of the world's biggest brands have already become content providers through contract publishing. A huge growth area in terms of the international business audience has been in-flight magazines, which now feature alongside Time and The Economist on pan-European readership surveys such as EMS.

British Airways got the ball rolling when it launched High Life in 1973.

The airline now has two more titles, Business Life and Firstview. Jason Hayford, the international business-to-business manager of Starcom Group, thinks highly of the airline's portfolio. "High Life and Business Life provide a template for other brands to aspire to," he says. "They are well-written and professional."

So what alchemy is involved in creating a quality media product from a successful brand? Mark Jones, the editorial director at Cedar, which publishes BA's magazines, says: "What we've done is to create sub-brands which are identified with British Airways but which have an independent life in their own right. Everyone knows that High Life is British Airways. But they also know that it's not plastered full of British Airways messages."

Jones emphasises that another secret to BA's success has been a conscious decision not to regard other in-flight titles as rivals, but to imagine the magazine on the newstand. "High Life's competitive set is Newsweek, The Economist, Harpers & Queen and Vogue, " he says.

Carlos, Virgin Atlantic's recently launched and highly regarded answer to High Life, promises to do much the same thing. But not all contract titles boast such high standards of quality control. Some titles take advertising from anyone who is willing to "stump up the cash", according to Hayford. "Some of the less professional outfits can tarnish the shiny shopfronts," he observes.

Hayford's point is an important one. When brands become media owners, there is a set of responsibilities that come with the territory. If a contract magazine comes out late, it reflects badly on the brand. If an ad for a rival product is sold by a junior ad sales person, the brand looks silly. And if a bespoke TV programme has poor production qualities, the brand risks losing integrity.

International jetsetters are an unforgiving lot. If bespoke content fails to capture their interest once, a second chance seems unlikely. Jones lends some advice to brands considering content creation: "Think it through. If you don't, there's always the danger that you'll end up with something that's just an indulgence."