Olivia Parker
Aug 22, 2017

Inflight magazines: Paper planes soar higher

Higher quality editorial combined with more passengers means inflight magazines remain a fertile print landing ground for ads. But is the rise of onboard wifi changing the game?

Literary vision: Cathay Dragon’s Silkroad broke new ground with its specially commissioned anthology of short stories
Literary vision: Cathay Dragon’s Silkroad broke new ground with its specially commissioned anthology of short stories

Cathay Pacific’s inflight magazine, Discovery, contains some ideas as lofty as the skies its aircraft navigate. “Why spend your life trying to be happy when you could be eudaemonic instead?” asks British philosopher Julian Baggini in a column on Western thinking. “A more noble notion of happiness asks people ‘to be content with poverty’,” responds the writer Wai-hung Wong in his answering column for the East.

Every month since June 2015, when content marketing agency Cedar beat bids by SCMP and Bauer Media to become Cathay’s publication partner, these two celebrated thinkers have helped elevate the carrier’s cabins to become exclusive forums of modern philosophical debate. Their musings sit alongside original illustrations, in high-design magazines stuffed with standout photography and scholarly writing. Cedar’s Silkroad publication for sister airline Cathay Dragon, meanwhile, featured its first ever ‘Silkroad Short Story Anthology’ last month: four specially commissioned stories by authors including Booker short-lister David Mitchell, each with a cover by a different Asian artist.

To say this isn’t the kind of content most people expect to read onboard would be an understatement. “I’ll be absolutely honest, [inflight magazines] used to be pretty default,” states Discovery’s editorial director, Mark Jones, who edited the British Airways High Life magazine for six years before moving to Cedar, which is part of the BBDO/Omnicom group. “A lot of them have got better over the years but a lot are still pretty dreary. They’ll have a default picture library shot of Vienna on the cover with a headline that says ‘Vibrant City’ or something.”

In Asia-Pacific, the savviest airlines have been making significant efforts to raise the quality of their inflight material. In the last 18 months, magazines Silkwinds (Singapore’s SilkAir), Aspire (Hong Kong Airlines) and Mabuhay (Philippine Airlines) have all undergone a rebrand or redesign. All three of these are managed by the travel content producers Ink, whose Asia-Pacific MD, Ric Stockfis, says his goal is to create world-class magazines. This means addressing readers’ increasingly high expectations with features “they can’t read about anywhere else”: a recent piece in Silkwinds, for example, centred on a rare ‘fishing cat’ found in Columbo, Sri Lanka.

New look: SilkAir's Silkwinds publication has undergone a recent redesign.

As long as fierce rivalry and falling profits persist, any differentiation points these efforts earn the airlines are worthwhile in the battle for a larger slice of the growing Asian travel market. APAC carriers recorded a passenger increase of 10.9 percent in January this year compared to 2016, according to the latest report by IATA. Boeing has already planned to build over 13,000 new aircraft for Asia-Pacific between now and 2033 (double the number required for the US), and anticipates demand for 248,000 new commercial pilots here in the next two decades, almost half of whom will be needed by China.

With more travellers taking to the skies, travel media represents not only a key brand building opportunity for the airlines, but a chance for advertisers to reach an uncommon entity in today’s world: a highly-attentive audience. “I think the latest [statistics] we’ve got are that 64 or 65 percent of passengers will pick up and read a magazine when they’re on board,” says Stockfis. And according to A Flight to Remember, a study commissioned by Ink, recall of brands advertised in inflight magazines is 50-percent stronger on the plane compared to on the ground.

This engagement couples appealingly with the vast reach of inflight magazines, of course: Philippines-based Cebu Airlines’ Smile publication claims a readership of 16.8 million per year, while Gateway by China Southern says it has approximately 9.6 million readers a month, of whom 90.5 percent are apparently educated to university level or higher. 

“Inflight offers a strong opportunity to connect with an audience that generally skews A/B, high affinity finance/business at a moment when many have some form of captive down time,” says Ben Crawford, regional communications planning director at IPG Mediabrands.

Ink is as a result optimistic about the health of ad sales in its print magazines, says Stockfis, despite competition from online. “Compared to digital, what’s great is that with us you’re talking about a real audience, real people and you can see the demographic that it is going to. The other good thing for advertisers is that everything that we produce is inspirational so their brand is always going to be featured in an inspiring, luxurious print environment. There is no risk that their ad is going to run alongside some bad news.”

This assessment is supported by Brendan Inns, managing director of Asian Integrated Media, which handles the Cathay publications’ advertising enquiries. “We are finding we have clients this year who are spending very large sums in print who we haven’t seen do so in the past,” says Inns. There are two reasons for this, he explains: first, there are still brands that “really do see the value in print”, often luxury names that feel this medium supports their objectives.

East-west thinking: Cultural alternatives tackle the big issues on the pages of Discovery.

Secondly, says Inns, there are many brands that see the value in this audience. “They have perhaps spent large sums in print and other forms of advertising before on broader audiences and they’re now saying, ‘Hang on, we’ve got to get smarter with the way we are spending our money. We have seen before that people who are purchasing our products and services are affluent travellers and therefore this is the perfect audience and the perfect environment.’” In particular, advertisers serious about capturing tricky Chinese consumers, who are known to spend when they travel, should see inflight magazines as “an obvious choice”, he says.

Despite the opportunities, it would be wrong to paint an entirely rosy picture of the APAC inflight magazine market. IPG’s Crawford thinks that even in the relatively distraction-free plane environment, magazines are holding less relevance than they have historically. “Inflight magazines may be the weakest of the possible ‘travel’ connections if used in isolation,” he says, suggesting that the best opportunities in this sector occur when brands “have ownership across the ‘airport ecosystem’”.

“[Magazines do] allow passengers to seek more on a brand, product or experience if integrated in content and referenced in other touchpoints,” he says. This means reaching customers not only when they’re strapped into their seats, but via digital OOH in the airport or advertising in travel lounges, for example. “When used strategically these connections can be powerful in following valuable audiences across their travel experience, particularly for luxury brands as a way of creating equity in positive contexts.”

Fresh competition: Publishers remain confident, but inflight technology is increasingly vying for passengers’ attention

Once more plane cabins in the region become internet-enabled, of course, the ‘integrated experience’ will finally be able to reach its full potential. But when passengers are able to stay hooked to their devices for entire flights, is it realistic that the magazines, no matter how high-minded or well-produced, will still hold their attention — and be worth the ad investment?

Recent reports are discouraging for print: according to a 2016 study by Inmarsat, 64 percent of APAC fliers said that if they had onboard wifi, they wouldn’t need any other in-flight entertainment. Some 54 percent said that if offered just one service on board, from wifi to a meal to a magazine, they would pick connectivity; just 4 percent would chose the magazine.

But the publishers, unsurprisingly, remain hopeful. Stockfis makes the point that aircraft being built today for use in 10 or 15 years time are still designed with seat pockets for magazines. “Inflights’ ‘doom’ has been predicted for years,” says Jones, citing on-demand TV and free newspapers at boarding gates as just two threats that have failed to collapse the market as expected.

But both Jones and Stockfis are already exploring new ways to integrate their content across all travel touchpoints, in pursuit of an editorial plan that will continue to attract advertisers. Ink, for example, is making destination videos that are also used as marketing tools to encourage customers to buy plane tickets, and it also creates travel shows that are broadcast over the in-flight entertainment system. Cedar is starting to develop original content for its Discovery portal, which previously only housed its print articles, and to expand its video offering.

Inflight magazines and their (potential) readerships

Discovery (Cathay Pacific) - 2 million/year

Silkroad (Cathay Dragon) - 850,000/year

Silkwinds (SilkAir) - 4 million/year

Smile (Cebu Pacific) - 16 million/year

Gateway (China Southern) - 9.6 million/month

Connections (China Eastern) - 8.5 million/month

“I think we will see an opportunity where, if we’re doing an interview with Amy Schumer, and we’ve done a video with her, then the two should work together and you’ve even got an Amy Schumer film on the inflight entertainment and can eventually click to see Schumer’s favourite coffee shop and you can go there,” says Jones.

Whatever happens in the inflight media landscape, the quality of content will not drop, insists Stockfis. “We don’t want to just try and replicate what digital are doing to keep up with digital,” he says. “I think what we’ve seen actually is that there is quite an appetite for longform storytelling. People seem to relish the opportunity to just step back a bit and immerse themselves in great stories, great photography. We’re competing with content of all kinds, in all different directions, and so we want to make sure that it’s just fantastic content and ultimately we don’t mind whether people are getting it from our magazine or videos we’re doing or anywhere else — but I don’t think that the rise of digital means we have to change everything that we’re doing.”

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