United’s Rhapsody Magazine Takes Content Marketing to New Heights

By Tessa Wegert May 7th, 2015

United Airlines passengers in first and business class have come to expect extra-wide leather seats and hot towel service—but what about a literary magazine featuring the work of award-winning novelists? That’s not peanuts.

Since its launch in late 2013, the airline’s luxury lifestyle and culture magazine Rhapsody has featured the work of some 30 celebrated writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, Karen Russell, Emily St. John Mandel, and author of the most recent Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Anthony Doerr. Their nostalgic travel stories are printed alongside accounts of “power couples” like Bill and Melinda Gates and profiles of celebrities like Robert De Niro.

As the airline’s managing director of marketing and product development Mark Krolick recently told The New York Times, “The high-end leisure or business-class traveler has higher expectations, even in the entertainment we provide.”

Lovers of literary fiction have long had their eye on the magazine. But for content marketers, it’s worthy of note for two reasons: its exclusivity, and the caliber of its stories. Rhapsody is only available in United’s premium cabins and lounges, a strategy that enhances the airline’s already prestigious first class experience. It elevates the decades-old in-flight magazine concept through rare collaborations that benefit all partners involved. United gets to offer its prized passengers highbrow entertainment—contributing novelists, meanwhile, gain access to some 2 million readers with the expendable cash to buy their books.

United’s Rhapsody isn’t unrivaled as an example of literary branded content. The publishing and marketing worlds have long had an ongoing alliance.

Earlier this year, American Airlines redesigned its American Way magazine to include new features like “a writer’s unique look at a travel-related topic.” And according to The New York Times, Amtrak has partnered with Penguin Random House to offer free digital samples of nearly 30 popular books to its passengers.

Other industries are betting that narratives crafted by popular writers will help them court consumers as well. Initially launched last year, Chipotle’s Cultivating Thought series has seen original—dare we say snackable—stories printed on the restaurant chain’s cups and bags by some of the biggest names in the contemporary literary world.

From the start the venture has been overseen by best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer. The second installment, which hit stores in January and tenders 10 new essays, highlights such esteemed international novelists and thinkers as Paulo Coelho, Barbara Kingsolver, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and Amy Tan. “While typical fast food companies use their packaging to promote new menu items or sell the space to advertisers, we have always tried to use our packaging to engage with our customers’ wit and intellect,” Chipotle’s chief marketing and development officer Mark Crumpacker said.

Also in 2014, automaker Land Rover partnered with James Bond series author William Boyd to launch an original novella housed on Tumblr. The Vanishing Game follows a British actor as he transports a curious object from London to Scotland in—what else—a Land Rover Defender, “We hope fans of literary adventure thrillers enjoy the story, and perhaps see themselves driving across the Scottish countryside in one of our iconic vehicles,” said Kim McCullough, Vice President of Marketing, Jaguar Land Rover North America. As an “interactive literary experience,” Vanishing Game includes audio of the text, music, video, animation, and ambient sound for atmosphere. It also links to a sister site, called Well Storied, that showcases visual accounts of other Land Rover adventures curated from actual owners online.

Back in 2001 English author Fay Weldon was commissioned by jewelry and luxury goods brand Bulgari to write The Bulgari Connection. Weldon’s fellow writers lambasted the “novel” arrangement, but while the product placement may have been heavy handed, that partnership doesn’t differ much from Land Rover and Boyde’s.

Ultimately, these brands are aligning themselves with these truly notable writers in order to entertain and inform their customers—and if that relationship takes their brand to new heights, all the better.

Image by Ink-Live