Commentary

Ralph Lauren Takes Over The Times iPad App, Reminds Us What A 'Sponsor' Does

If you haven't yet caved to the New York Times paywall restrictions and ponied up the subscription fee, then you may have let your iPad app for the brand lie unused in recent months. Ralph Lauren gives you a reason to revisit the app with a program that gives users full article access to select sections of the Times and fills many of its ad spaces with lush Lauren creative.

When I clicked into my first article this morning a full screen video invited me to click through to the digital magazine that forms the core of this promotion, which includes almost a dozen text, image and video features. It is probably the most ambitious attempt at brand advertising yet on the iPad, or at least branding that is embedded within a content app.

Medialets has outlined some of the pieces in a blog post this morning. Following the current trend toward emphasizing the e-commerce strengths of the iPad, CEO Eric Litman highlights the fact that the ad unit incorporates seamless ordering.

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Many of the large-scale images in the Lauren magazine  have links to an embedded shopping cart. No call-outs to a separate embedded browser or (worse) the Safari browser and a tablet-unfriendly Web site. Now you can order those $500 leather jeans as soon as you see them and be back at the op-ed page without missing a beat. This should make life in the Hamptons just a tad better this weekend. Seriously, it is a good example of leveraging this technology to move a reader from content to sponsor message to shopping inspiration to actual purchase in just a few swipes.  

For my money (which cannot afford $500 jeans), the more interesting aspect of the Lauren/Times project is its overall level of sponsorship integration. Among the many things that Ralph Lauren does well here is pull the reader toward the advertorial with large content-filled ad placements throughout the app. The integration of the Lauren content into the Times reading experience overcomes one of the key weaknesses of the Apple iAd formula -- a banner pull that is incongruous with the richness of the landing experience.

This is a good illustration of how the digital app format can improve on traditional custom publishing. Superficially, the Lauren project in the Times app is a classic bundled advertorial. In print this magazine would come separately bound but packed in the same shrink wrap. In the Sunday magazine it might be an extended insert. In either case, the experience of the custom publishing project is separate from the main editorial, simply piggybacking on the magazine or newspaper that functions as a delivery vehicle.

In the embedded form that we see in this in-app execution, the advertorial content can be more fully integrated with the reading experience and ever-present. The alignment of luxury sponsor with high-end content brand is nigh-perfect, of course.  

For all the years I covered online digital media, every few years or so I would find myself writing another story about the revival of the true sponsorship format on the Web. Every once in a while you would find major brands truly host and underwrite entire sections of a site. The advantages of the sponsorship model are so obvious I always wondered why we didn't see more digital budgets go this way. In some ways it promises to fix what is so clearly frustrating and broken about online advertising. The model aligns the product and brand with a trusted media source, getting much more contextual benefit than merely swapping in frequency capped banners via ad networks. It allows for a full share of voice that battles the staggering, ad-blinding clutter of the Web. It allows for much greater creative freedom to dazzle, inform and impress the reader. And it makes explicit and rewarding the fundamental exchange of value in ad-supported media: the sponsor is underwriting a valued content experience. 

Somehow the technology-driven models of Web advertising wrenched us away from a sponsorship model that in many ways makes even more sense in a digital realm than even in an analogue world. When aligned neatly with the right content and integrated sensibly with the entire editorial experience, a sponsorship like this gets much more than a halo effect. It puts the reader at ease with the advertiser and ready to extend the attention one pays to the editorial into the advertising.

How well this advertorial holds up over the course of the month's sponsorship remains to be seen. One risk of even the cleverest sponsorship is that it gets stale after one use. But the entire project is aiming toward a live stream of the Sept. 15 Lauren runway presentation of its spring 2012 collection. Surely you can't get much fresher advertorial content than that. /p>

Marshall McLuhan was noted for suggesting that every new medium draws upon elements not only of its immediate predecessor but even formerly dormant models. In the case of apps, perhaps this is an opportunity to revisit the true sponsorship model, where the interests of publisher, advertiser and reader worked together to everyone's benefit.            

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