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The fireplace, the chicken and the airplane: WestJet’s new approach

WestJet will air already existing content it has posted online, but will give it a more ‘atmospheric’ feel.

WestJet Airlines Ltd. is paying for some cable access.

Following in the footsteps of Swiss Chalet, which launched a channel in 2011 on Rogers Cable showing roasting chicken on a loop, the airline is now entering the ambient television game.

The WestJet Channel, which went on air Nov. 4, will show Rogers Communications Inc. customers images of balmy climes and sun-dappled beaches – just as the days shorten and the winter coats come out.

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For years, there was not much competition in ambient TV. Rogers's offerings include the Aquarium Channel and the Fireplace Channel, neither of which are ratings blockbusters. But Swiss Chalet put a new spin on the cheesy fireplace with glistening chickens turning on a spit in 2011, an audacious move that reflected a larger shift in media strategies.

As people consume programming from a greater variety of non-traditional sources, such as YouTube or Netflix, marketers have not been able to buy the kind of reach with a single commercial that they used to. In response, they have had to explore different ways of getting consumers' attention.

Hence the growth of "branded content" – articles, videos or other content produced to feel less like an ad, and more like entertainment.

"You can spend a bit more time with the customer in a lean-back approach, without the feeling of being sold, in a relaxed atmosphere," said George Huovinen, director of account planning at media buying agency Media Experts.

"Content is the future of what we're trying to get across."

It also says something about how media companies are rethinking their advertising sales strategies. Canada's biggest "conventional" networks – CTV, City TV and Global – as well as many of its cable channels are now owned by companies that also provide cable or satellite TV services. Rogers is one of them, and is in a position to sell an entire channel, in addition to the more traditional 30-second spot. The cable company has started to pitch advertisers on atmospheric channels such as the one produced for Swiss Chalet. In 2012, it worked with Disney to promote the release of Finding Nemo 3D, by showing the animated Nemo swimming through the tank alongside other real fish on The Aquarium Channel.

"This is a function of our new integrated sales approach," said Gavin Roth, vice-president of multiplatform sales at Rogers Media. "...We are going to clients and tapping into our full asset mix."

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Because advertisers are now expected to produce more content to add to their brands' presence online, programming is not hard to come by. WestJet's channel will feature a great deal of content it is already posting online. Vignettes from tropical destinations such as Grand Cayman, Bermuda and Puerto Plata, for example, will simply be modified to remove the promotional-sounding voice-overs and make the content feel more atmospheric.

The channel will also give viewers a peek behind the scenes at what is known in the industry as "the apron," or the part of the airport outside of the terminal where baggage loading and other activities take place. It is content that could be considered both "thoroughly scintillating" or "a little bit boring" depending on the viewer, said David Soyka, WestJet's director of marketing.

The channel will run a contest called Tweet the Beach, inviting viewers about once every half hour to post messages on Twitter about what they are watching for a chance to win a trip to the destination they see on the screen.

It is a chance for WestJet to build its marketing in Ontario, where the bulk of Rogers's cable customers are located, but will also appear in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. The Calgary-based airline has excellent brand awareness in Western Canada, but "we definitely have an awareness of a need to grow our business in the east," Mr. Soyka said.

The channel gives WestJet access to 2.16 million Rogers Cable subscribers. Rates are based on how many people actually tune in. "There's a reason we're buying that 30-second spot in Survivor … this is not necessarily casting the net as widely as [that], but it's meant to be more one-to-one," Mr. Huovinen said.

"It's definitely not just traditional [advertising] anymore," he said.

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WestJet's programming will be on air until the beginning of February.

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