Time and Sony photo-exhibition at Raffles City Singapore, September 29th 2001.

Mention professional photography and immediately images of SLR cameras branded with the words Nikon, Olympus or Canon and loaded with high definition slide film come to mind. Suggest that a digital camera might be able to compete on level footing with such instruments and you raise smiles of pity from those who know a thing or two about cameras. “Great for parties and holidays, but for the advanced capabilities essential for a professional, it has to be an SLR”.

Sony is recognised as the undisputed leader in consumer electronics, the company now synonymous with digital innovation in the audio-visual category. They do not yet however enjoy such recognition in the photographic field – the mass digital camera market being dominated by Canon Ixus and the top professional segment being populated by the entrenched SLR fans.

The challenge for CIA was thus to devise a communication strategy that would give the Sony camera brands credibility as well as exposure, going beyond advertising (which consumers might view in a cynical light) to use vehicles that would allow for convincing demonstration and interaction.

In 2000 Time Magazine’s summer double issue carried an editorial travel feature “Asian Journey: From Saporo to Surabaya”. For 2001 another editorial voyage was planned, this time taking the readers “From the Middle Kingdom to Mombasa” with China’s greatest adventurer, the 15th Century Admiral, Zheng He. Centuries before Columbus, this explorer, with his armada of vast ocean-going junks, “helped transform China into the region’s, and perhaps the world’s, 15th Century superpower”. Yet he is largely unknown outside of China and barely given due recognition within it. This historical context gave the feature additional “pulling power” for consumers and provided a great environment for a bold Asian brand.

As in the previous year, this feature was not available for sponsorship, but early in 2001 CIA opened discussions with the magazine to explore means of integrating Sony cameras into the editorial journey. After months of discussion and negotiation involving Time editorial and marketing divisions and the product and sales companies from Sony as much as the magazine’s ad sales department, an integrated package of communication was constructed that would give in-magazine, on-line, retail and on-ground exposure and association with the feature. While the article was not open for official sponsorship, the use of advertorial pages to open and close the feature and frequent advertisements throughout gave us more than implicit ownership.

Most importantly, CIA persuaded one of Time’s professional photographers to take a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-S85 on the 4-week editorial trip to test its worth against the SLRs. His shots from the journey were included in a double page spread advertorial, together with his comments and praise for the camera: “I’m extremely impressed with how well the DSC-S85 captures colours and details, even in low light situations without a flash”. Other photographs from the trip were shown side-by-side with the SLR shots at exhibitions held by Time at shopping malls in 3 Asian cities (Singapore, Seoul and Taipei). These were co-ordinated with the local Sony sales teams to include product demonstrations of the Cyber-shot range and accessories. The quality and versatility of the professional and consumer ranges astonished many attendees.

A clear advantage of digital camera technology over the film-based SLR’s is its connectivity. With no need for a development or scanning process, pictures can be transferred directly from the camera to a computer, edited as necessary and then sent to friends or for publication in print. With its Memory Stick technology, Sony is one step ahead of the digital competition on account of the complete flexibility offered by this transferable devise. In order to showcase this component, an interactive online component was incorporated into the agreement. Readers were encouraged to visit a Sony microsite hosted on the Time website to learn more about the Cyber-shot capabilities and also submit one of their own favourite digital photographs, giving them the chance to win the same camera model that David McIntyre had taken on Admiral Zheng He’s journey.

To complete the communication circle being spun around the consumer, we also arranged for 5,000 reprints of the travel feature (containing only Sony branding and advertisements) to be provided for Sony retail outlets across the region.

Sony was impressed by the 360-degree communication package that was collectively woven out of a media planner’s initiative. Attendance at the first of the exhibitions was excellent and the local sales office was delighted by the level of consumer interest and interaction. Over 150,000 impressions were made to the microsite and the winning entry in the competition was a clear demonstration of the quality and scope of digital photography.

And Admiral Zheng He was given some deserved recognition for the incredible feats of exploration, conquest, trade and diplomacy that he had achieved six centuries ago.