Not all content marketing needs to spark the mini ‘crime wave’ that BA caused with its exclusive High Life photo shoot and interview with Benedict Cumberbatch.

But, there is a lot that brands can learn from this and its fellow content innovators: exceed quality expectations, take advantage of a captive audience and create brand partnerships that make sense.

How did British Airways do it? 

It all started with a Tweet: a preview of the May issue of BA’’s in-flight magazine High Life. The preview image featured Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of BBC’s Sherlock. Jaguar had teamed up with BA for the feature, giving High Life exclusive access to its brand ambassador.

Through High Life’s pre-meditated drip feed of strategic Tweets to key Sherlock/Benedict superfans (I believe they’re known as ‘Cumberbitches’), the feature became a social media sensation.

Fans began to recreate the photo of Cumberbatch playing with huskies through a variety of media, with cupcake replicas being the ultimate homage. The demand for the free magazine skyrocketed, and soon enough, was being sold at a premium on eBay, creating a bemused media frenzy in the process. 

High Life is an award-winning magazine that seeks to produce the best content possible, an investment that is certainly paying off.

As editor Kerry Smith put it last year:

This year, we really set out to take High Life to a new level, bringing together great editorial and creative so that every issue competes with the best on the newsstand.

And it shows. The photos of Cumberbatch, driving a Jaguar on Finland’s frozen Lake Hameenlinna, taken by photographer Joe Windsor-Williams, could have easily lived in any paid for glossy newsstand title.

Readers really got this and were thankful for it. The Cumberbatch ‘crime wave’ points not only to the success of good content, but also to the importance of creative distribution and realistic brand pairings. 

Sports Direct: using quality in unexpected ways

Surprisingly, budget-sports wear retailer Sports Direct is also in the business of creating stylish, premium content.

Earlier this year it launched Forever Sport, which in recent issues has featured interviews with boxer Floyd Mayweather, marathon runners and Sky Sports presenters. 

The brand has really tapped into its area of expertise, from which it has almost endless streams of content and ideas – from hockey to tennis, skateboarding to swimming – which it takes from print magazine and extends across multiple channels online at, and on social media, including Instagram and Facebook. 

This content is displayed in a slick and stylish way – from beautiful shots of ice climbing, to mouth-watering Mojito recipes that look lifted from the pages of luxe magazines. It shows that budget brands can create premium content. 

Marks & Spencer: inspired by freemium

In the UK, the words ‘freemium’ and ‘successful’ go hand in hand with Stylist, the commuter favourite that has caused a stir in both print and digital, through collectable cover editions for events such as London Fashion Week and Kylie Minogue’s 25 year music anniversary.

So how are retail brands taking freemium inspiration from the likes of Stylist?

Take Marks & Spencer, a traditional brand whose transition into the modern digital world has been a long time coming.

While the ecommerce aspect of their website may still have some kinks to work out, they’ve clearly invested in content to appeal to their customers.

There are a plethora of ways that M&S has brought itself into the 21st century, but one of the most interesting ways is through its M&S TV section, where it combines content from all of its products, as well as its now famous campaigns such as ‘Shwopping’ and ‘Leading Ladies’. 

This editorial focus provides daily video and written content from journalists, guest editors and the celebs who endorse M&S themselves, such as model and actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. Constant updates keep stories fresh and encourage repeat visitors – and ultimately, shoppers. 

This new look is a welcome change that follows the visual footsteps of other luxe style giants (think Net-A-Porter), which creates a high-fashion magazine feel for a high-street brand.

The key message across all these brands is to aim high, and always keep delivering.

Your audience will clamour for your content and thank you for regularly brightening their days with free, quality content. High Life, Forever Sport and M&S have shown it’s possible to offer free content at a premium level.

As more brands invest in quality content, newsstand favourites like Vogue, Cosmopolitan and GQ should keep their eyes peeled for what their freemium competitors will do next.