Every once in a while a movement comes along that shakes up an industry and serves as a line in the sand between the staid, conventional thinking of the past and the radical new directions of the future. That movement is sweeping through the halls of airline marketing departments big and small right now; and they are reacting to the ever-changing landscape of the digital era with bold new marketing ventures that can best be described as “crazy”, “sexy” and above all else, “cool”.
When Fred Harvey partnered with the Santa Fe Railroad to bring fine, Victorian dining to the American Southwest via his Harvey House restaurant chain in the late 1870s, he spared no expense. Importing fine table linens from Ireland, china from England, and fresh fruit and vegetables from California, Harvey’s restaurants did well, but the rough-and-tumble wait staff (all men in those days) left much to be desired. And then one day, Harvey seized upon a revolutionary idea, if he couldn’t find reliable men to wait his tables; he’d bring in women instead.
And in what many consider to be the first truly great travel marketing scheme, Harvey launched a massive newspaper ad campaign seeking: “Single women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent” to work in his restaurants. A branding genius at heart, Harvey even coined a catchy name for his winsome new recruits from the east: Harvey Girls.
Not only did Harvey’s ads attract hundreds of adventure-seeking young ladies of fine moral character, but they also caught the eye of every cowboy, huckster and lonely businessman out west, who were suddenly busting down the doors to eat at Harvey’s restaurants. Overnight, business boomed and the sweet, fresh-scrubbed Harvey Girls became the stuff of legend. But perhaps Fred Harvey’s most lasting legacy is that he proved that when it came to selling bold, risky ventures like travelling by rail in the Wild West, sometimes all it really took to sell tickets was the promise of a wink and smile from a pretty girl.
And though Harvey was hardly the first savvy businessman to make a buck or two off a fetching lass, his “pretty girls in exotic locales” concept set the tone for travel industry marketing for the better part of a century. And nowhere has this trend been more apparent than in the airline industry, which has been using pretty women – or, as Austin Powers would say: ‘sexy stews’ – to sell tickets since the dawn of commercial aviation.
But as the Digital Revolution gave way to the dizzying, multi-screen ubiquity of today’s Information Age, suddenly, even marketing “sure things” like scantily-clad Hooters Girls serving free hot wings and beer on the late, great Hooters Air seemed creaky, dated, and, for lack of a better term, so “last century”.
The astonishing growth of social media only further highlighted the fact that if the airlines were to succeed and thrive on the digital frontier (as Harvey did on his), radical changes were called for. And though there are still a few major players who think that slapping up token Facebook pages or Twitter feeds will get the job done. A growing number of forward-thinking carriers are taking the social media bull by the horns by embracing bold, irreverent marketing concepts that are changing the way passengers view the industry.
Simply put, the future of airline marketing is now. Welcome aboard!
“As cyber space fills with all sorts of messages, you have to find ways of getting people’s attention,” says Patrick Roux, the senior VP Americas for Air France and KLM – two carriers that have proven to be major innovators on the social media front. “And being unique and identifiably cool is definitely the way to go. No matter your age group, you want to be a part of the next best thing.”
To that end, he says, technology “has made people want to be part of what’s modern, and giving people an experiential event goes a long way to imparting your brand message”. And with over 100,000 dedicated Facebook fans in the US alone and a global Facebook following of more than 2 million people, imparting their brand message has clearly not been a problem for KLM.
“Having such an audience of followers lets you nurture them as ambassadors of the brand and amplifies the power of word-of-mouth,” says Roux, who cites KLM’s controversial ‘Meet and Seat’ promo as a recent example of the power of social media marketing.
“Meet and Seat was revolutionary in concept,” says Roux. “When a KLM passenger makes a seat reservation [and] they’ve shared their LinkedIn or Facebook profile on a voluntary basis, they are able to see other [logged in] passengers on board. This gives passengers the option to sit next to friends, colleagues, fellow conference attendees, or just meet someone that has similar interests. The choice is the passenger’s.”
And while critics feared the programme would transform the cabin into a flying high school cafeteria, with the cool kids sitting together in one section and the geeks somewhere else, Roux says that hasn’t happened yet. In fact, Meet and Seat has been so popular online, that a number of other carriers are in the process of launching “social seating” programmes of their own.
Another airline that made a lot of noise in social media circles recently was leading low-cost carrier JetBlue. “JetBlue was founded on great PR, word of mouth, and buzz, it’s in our DNA,” says Lisa Borromeo, JetBlue’s director of brand management and advertising. And that was never truer than in 2012, when the airline launched its unprecedented Election Protection promotion, which offered passengers a free flight out of the country if their presidential candidate lost the election. The ads were hip, topical and totally non-partisan, and in the middle of one of the most bruising (not to mention costly!) election years in US history, JetBlue’s inspired promotion even managed to steal headlines from the candidates themselves.
“Rather than avoid the political chatter, we embraced it, in a non-partisan, non-political way, and our customers and the media embraced us for it,” says JetBlue advertising manager, Elizabeth Eelman. “The beauty of a campaign like Election Protection is that it’s grounded in keen human insight and it presented a solution to the age-old phrase: ‘If my candidate loses I’m leaving the country!’ People got it [and] more than 42 million people on Twitter and nearly two million people on Facebook engaged in the campaign.”
Eelman says the campaign also garnered nearly 60 million media impressions around the world, and was retweeted and shared thousands of times over. “The sign-up rate for the promotion through our social channels surpassed any other campaign we’ve launched – indicating that social media served as a vehicle not only to tell our story but to catapult a local, relatively low-paid media campaign into a global story,” she says.
And when it comes to global stories, it’s pretty hard to top the Olympics. But, this past summer, British Airways (BA) had loads of cheeky fun trying.
BA had already served as a partner in securing the London 2012 bid, so, the carrier may have seemed like an obvious choice to be the ‘Official Airline of the London Games’, but their simple, breathtakingly beautiful ads, video clips and experiential pop-ups were anything but. And while virtually all of BA’s Olympic marketing concepts were amazing, the high point had to be their brilliant ‘Don’t Fly: Support Team GB TV’ spots. Featuring a BA Boeing 777-200 taxiing passengers through the streets of London to the pulse-pounding sounds of The Clash’s “London Calling”, the ads took the Internet by storm and even offered Facebook users a chance to input their postcodes to customize the clip so that the jet appeared to taxi past their homes.
And though big, social media-fuelled promos are fun, a few carriers are proving that sly, blink-and-you-miss-it marketing concepts can be just as effective.
South Africa’s first low-cost carrier, Kulula Airlines, has taken this below-the-radar marketing approach to new heights (literally), by painting playful messages, text and artwork onto the bright green liveries of their entire fleet. In fact, the gags embedded in the carriers “wacky paint schemes” are often so subtle that casual observers don’t even notice them. But savvy AvGeeks and bloggers the world over are eating it up. And while all of the carrier’s distinctive liveries have proven popular with fans, Kulula is probably best known for its ‘Flying 101’ aircraft.
Essentially a flying diagram, the Flying 101 jet features a playful legend highlighting the various parts of the airplane, including a welcome mat outside the cabin door and “The Big Cheese” painted beneath the captain’s side window.
Fans of stealth marketing concepts were even more thrilled last year with the debut of a pair of truly unusual inflight safety videos from Delta Air Lines.
Anchored by a deadpan Delta Air Lines flight attendant performing her inflight safety presentation, Delta’s clips feature a series of offbeat, slyly hilarious sight gags – passengers stowing tiny, toy-sized suitcases and bonsai trees under the seat in front of them, or gilded portraits of luggage in the overhead bins – that can best be described as vaguely Dadaist in spirit. And while eagle-eyed passengers have been reaching in vain for the rewind button, the clips are so subtle and understated that most travellers miss the humour entirely.
Delta’s general manager of marketing communications, Maurcio Parise, says that’s fine with him. “A cool safety video is not new to Delta. Our previous version, launched in 2008, brought several new elements that broke through the safety video mould. However, after four years, our passengers were no longer paying attention. So, the Delta marketing team got together with our brand agency Wieden+Kennedy to come up with a new concept.”
“Delta’s overall brand efforts focus on how we are making flying better [and] this video is one more example of that. Our job is to create stories that are relevant and worth sharing. [Delta] has a big focus on developing shareable content on everything we do,” adds Parise, who explains that Delta’s biggest trump card moving forward is the element of surprise.
“I don’t think many [people] out there would expect Delta to come up with something like this, so the element of surprise helps too. We [look] forward to continuing to surprise our audience in a positive way,” he says.
And speaking of surprise, Air France outdid everyone in 2011 by unleashing an Air France food truck (!) onto the teaming streets of Manhattan.
“In 2011, we did something very unusual for us,” remembers Patrick Roux, the senior VP for both Air France and KLM for the Americas. “Together with Condé Nast Traveler, Air France US launched a food truck campaign in [New York City].” Manned by uniformed Air France chefs, the point of the food truck wasn’t just to serve free first class meals to the masses, but rather, says Roux, to give New Yorkers a taste of the luxurious Air France experience.
“It lasted a week and it was a very cold one,” says Roux. “But the lines were long and people savoured the cuisine that is so true to our product. We didn’t just want to spread the word about who we are; we wanted people to experience [it] for themselves. It was great fun, people [were] tweeting and posting to try it out, and the comments from New Yorkers were wonderful.”
Although it might not have airline branded food trucks, Air New Zealand (ANZ) revolutionized the very concept of co-branding this past holiday season with its multi-million dollar partnership with Warner Bros. to promote the release of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”.
Proudly rebranding itself as the ‘Official Airline of Middle Earth’, ANZ didn’t just wrap a plane in a beautiful Hobbit-themed livery, generate a fanboy-tastic inflight video (featuring cameos by Gollum and Sir Peter Jackson himself) and offer totally immersive inflight extras like Hobbit-themed food and hairy Hobbit feet socks. Nope. ANZ did all those things – and so much more – and social media reaction has been through the roof.
“Really when it comes down to it, you can do typical types of advertising and do billboards or TV ads, etcetera,” says John Wilhelm, Air New Zealand’s brand manager for western markets. “But, we like to take a bit of a creative, innovative approach to how we go about our marketing [and] we’ve done some unique and special things … and it’s actually exceeded our expectations on what we were able to accomplish within the social space.”
But perhaps the most significant take-away from ANZ’s branding partnership with Warner Bros. is that it proves that airlines can partner with leading, well-known brands without diluting their own unique brand identity. In fact, ANZ’s previous partnership with Warner Bros. continued to boost the carrier’s bottom line long after it ended, with legions of fans booking flights to New Zealand to see “Middle Earth” for themselves. A trend that should only increase over the next few years as the Hobbit sequels make their way into the marketplace.
And though AZN does offer certain flights where the crews don elf ears and flowing capes with elvish cloak pins, those on the market for a total immersion experience on every flight need look no further than the flying funhouses that are Eva Air’s ‘Hello Kitty’ Jets.
“We launched our first EVA Hello Kitty Jet in 2005 and our second a year later in 2006,” says KW Nieh, the group executive officer with the Evergreen Group, Eva Air’s Taipei-based parent company. “Our Hello Kitty Jets were a big success … passengers loved them and found the complete Hello Kitty Jet experience to be charming and fun.” So much so that when Eva’s partnership with Sanrio expired in October of 2008, fans clamored for the carrier to bring them back. “At about the same time, we were preparing to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our first flight [and] creating a second generation of Hello Kitty Jets [seemed like] the perfect way to commemorate two decades of passenger service,” says Nieh.
So, the partnership was quickly re-forged and EVA launched the first of its second-generation Hello Kitty Jets in October of 2011. And when Hello Kitty’s parent company, Sanrio, approached the carrier about selling duty-free Hello Kitty offerings in-flight, EVA president KW Chang hatched a much bolder idea instead. “[Chang] wanted to not only offer duty-free items but also to dress up our aircraft with Hello Kitty liveries,” says Nieh.
And while the vividly painted Harmonyland liveries are the cutest things in the air right now, the real treat for Hello Kitty fans worldwide is what’s inside those crazy cool airplanes. According to Nieh, EVA’s Hello Kitty Jets utilize more than 100 Hello Kitty service items, including: Hello Kitty seat back covers, pillows, eating utensils, napkins, soaps, lotions, and tissues. And in a branding touch that Fred Harvey himself would surely approve of, the flight attendants wear Hello Kitty aprons as well. But, the coolest concept has got to be the Hello Kitty shaped food items on the menu. Yep, even the food is adorable on a Hello Kitty Jet.
And for Nieh, that’s all part of the fun. “We make every effort to give our Hello Kitty Jet passengers fun, cheerful flying experiences from the time they check in at the airport until they arrive at their destinations. The aircraft and service items are fun to look at and the total experience is fun to talk about.”
Especially online, where Nieh says EVA Air’s brand identity has become almost synonymous with Hello Kitty’s. “The biggest surprise to us is that when we mention EVA Air, people immediately think of our Hello Kitty Jets and vice versa. Our two brands are connected!” And while that connection has produced outstanding results for both companies, Nieh says the most exciting aspect of all this has been how quickly EVA’s Hello Kitty Jet global fan base has grown in the past couple of years. To coin a phrase, says Nieh: “Our Hello Kitty Jets have gone viral.”
And in 2013, that virus might just be going global too. “This year we will be transforming one of our long-haul Boeing 777-300ERs into an EVA Hello Kitty Jet [that] we expect to launch in mid-2013,” says Nieh, who sums up the state of modern airline marketing in three sentences better than any fleet of flying billboards or airline branded food trucks could ever do. “We believe an airline can do more than sell tickets and fly people around the world. We make flying fun!”