For many, December 25, Christmas, is a very special day. Not for me — well, not at least this year. For me, my “Christmas” will take place on March 25, when the new season of “Mad Men” begins on cable network AMC.
The period drama, set in a 1960s New York City Madison Avenue advertising agency, offers its viewers outstanding writing, richly- developed characters, and a well-crafted plot — all wrapped up in a fantastic “jet set” package. “Mad Men” is also kind to airline and aviation fans, having incorporated American Airlines, Mohawk Airlines, Pan Am, and TWA into various episodes. The show’s attention to detail is excellent: A scene set in a TWA Boeing 707 featured authentic seat covers, cabin sidewalls, and flight attendant uniforms. “Mad Men” is everything that, regrettably, ABC’s short-lived “Pan Am” series was not.
I’ve always loved advertising — well, good advertising — and airline commercials have always been among my favorites. Those commercials heavily influenced my decision to focus my career in marketing and work in the travel industry.
Starting in the 1960s, airlines aired many memorable TV commercials to inspire consumers to think about traveling, and to have them consider air travel versus other, more familiar means of transportation, including rail, bus and, of course, the car. Regulated until 1978, airlines were highly fragmented (few had market share greater than a few points) and couldn’t compete on price. As carriers contested one another for passengers, they had to create distinct images to distinguish themselves — when you think about it, airlines as an industry were pioneers in branding. In the pre-Internet era, airlines relied heavily on advertising, and TV provided an efficient platform to reach passengers, plus two other important constituencies: Travel agents, who still booked most of the flights, and the carrier’s employees.
There’s no shortage of wonderful airline commercials from the pre-deregulated era. In the interest of brevity, I’ve chosen three examples that I believe are among the best:
Braniff International’s 1965 “end of the plain plane” ad campaign helped redefine not only the look, feel, and style of the airline industry, but advertising itself (I’m surprised that thus far there’s been no reference to Braniff’s advertising in “Mad Men”).
In the 1970s, American Airlines, under the leadership of then marketing head Robert Crandall, launched its memorable “Doing What We Do Best” campaign.
No discussion of airline advertising is complete without a reference to United Airlines and its iconic slogan, “Fly The Friendly Skies.” United’s advertising was so powerful that the slogan became, and remains, a part of our cultural lexicon. This spot looks like it could have been produced by “Mad Men’s” Don Draper himself — except Draper would probably not want to take his wife along.
Great airline advertising wasn’t limited to US carriers. “BOAC Takes Good Care Of You” and “Iberia, Where Only The Plane Gets More Attention Than You” are two memorable ad campaigns from carriers based outside the US. British Airways‘ TV commercials in the 1980s were the stuff that made many of my colleagues sigh wistfully and say “gee, I wish we did that.”
Fast forward to today’s digital world. Airlines understandably funnel a growing proportion of their limited marketing funds into digital media, especially search engine marketing. Compared to traditional marketing channels and media, digital is generally less expensive to produce, can be created and adjusted quickly, and is highly measurable. Airline marketing teams can track the effectiveness of different messages, prices, creative executions, ad size, page placement, key words, and more.
Airlines still use traditional media. In the US, a handful of carriers, including American, British Airways, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, and Southwest Airlines, continue to include TV in their media mix. Their commercials tend to air on cable networks and on broadcast channels in key local markets. Three spots strike me as particularly good, based on their creative execution and messaging. They are (in alphabetical order of the carriers):
American Airlines’ 2011 commercial touting the availability of in-flight Wi-Fi:
British Airways “To Fly, To Serve” campaign, launched in late 2011 with this tribute to the airline’s heritage.
Delta Air Lines, whose “Keep Climbing” advertising campaign matches arresting black-and-white video with beautifully written copy, narrated by actor Donald Sutherland. This is the latest airline’s newest spot.
As an analyst — and as a “marketing guy” — I believe that it’s smart for airlines to advertise on TV. Our research at Atmosphere Research Group shows that just 30% of travelers are brand loyal to a travel company. The airline business is similar to the soft drink category: Both are mature markets. It’s hard for an airline to add market share outside of adding cities, increasing capacity, cutting fares, or conducting aggressive loyalty program promotions. Jet fuel’s high cost provides great discipline on both speculative flying and irresponsible pricing decisions. Frequent flier programs appeal to only a subset of travelers. The result: If an airline wants to grow its market share, it must essentially steal passengers from its competitors. Marketing, thus, still matters for airlines.
Enter advertising. There are, of course, numerous marketing communications options available, but TV still has a role. Airlines can use TV to help travelers better understand their differences and reduce the impression among its target audience that “all airlines are alike.” TV still has merit: Atmosphere’s US Online Leisure Travel Benchmark Survey, Q4 2011 (N=5,058) shows that 15% of US airline passengers use commercials as a tool when planning a trip. The commercials, of course, can “live” beyond their on-air broadcast. A carrier can post them to its website, Facebook brand page, and, of course, on YouTube, considerably extending the commercial’s reach. Several airlines, including American, British Airways, Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest, have their own YouTube channels.
TV is also a good way to reach employees outside of work, and help them feel proud about the carrier for which they work. The BA and Delta commercials seem to have employees in mind as one of the target audiences. Smart.
What do you think? Are there any airline commercials, present or past that you really like? Did a commercial every influence you to choose (or maybe avoid) an airline? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments section.