The Marketing Importance of Airline Liveries

As a young boy, I used to watch Star Wars and wonder if any of those flying machines would be real one day. Part of that dream came true a few weeks ago, when ANA made a deal with Walt Disney Japan and revealed their plans for a R2-D2 themed Dreamliner. One look at the image below and you realise the obvious: Airline liveries indeed have a powerful way of impressing and influencing!

ANA's Star Wars 787 Dreamliner

ANA’s Star Wars 787 Dreamliner

The increasing interest in Hollywood to market their latest projects up in the sky through airline liveries all over the world, and the opportunity for airline executives to differentiate themselves from their peer projects, are pushing these marketing tie-ups higher than ever before.

Airline marketing, just like the industry itself, is complex and dynamic. At SimpliFlying, we like to remind folks how Brand Engagement is often under-utilised by airlines. A customer’s engagement with a Coke can is probably less than 10 minutes while you’re drinking it; slightly more with a Starbucks Coffee. However, with an airline, brand engagement can range from 2 hours to 20 hours, based on whether you’re flying from Boston to Miami, or Delhi.

It all started with..

In the mid 1980s, Southwest Airlines, then promoted by Herb Kelleher thought of something unique to drive brand engagement. They wanted to connect more effectively with some of their local markets and wanted passengers to remember their time aboard the Southwest 737s.

Enter Shamu. In the May of 1988, Southwest painted their Boeing 737-300 as a killer whale from nose to tail. This was part of an agreement with Sea World, which ran till late last year. Shamu, as the aircraft was christened, was launched with huge celebrations, including taking the aircraft to over 27 cities; special uniforms for cabin crew; toys; and other merchandise. In fact, at one point, Southwest had over five planes with different Shamu liveries.

Since then Southwest has had many interesting liveries on their aircraft, including NBA stars, Swimsuit models (no special cabin crew uniform for this one!) and city-based liveries, including the latest — Missouri One.

Even before the R2-D2 themed upcoming jet, ANA has had a storied past with its airline liveries. In 1998, it revealed the first of its many Pokémon themed aircraft, coinciding with the movie release. This wasn’t a hollow marketing push. ANA went all in, including themed headrests, cabin crew uniform and souvenir bags. Passengers saw the genuine effort, which led to actual increase in ticket sales as well.

Southwest Airlines' Sports Illustrated Livery and ANA's Pokemon 747

Southwest Airlines’ Sports Illustrated Livery and ANA’s Pokemon 747

The South African LCC, Kulula Airways is another clutter breaker. Their “Flying 101” livery is almost a benchmark of how to do it right. As you can see in the photograph, the livery points out various parts of the aircraft, mixed with humor. Passengers just don’t enjoy being on the aircraft; they retain the experience, increasing brand recall and loyalty.

Kulula's Flying 101 Livery

Kulula’s Flying 101 Livery

If you really think about it, airplanes are perfect vehicles to show the creative side of your brand. Airline liveries reflect partnerships with movie studios: like Etihad and Fast & Furious 7; the famous LOTR themed Air New Zealand fleet; to sports – Emirates had some of its A380s featuring special vinyl for the Cricket World Cup; to tourism – Hawaiian Airlines promoting the islands or Korean Air’s 2009 livery for the British Museum.

Air New Zealand's LOTR Livery and Etihad's Fast & Furious 777 Jet

Air New Zealand’s LOTR Livery and Etihad’s Fast & Furious 777 Jet

More recently, Brussels Airlines and Icelandair have been incredibly creative in promoting their home market attractions to a larger audience. Brussels Airlines got one of the their A320s painted to look like the huge, black shark shaped submarine built in one of Tintin’s adventures. The aircraft, now appropriately called Rackham, even has “Red Rackham’s Treasure” onboard for reading.

Brussels Airlines’ A320 Rackham (Courtesy:

Iceland boasts of a beautiful natural phenomenon called Northern Lights. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience which Icelandair is now hoping to replicate on its Boeing 757. A stunning paint-job on the outside is complemented with an on-board LED lighting designed to resemble the spectacle itself. Icelandair is hoping to increase passenger stopovers with this initiative.

Iceland Air’s Boeing 757, the Hekla Aurora

Some liveries also project the importance the airline plays for the local economy. Alaska Airlines transports one of the state’s most cherished produce, Salmon, to aficionados all over the globe. The Airline commissioned a special livery called “Salmon-Thirty-Salmon” for its 737. (Trivia: In 1987, an Alaska Airlines aircraft was hit by a fish while taking-off!)

Alaska’s Salmon Thirty Salmon

Connecting Livery and Marketing

My visit to the Airbus Plant in Hamburg last year opened my eyes to all the money saving techniques applied by airlines when it comes to liveries. Airbus and Boeing paint a three-colour paint scheme for free on a new aircraft — Any additional colour and the airline needs to pay out-of-pocket. Keep in mind that White is the lightest color and the weight of the aircraft is directly proportional to fuel burn, which in turn is directly proportional to profitability.

Airline liveries are extremely important in many ways, and at the very least provide passengers — past, existing and future — a peek into the airline and an important first impression.

Airline liveries are another piece in the entire airline marketing jigsaw. It is a silent surface to shout at your customers, compared to typical offline and online promotion, but should ideally not be treated as a wasted or an “also-there” space. Airlines want customers to recognise them, their brand, and to think about all the service characteristics that comes with the recall. The contribution to that recall is driven to a large extent by the first look of livery.

Passengers choose airlines based on various tangible and intangible factors, but the element of consideration brought forward by efforts like special liveries should never be ignored, especially when direct benefits have been realised from such efforts.  We can only hope for more artistic and attention-grabbing skies ahead.

Which has been your favorite livery, and why? Tell us in the comments below.

Vishal Mehra

Vishal Mehra

Vishal Mehra was leading Social and Digital marketing efforts at SimpliFlying from January 2015 to January 2016. A self-confessed commercial aviation geek, Vishal had led digital marketing campaigns at leading global agencies for 9 years, before finding his dream job at the intersection of aviation and digital marketing. His interests include Travelling, Technology, Podcasts (long before Serial arrived) and Beer.
Recommended Posts
Showing 4 comments
  • Mohith Krishna

    SG dint get mention ?

    • Vishal Mehra

      We thought it wasn’t as impactful & pioneering as some of the others mentioned in the piece.

  • Mike Curtis

    Even before SWA, Braniff International got me hooked in the 70’s with the Big Orange and their fleet of colourful liveries. In 1973 they commissioned Alexander Calder to produce a livery…
    This site has a good gallery of the various liveries of Braniff.

    • Vishal Mehra

      Thanks Mike. Really enjoyed going through the link. Which one was your favorite of the lot?

Leave a Comment

Getting Next Post...
website by