The tale of three airline marketing campaigns – American vs KLM vs Emirates

This month has seen several big airline branding campaigns – two rolled out by airlines themselves, and one by a passenger that probably has achieved the same effect. American Airlines, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, and Emirates have all received lots of exposure in the US market. Though, who has emerged the winner? Who could do better? We thought we’d discuss.

American Airlines – The World’s Greatest fliers

American Airlines has rolled out a new advertising campaign that rather than emphasize features such as business class seats or the in-flight entertainment system, focuses on people. And while other airlines (for example Cathay Pacific and Swiss) have featured their staff, the American campaign is all about passengers. The tagline of the campaign is “the world’s greatest fliers fly American”, with the idea being that if you want to be a great flier, that’s the airline for you.

While this campaign has taken an approach different from the norm, the reaction to the new campaign has not been as positive as the airline might have hoped for. The creative execution was geared towards aspiration – for example, the copy suggested that those who flew American carried Bose headphones and asked before lowering window shades – and seemed far from reality, as the airline’s pricing strategy has been geared mostly towards attracting bargain hunters. As the New York Times pointed out, “in an era of smaller seats, longer lines and increasing fees, it is an open question how receptive travellers will be to the message that a positive air travel experience is really in their control.”

Other commentators have taken this argument one step further by claiming that American is essentially telling passengers’ that it is their fault if they are having a bad flight. By not promising anything or making any points of difference, the video could be interpreted otherwise and be seen as highlighting perceived weaknesses. Influential marketers like Seth Godin and frequent fliers alike have shown disappointment with the campaign.

The more important question is: will “the world’s greatest flyers” fly American if they have a choice? The litmus test for any advertisement is to change the logo of the brand to another and see if it works.

“And the world’s greatest flyers fly United.”

Nope, it doesn’t make any difference and seems just as far from reality.

KLM – It is an airline

In the same month, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines launched a very basic campaign targeted to Americans – that it is an airline. It turns out that in their market research, the airline realised that most Americans do not even associate the name “KLM” with an airline. Why then, would they fly it? In the past, the airline benefitted from its strong partnership with American majors like Northwest, and then Delta Air Lines. Though, looking to the future, KLM needs to build its own brand recognition. And to do this, they had decided to go to basics.

KLM has launched a dedicated website that has a video of its signature blue Boeing 777 landing at Schiphol, including a series of videos that explain how an airline works and what goes on behind the scenes. They are fun to watch – not too long or boring. Actor Ken Marino goes to great lengths to make that simple point for the Dutch carrier in a series of self-consciously silly online videos.


Here is a good interview with a KLM executive explaining the rationale behind this campaign to Richard Quest on CNN.

Emirates – the non-campaign that got eyeballs

One of the most popular YouTubers, Casey Neistat, who has over a billion views for his videos, happened to be flying from New York to Sydney on Emirates. It was his first time with the airline and he decided to film his experience. The video he’s produced showcases the Emirates A380 business class product better than Jennifer Aniston could. Casey got to check out the Business Class bar and even the First Class showers, thanks to the nice crew. The video is fun to watch, even if you’ve flown Emirates Business Class on the A380 previously.

While Casey had previously been officially engaged by the likes of Turkish Airlines, Emirates was not paying for this coverage. At the time of writing, the video had amassed almost three million views on YouTube in just a week after being uploaded. That is half as many views as the Jennifer Aniston advertisement garnered in a year!

So what worked, and what didn’t?

Emirates is the clear winner here – a key influencer in one of their target markets (US) does a documentary style in-flight video, for free. Good thing the airline didn’t screw up anything, because it could have gone both ways. Though, this video is probably worth just as much as the $5 million Emirates reportedly paid Jennifer Aniston for brand endorsement. It’s a video anyone can relate to.

On the other hand, American Airlines’ attempt, this time, seems to not have worked. Perhaps it is a matter of the airline’s new agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, going on a creative overdrive in their first campaign. The reality is that a campaign needs to resonate better with the core market. In this case, it seems to have missed the mark.

As for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, we will have to wait and watch. The marketing effort is a radical departure from showcasing product or destinations and goes back to basics. It remains to be seen if the campaign results in a significant uplift in brand awareness for the airline, and subsequently bookings.

Fun days in airline marketing, isn’t it? What’s been your favourite campaign?

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  • Ijaz H. Rana

    Shashank, very well written, as usual.
    I remember from my old days KLM’s famous “Swan” video. If my memory serves me well, I think I saw that video being used by KLM only a couple of years back. It was a beautiful presentation with lasting impact. Though I am not an advertising guy, I always felt that the video under reference created very powerful & positive image.
    So for me that has been my favourite campaigne.
    Best Regards.

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