How Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways are taking contrasting approaches to brand building during COVID-19

The large network airlines based in the Middle East – Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways – have in the past released some of the most creative, if not extravagant, brand campaigns in aviation. How have their brand-building strategies evolved since the advent of COVID-19? While all three are still proactive in communicating through (primarily) digital channels, only one continues to fly regular operations. Here is how they are all taking different approaches to brand building through COVID-19.

Emirates – An eye to the future

Emirates has had to ground its fleet due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions. If an airline marketing team can’t drive customers down a sales funnel, it’s all about the brand. In the case of Emirates, it has taken a distinct approach to focus its brand communications to the future. A future when people start going to office again. When they start flying again.

Emirates’ brand campaigns focus on how they are preparing for a future where sanitation and cleanliness are paramount. They have released a video showing how they are doing blood tests for passengers departing Dubai. Another shows how their cabin crew keeps the aircraft safe and clean to fly. Yet another one is a bit bolder. The “Do you remember” campaign looks ahead to better days when we can travel again. We felt that this one missed a trick due to a lack of sensitivity towards people suffering right now.

Yet, it is clear that the Emirates brand is focused on the future.

Etihad Airways – people, not planes

Etihad Airways, like Emirates, has also had to ground its aircraft since they are both based in the UAE. Yet, Etihad has taken a very “human” approach to brand building, in contrast to what Emirates is doing. Etihad is putting its own people in front of the camera and aims to build emotional bonds with those stuck at home without coworkers and friends.

It starts at the top. Etihad is the only airline among the big three that has its CEO putting out regular video messages. Tony Douglas focuses on what the airline is doing right now, while it prepares for take-off again. This is not the first time he has appeared in videos since the COVID-19 crisis started.

The CEO as the face of the brand in these times sets Etihad apart.

Moreover, the airline has released campaigns where have their international cabin crew teaching languages – from Spanish to Arabic. It’s very “on-brand” for an airline that touts its global credentials. It also allows one to connect with the crew in a way usually not possible unless in-flight.

In yet another video, Etihad showcases how the airline continues to keep its catering unit in operation. They still produce 15,000 meals daily for the local communities as well as grounded pilots and cabin crew.

Putting people ahead of planes, Etihad is creating a more emotional, humane brand in these uncertain times.

Qatar Airways – Taking you home, right now!

Since the advent of COVID-19, Qatar Airways is one of the fewest airlines in the world that has been flying regularly. Its brand team has leveraged this unique position very well. They have become one of the few ways for people to get home – especially between Australia and Europe. In fact, the airline has been proactively working with embassies around the world to help repatriate citizens as well. Their brand campaigns have captured this well under the unifying #TakingYouHome banner.

Qatar Airways has released multiple videos showing how they are uniting people with their families. In fact, a video point out, “where others are stepping away, we remain by your side.” That is a bold claim, which only Qatar Airways can make right now. If flying Qatar Airways is the only way I could get home if I’m stuck somewhere else, I’d definitely be thankful. That’s exactly what the brand campaigns build on.

One of the heartwarming videos released by the airline takes us behind-the-scenes with the cabin crew who continue to fly. Titled, “Superheroes with masks”,  it has a flight attendant sharing how she postponed her honeymoon to continue flying. Yet another cabin crew gets emotional when telling us about a passenger who thanked her in German for flying her home.

Given people are flying via Doha on Qatar Airways, many would rightly be concerned about how their transit experience is sanitised. There’s a video for that too, building confidence in the cleaning procedures.

Qatar Airways knows that if it helps a customer now, they have a customer for life. And they are doing a great job in building emotional bonds while at it.



What more can they do?

All three airlines are being creative and playing to their own strengths right now. It is refreshing to see neither is talking about the network or the newest cabins because that just wouldn’t have been relevant right now. So what more can be done? It’s less about messaging, more about channels.

I am part of the frequent flyer programmes of all three airlines. Yet, I have had scant communication from any of them that included any of the above campaigns. I know friends who still hold bookings with these airlines, and they have not seen these campaigns or messages. While Etihad sent me an email with their CEO’s message and Qatar Airways sent an email when they launched the #TakingYouHome campaign, those were sent over a month ago.

Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways are continuing to build their brand. So why not reach out to all frequent fliers as well as customers who currently are craving to see fresh content like what they are producing.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going

Airline leaders have possibly the toughest job in the world right now due to the spread of COVID-19 grounding operations. How then can they lead through the crisis so that when it’s all over, their brand comes out stronger, employee morale higher and customers more loyal? It may be difficult to achieve all three but not impossible.

Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways are all showing us how to build a strong brand through a crisis in their own different ways.


Rapid Response Team - SimpliFlying - The Rise of Sanitised Travel - Covid-19

SimpliFlying has set up a Rapid Response Team to help airlines brands be ready for post-corona travel’s realities. The team has been holding Board-level briefings to orient executives with the new brand touchpoints. We will be happy to do a 30-minute call with your executive team to run through the detailed post-corona customer journey map. In order to help the industry, these calls are free for airlines and airports. Get in touch to set up a call.

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam is a globally sought-after consultant, speaker and thought leader on airline branding and customer engagement strategy. He is the Founder and CEO of SimpliFlying, one of the world’s largest aviation marketing firms working with over 85 aviation clients in the last ten years. Nigam is also the youngest winner of the Global Brand Leadership Award and has addressed senior executives globally, from Chile to China. Nigam’s impassioned and honest perspectives on airline marketing have found their way to over 100 leading media outlets, including the BBC, CNBC, Reuters and Bloomberg, and into leading publications such as The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He writes a dedicated monthly column in Flight’s Airline Business, challenging the typical assumptions about airline marketing. His new book on airline marketing, SOAR, is an Amazon bestseller that’s shaking up the industry and inspiring other industries to learn from the best airlines. Born in India, raised in Singapore, he now lives with his wife and two young daughters in Toronto.
Shashank Nigam
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