The smell of tuberose leis overwhelmed the JetBlue terminal at JFK last week as Hawaiian Airlines made the inaugural flight from its headquarters in Honolulu to New York City.
The lei -- given as a sign of affection when arriving in or leaving the islands -- embodies the aloha spirit for which Hawaii is so famous. Avi Mannis, VP-marketing at Hawaiian Airlines, brought boxes of the fragrant garlands on the flight to give out at the bevy of events the airline was hosting to promote the airline's new route. "One customer told me that it was the best that JFK had ever smelled," Mr. Mannis said.
The reduction of service to Hawaii by many U.S. carriers and the closure of Aloha Airlines has put Hawaiian Airlines in a good position to grow, said Mr. Mannis.
Still, New York presented a unique marketing problem. It is the 83-year-old airline's first East Coast route. And Mr. Mannis and his team need to find a way to make Hawaii, a 10-hour flight away, a more appealing vacation option than closer and less expensive locales like Mexico, Florida and the Caribbean.
Last year only 2.4% of the U.S. visitors flying to Hawaii were from New York; 44% were visiting from California, according to data published by the Hawaii Tourism Authority. "[People on the West Coast] love Hawaii. Many are returning for their sixth or seventh trips," says Mr. Mannis. "But for people in New York, there is a mystique about it."
So its marketing plan is to emphasize the culture and traditions of Hawaii. The airline introduced itself and its brand to New Yorkers with a lunchtime event, led by its PR agency Burson-Marsteller, including live traditional music and hula a week ago. The scene, set across from Grand Central Station, caused quite a stir as passersby stopped to receive leis from airline staff. The airline also gave a traditional Hawaiian send-off to its first flight leaving New York for Honolulu last week. While the ceremony, complete with a blessing by a Hawaiian priest, or kahu, isn't out of the ordinary on the islands, it was completely foreign at JFK.
"Unlike network airlines we don't have to be every destination to every person," Mr. Mannis explained. "We can focus on Hawaii and be a brand that really stands for something."
The airline is also running a print and digital push locally to play up Hawaiian culture, with ad copy including lines like "Mahalo for flying with the airline that knows what mahalo means" and "Please prepare your flip flops for landing." Anthology, an ad agency in Honolulu, worked on the campaign.
"We thought it was very important to work with a local agency in order to get the right feel in the campaign," said Mr. Mannis, a former New Yorker. "You can teach someone about the Hawaiian Airlines brand, but only someone who lives there will truly be able to understand and communicate the spirit of life in the islands."