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Coming out of a homely cocoon, Continental Airlines is finding its butterfly wings.

Things were not rosy a few years ago. "Among major carriers, we were the worst," admits Richard Metzner, VP-marketing programs. "First step was to fix the product."

As the airline worked to improve its on-time performance and baggage handling in 1995 and '96, Mr. Metzner says, "we took the deliberate approach not to go out and say `We're changing,' since we'd done that many times before."

That's because, in previous years, "If the only thing constant was change, we proved it."

Last year Mr. Metzner, 45, guided a local campaign to convince New Yorkers to cross the Hudson River for its bustling Newark, N.J. hub -- by then the largest operation in the metro area.

The sassy effort came from N.W. Ayer & Partners, New York, and sparked the ire of New York City Mayor Rudy Guilliani as being anti-New York. The effort, later modified for the mayor, helped Ayer win the airline's entire account months later to give the new Continental a global message.

The carrier formed an alliance with Northwest Airlines early this year, supplementing each others' worldwide routes and preparing for competition in a business increasingly about partnerships.

This spring, Continental launched its $50 million global campaign with the plain-talking tagline, "Work Hard. Fly Right," that tweaks competitors' ambitious promises.

"The focus of our new campaign is our logo," says Mr. Metzner. "We were shy at first about showing it -- we weren't sure how customers feel about it. I think people like us now."

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