QANTAS' CRANKY KOALA RETURNS TO BASK IN NEW TV CAMPAIGN: NEW MARKETING CHIEF FOUND DEFUNCT ICON WAS BELOVED

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For some two decades, Australia's Qantas Airways was identified with its cute and egotistical spokesanimal: the koala. The fuzzy creature was known for whining "I hate Qantas" because the airline was taking tourists Down Under to show off the Great Barrier Reef and Sydney Opera House, not him.

"Australia's biggest attraction is me," he would insist as he sat alone.

The surly one with the fuzzy ears has been off U.S. TV since 1991. But on April 11, the airline breaks three 15-second TV spots touting its upgraded business-class service, and the somewhat devilish koala will be there-enjoying the roomier seats, attentive service and improved food.

The seeds for the revival were sown in late 1995, when Aussie Peter McLaughlin arrived in southern California to run Qantas' marketing operations for North and South America.

EVERYONE REMEMBERED HIM

Wherever Mr. McLaughlin was-at the House of Blues in Los Angeles or riding a cab in New York-he learned that U.S. consumers still identified Qantas with its defunct TV icon.

"It didn't matter where you went," said Mr. McLaughlin, VP-marketing for the Americas. "Everyone seemed to remember the koala commercials."

Qantas' scientific research yielded similar results, and the 45-year-old, one-time Qantas flight attendant gave the go-ahead to bring back the koala.

The ads by M&C Saatchi, Sydney, will run on national cable TV through June. In November, another flight will run, along with two new koala spots. A print ad campaign follows sometime after midyear, and three more TV spots are expected in 2000.

Spending on the campaign wasn't disclosed.

Qantas offers direct flights to Australia from Los Angeles and Honolulu, and claims to be the No. 1 carrier between its homeland and the U.S., with 43% of the market. United Airlines and Air New Zealand also offer direct service.

SUPER BOWL PRESENCE

The new campaign follows up on a single commercial that Qantas ran during the Super Bowl pre-game show in January, designed to raise general brand awareness. That spot, which was its first advertising in the U.S. for nearly a decade, featured Australian girls and boys choirs traveling the globe.

Qantas officials say the revitalized koala campaign is designed to promote the more than $500 million it has spent since 1997 on reconfiguring its planes and upgrading its profitable business-class service. Seats now include a push-button control panel for adjustments and the new cuisine is from Neil Perry, a chef with the type of pedigree in Australia that Wolfgang Puck enjoys in the U.S.

PRE-OLYMPICS BUZZ

Though airline officials deny any link, the campaign's timing comes just before the world turns its attention to Australia for the Sydney Olympics in September 2000. Many fans are making travel plans to head Down Under already, and the coverage of Australia on prime-time TV next fall could increase its popularity as a tourist destination long after the Olympic torch goes out.

Still, Mr. McLaughlin said, "If there was no Olympics, the campaign would be happening anyway."

Marketing experts, however, say the pre-Olympics ad blitz is a smart move for Qantas and feel the airline may benefit from this early persuasion.

"Sometimes associating yourself with the Games can just be a question of timing or, literally in this case, of accent," said Lee Berke, senior VP-marketing for Marquee Group, New York, a sports and entertainment marketing company. "You have an Australian narrator, an Australian airline being advertised, and you talk about going to Sydney 18 months before the Games."

"It makes an awful lot of sense," said Renee Frengut, a consumer psychologist who works with marketers. "With people going to be traveling to [Australia], it's certainly putting in their minds [that] we're still here and we're better than ever."

DEAL WITH NBC

Losing out on being an official Olympics sponsor-it bid less than competitor Ansett Airlines of Australia-didn't stop Qantas from inking a deal with NBC to carry its employees and guests to Sydney before and during the Games.

NBC Sports VP-Sports Information and Special Projects Ed Markey said it was unclear whether the agreement involves any promotion of the airline during the network's broadcasts.

Like the Taco Bell chihuahua and Budweiser frogs and lizards, the new advertising uses the koala's cuteness and humor to appeal to consumers-as Qantas

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