The Australian airline will launch a TV and print ad campaign in the U.S. on Sept. 15, the same day the Summer Games get under way in Sydney.
The airline's aim is to ride a wave of interest in Australia expected to be generated as images of the land Down Under are beamed back to U.S. viewers. Qantas isn't even an Olympics sponsor, but it knows the host country of the Games often becomes as much a focus of media coverage as the athletes themselves.
In effect, the airline is betting that the Sydney Opera House may soon be as recognizable to Americans as the Washington Monument.
"Our brand is linked very closely with Australia, so for us the ability to capitalize on the high awareness of Australia is just a natural strategy," said Karyn Baylis, Qantas' senior VP for the Americas.
Qantas has to avoid any mention of the Games in its ads -- a matter that is particularly sensitive since several rival airlines have joined the parade of sponsors. But that doesn't mean Qantas won't bask in an Olympic afterglow.
"To the extent that they buy paid advertising, they will be perceived as a sponsor of the event," said Jed Pearsall, president of Performance Research, which monitors Olympic sponsorship effectiveness. "The typical consumer can't differentiate between sponsors and advertisers."
Qantas won't reveal the campaign's budget but said it represents the most the airline has ever spent on a concentrated U.S. marketing push. Qantas spent some $6 million on U.S. advertising last year.
ADS ON NBC AFFILIATES
Commercials will not run during NBC's Olympic broadcasts but are scheduled to run during coverage of the Games on NBC affiliates in Los Angeles and New York. TV spots also will appear on national cable networks such as Discovery Communications' Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, with buys pegged to shows with Australian themes. Print ads will run in several national magazines and national newspapers as well as papers in New York and Los Angeles to tout expanded service to those cities.
Qantas had a long affiliation with the Olympics that included carrying the torch to the 1956 Melbourne Games and backing the Australian team. But it lost out in its bid to become the official airline of the Sydney Games to Ansett Australia, a rival carrier that doesn't fly directly to the U.S. In addition, a consortium of carriers that includes United Airlines and Lufthansa won the right to be dubbed the Official Airline Team.
United has no plans to run Olympic-theme ads in the U.S., which could add to the perception Qantas is affiliated with the Games.
Australia currently ranks No. 18 as a world destination for U.S. travelers, and Qantas dominates the market on flights from the U.S. to Australia with a 53% share of passengers, says the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Qantas' U.S. campaign was created by M&C Saatchi, Sydney and Los Angeles. While it specifically promotes the airline's lucrative business-class service, the agency also sees it as something of an image builder.
SEEKING `HALO EFFECT'
"The message transcends class and service," said Mindy Balgrosky, VP-managing director at M&C Saatchi, Los Angeles. "I would hope there would be a halo effect."
In positioning itself as a polished, world-class airline, Qantas is following the flight plan of British Airways, which owns a stake in Qantas and also is a client of M&C Saatchi. But the airline has something unique: an icon.
The Qantas koala returned to U.S. ads last year after a long hiatus. The original koala made its debut in 1967 and was surly and ill-tempered. "I hate Qantas," he would snarl, because of the planeloads of tourists it dropped off in his home country. But the next-generation koala is a kinder and gentler, business-savvy globetrotter.
"He's not the curmudgeon that he was," Ms. Balgrosky said. "He doesn't hate Qantas. In essence, he's a sophisticated international traveler. And he likes the same things we all like. He likes comfort. He likes good food."
The koala's fastidiousness is apparent in the 30-second spot for the Olympic effort, shot in Australia. The setting is a fancy restaurant where the staff goes on alert when the marsupial arrives. The maitre d' rushes around yelling, "He's here." The chef begins preparing a fresh eucalyptus dish. The spot ends with the koala in an airline seat with a view of Sydney's harbor and opera house. As he reviews the menu, he says, "Once you've experienced Qantas' business class, nothing else will do." The final shot is of a Qantas plane with the "Spirit of Australia" tagline.
M&C Saatchi's Ms. Balgrosky said the Sydney Olympics mark "a once in a lifetime opportunity" for Qantas. But a similar opportunity could come for the Greek national airline in 2004, when the Summer Games are held in Athens. The carrier's name? Olympic Airways.