Why'd You Pick That Airline to Fly on Thanksgiving? We Thought So

Carrier Branding So Far Gone That Choices Often Made on Fees

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Delta's new ads feature lush black-and-white images and the voice of Donald Sutherland.
Delta's new ads feature lush black-and-white images and the voice of Donald Sutherland.
NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- "What does it take to fly?" Donald Sutherland intones over lush black-and-white images of Boeing 747s, jet engines, captains and crew in the first TV spot of Wieden & Kennedy's campaign for Delta Air Lines. It takes headwinds, apparently.

"The thing you push against is the thing that lifts you up," the actor continues. "So every challenge, really, is a chance to show that even in this crazy world of no-liquids, take-your-shoes-off, cost-cutting and route cancellations, someone in this industry still has the passengers' back."

Translation: You hate to fly, and it shows. After mid-decade brushes with bankruptcy, U.S. carriers are back in the black, packing them in and jacking up prices while slashing what's left of the perks and replacing them with fees. One casualty of all the cost-cutting and mergers is ad spending -- especially on TV -- while the remaining holdouts hammer the fact that their bags, at least, fly free. So it's odd to see a legacy carrier attempt to build a brand again.

"We wanted to start with the truth, and by acknowledging it, earn people's trust," said Ben Hughes, a co-creative director for the campaign, which features the tagline "Keep climbing." But will passengers believe it? Or have they been too conditioned by packed planes, fees on top of fees, surly flight attendants and, now, the TSA's "scope-and-grope" procedures, to think Delta and its competitors are all broken and all the same?

Last week marked the start of the annual holiday travel rush, with an estimated 24 million Americans taking to the skies over Thanksgiving, a 3.5% increase over last year. It's been a banner year for airline profits despite the sluggish economy, following a period of consolidation in which Delta-Northwest, United-Continental, and Southwest-AirTran all merged. The survivors have since called a truce on ruinous fare wars, leading to the fuller planes, higher prices and ancillary fees adopted by most U.S. carriers that have become a fixation of both industry executives and passengers. U.S. Airways CEO Doug Parker boasted this month that a la carte pricing annually delivers $400 million to $500 million in pure profit. "If we didn't have it, we'd be right back where we were before," he said, "barely breaking even or worse."

For Delta, print and outdoor reprise the monochrome images of the TV ads.
For Delta, print and outdoor reprise the monochrome images of the TV ads.

At the other end of the spectrum, Southwest Airlines made "Bags Fly Free" the focal point of $159.5 million in TV spending last year, according to Kantar Media -- a figure nearly equal to the combined ad budgets of Delta, United, American and Continental.

Have the airlines really become so commoditized that paying $25 for a checked bag means all the difference? It seems so. Surveys by Forrester Research indicate advertising has an effect on only 16% of travelers making purchasing decisions. Their primary considerations include price, on-time statistics, airports served and nonstop flights.

"If you have no brand image," said Forrester travel-industry analyst Henry Harteveldt, "you're just one generic airline competing against another."

Which is why Delta is rolling out its initial brand campaign since the merger, its first with Wieden. Reprising the monochrome images and solemn tone of the TV spots, the accompanying print and outdoor campaign premiered in New York in September, with a national rollout planned in 2011. The copy mixes emotional appeals ("An ounce of humanity can outweigh five hundred tons of metal") with ads highlighting in-flight internet access and lie-flat beds, two components of a $2 billion effort to differentiate its product from competitors'. Delta's ad spending fell by nearly 50% to $32.9 million in measured media last year, according to Kantar, and trailed behind its competitors in spending this year through August, before the campaign broke.

"Flying has become commoditized in many ways, and most carriers aren't working hard to overcome the challenges," said Mr. Hughes. "But Delta is trying to be different. It's the carrier that isn't just accepting the status quo, but working to overturn it. That's why acknowledging the truth was so important to us, because it's important to have a conversation with the consumer from an honest place if they feel your view of the situation differs so much from yours." But Mr. Hughes readily admits the conversation could turn ugly fast if passengers feel it's a lie. "Putting the promise out there without the proof isn't going to change anyone's minds."

United Airlines found this out the hard way in the late 1990s with "Rising," another lushly produced mea culpa promising United "is headed in a different direction." (It turned out to be Chapter 11.)

Having been burned so many times before, what if travelers have resolved they won't get fooled again? After all, the "cost-cutting and route cancellations" Mr. Sutherland mentions in the TV spot aren't the TSA's fault, but Delta's.

Contrast the tone of "Keep climbing" to the YouTube spots in the new campaign for JetBlue Airways by Boston's Mullen. Although superficially similar to Delta's with its promise of "You above all" and its target of business travelers, Mullen opts for anger over uplift, using actors and hidden cameras to torture unsuspecting customers. In some, cab drivers try charging passengers $25 for each bag in the trunk; in another, an elevator operator presses every button and shrugs, explaining "this is not a nonstop elevator." In a New York City sports bar, the official airline of the New York Jets and its Boston agency shut off a Jets-Patriots football game. In each case, the payoff is the bewilderment and rage of participants, and the dawning realization by viewers that what's common practice in the air looks insane on the ground.

Sincerity is no longer an option for the legacy carriers, argued Alex Leikikh, managing partner and director for account service at Mullen. "The reality is, they have no differentiated brand positions. When they look at the market, they see there's nothing to talk about in terms of brand attributes, so they try to connect at an emotional level. The fundamental problem with that is when you finally experience the product, the promise falls apart. You step on board, and nothing has changed."

This disconnect is even more apparent in the age of social media, when careless baggage handlers and indifferent flight attendants can produce a viral video -- "United Breaks Guitars" -- with 9.5 million views on YouTube and climbing.

But differentiating yourself based on baggage fees (or the lack thereof) and legroom carries its own risks, as such perks may disappear on a moment's notice. One of the more memorable TV spots by Kaplan Thaler Group, New York, for Continental Airlines featured hungry passengers staring out the windows at clouds shaped like food -- meant to underscore that unlike its competitors, Continental still served free meals in coach. The airline dropped that policy in March, however, then merged with United Airlines in May. The combined carrier has so far been mum about which perks and which agency -- Kaplan Thaler or Barrie D'Rozario Murphy for United -- it intends to keep.

Meanwhile, U.S. Airways' Mr. Parker believes his competitors will end up dropping everything that's free. "I know they're going to do the same we are," he said.

Executives for both Mullen and GSD&M Idea City, Southwest's agency of record for 30 years, say they've received assurances their work isn't about to become obsolete. In fact, the latter is readying a new campaign built around Southwest's lack of ticket-changing fees, which cost passengers $1.1 billion in the first half of this year.

And fees aside, Southwest and JetBlue built their reputations on a level of service (Steven Slater and his emergency slide notwithstanding) that Delta promises to deliver now.

"JetBlue and Southwest are truly brands," said Forrester's Mr. Harteveldt. "Delta is working to become a brand. The others aren't brands, they're just the names of airlines."

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