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United Airlines' new employee ownership will serve as the platform for virtually all marketing programs as the carrier now invites passengers to "Come fly our friendly skies."

The theme quickly surfaced in an estimated $8 million ad campaign after shareholders last week approved a $4.9 billion buyout giving workers a 55% stake in the company.

The theme likely will continue in new corporate ads from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, this fall in a return to service-oriented messages. For several years, United emphasized destinations and products.

United Shuttle, the airline's short-haul service scheduled start up in West Coast markets Oct. 1 (AA, July 11), may use the same tack.

Specific ad decisions will be made in the coming weeks as Gerald Greenwald, the former Chrysler Corp. vice chairman, asserts his influence as United's new chairman-CEO. Stephen Wolf, who held that post, left the company as part of the buyout plan as did President John Pope. Mr. Greenwald's hand-picked president, John Edwardson, who was exec VP-chief financial officer at Ameritech, will also have a hand in advertising decisions.

The marketing budget will be reviewed, but cutbacks aren't expected as a result of the buyout. United drastically slashed U.S. ad spending last year to $80 million from $140 million in 1992.

The historic buyout gives United a chance to create a unique position among the major carriers. Already, employees are wearing buttons with slogans like "Proud owner," "You're talking to the owner," "Ask me. I'm the owner" and "Welcome to my airline."

"Our research indicated that a large percentage of people feel that an employee-owned service company will definitely give better service," John Ruhaak, United's VP-advertising and promotion, said of the strategy behind the TV, print and outdoor campaign that began hours after shareholders' approval.

A 60-second network TV spot, using United's established "Rhapsody in Blue" theme music, opens with people nervously waiting to take their citizenship. Announcer Gene Hackman states: "If there's one thing that separates us, that makes us different from all other living things, it's the desire for a chance, for one shining opportunity to see how high, how far we can go. Well, today the people of United Airlines just got one of those chances. Today, the 54,000 men and women who built this airline now own this airline. Come fly our friendly skies."

The trick will be to translate that into a consumer benefit.

"What did employee ownership do for Avis? Not much," said Jack Trout, president of marketing consultancy Trout & Ries, Greenwich, Conn. "Who owns it is not a big deal ... Just because you're employee-owned doesn't mean anything to the average flier."

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