The Press, November 2011

A potty-mouthed puppet, controversial rapper and a pair of Playboy Playmates. It is not an article from a Lads’ Magazine article, but the key characters in advertising by our national carrier Air New Zealand.

Part of a gutsy approach to marketing that has seen Air New Zealand build its brand against huge odds, it offers a great example to other Kiwi companies competing on a global stage.

The edgy promotions are a long way from the very corporate and self-important carrier brand of the past (remember those epic television advertisements by Lee Tamahori)? And a breath of fresh air in an environment where so many firms are too afraid to take the kind of risks needed to really stand out.

As a small player in a huge global industry, the company understands the need to do something different. As CEO Rob Fyfe has pointed out, a single spot in the US Superbowl would equal the carrier’s annual marketing budget.

To overcome the odds, Air New Zealand has chosen to take some chances to get exposure. That’s included online advertisements and in-flights videos (released via mediums like YouTube) featuring the likes of Rico the risqué puppet, rapper Snoop Dogg, former TV star now cult figure David Hasselhoff and Playboy twins Kristina and Karissa Shannon.

To be successful using online channels, you typically need to entertain or inform – you can’t just do the ‘yell and sell’ of traditional paid advertisements. It’s a tribute to Air New Zealand’s ability to entertain that their bare essentials safety video, in which Fyfe plays a bit-part wearing little more than a coat of paint, has recorded over 6.5 million views on YouTube; a great return on a modest investment in producing it.

There’s been other smart initiatives like Facebook games and cheeky publicity gimmicks, such as the recent survey Air New Zealand commissioned to see who adults in the US and UK would most like to cuddle up with on a trans-Atlantic flight. A promotion of the airline’s new Skycouch service, the results got great play online (for the record,  women were most likely to choose Johnny Depp and George Clooney, men Jenifer Aniston and Megan Fox).

I was critical of Air New Zealand in a 2008 Press column, when they didn’t seem to be clear on who they were. “It is not clear what Air New Zealand stands for. Building a brand that stands for something is important for any business. It gives you a basis for competing against anyone else in the market.”

They’ve certainly carved a distinct personality now, and are delivering a unique experience. And they’ve done smart things like creating the “Grabaseat” brand to provide a value offering to the market, for customers who values price over flexibility and convenience, without affecting the core Air New Zealand brand.

The edgy approach can be a gamble, and has been criticised by some advertising agencies (typically those who profit from large and expensive TV campaigns), but what Air New Zealand has done in many ways is focus their brand on a real “Kiwiness”. Smart and a bit quirky, fond of humour and not inclined to take ourselves too seriously.

Simply creating some awareness and expectation in the market is not enough however. Air New Zealand has had to actually deliver something that fits with the brand it tries to portray.

Skycouch is a good example. A different way of looking at economy class, Skycouch offers passengers a new experience on long-haul flights. It’s different, fun, smart, classic Kiwi ingenuity. As Fyfe said at the launch, "For those who choose, the days of sitting in economy and yearning to lie down and sleep are gone. The dream is now a reality, one that you can even share with a travelling companion - just keep your clothes on thanks."

They’ve delivered lots of other innovation around things like automated check-in facilities and lots of online tools for booking and managing your travel with them. It’s been about delivering the promise their promotion makes.

Contrast this with rival airline Jetstar, owned by Qantas. It has spent up large on a good quality promotional campaigns across TV and print commercials, and billboards. They haven’t matched the expectations created with these promotions with a good experience for the flying public.

Has all this worked? Given Air New Zealand’s latest profit result, dropping 45% for the year to June 2011, you’d be forgiven for saying no. But they did achieve a 7% increase in overall revenue in what has been described as the worst operating conditions for a decade. Air New Zealand estimates the impact of the Christchurch and Japanese earthquakes reduced earnings by about $70 million.

Having a stronger, more distinct brand has given Air New Zealand some resilience in such a tough environment, and is a tribute to their courage in trying to stand out. It’s the one part of their business where we are happy for them to take risks.

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