Storytelling central to airline marketing, say Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines

From pop-up shops to VR, AR and voice, airline marketers everywhere are digging deep to find imaginative ways to reach customers. Pamela Whitby reports

At the very core of marketing lies the ability to tell a great story.

“You need to have a really good understanding of what brands stand for, and know how to convince and influence people,” says Robecta Ma, VP of Marketing at Cathay Pacific, who will be speaking at EyeforTravel San Francisco next month.

In addition, a good marketer must stay abreast of current trends in media and technology.

“That doesn’t mean they need to be an expert, but they do need to understand how this impacts consumer behaviour,” says Ma, who began her airline career with the pre-launch marketing team of Richard Branson’s Virgin America. From there, she moved to advertising agency, the McCann World Group, where her clients included HP, Intel and Cathay Pacific. In 2011, she joined Cathay as a digital e-commerce manager before stepping into her current role.

You have a really good at understanding of brands stand for, and know how to convince and influence people 

Like Akira Mitsumasu, Vice President, Products & Services at Japan Airlines (JAL), Ma also believes that marketers need to keep thinking outside the box, and looking to new and exciting technologies that can truly redefine the consumer experience. But in the commoditised airline space, where there are a growing number of carriers, some with much heftier budgets for marketing and advertising, Ma admits that this “is difficult”.

It’s really about hitting the right audience, which in Cathay’s case is Americans looking to travel to Asia. It is also about being smart, personal and relevant.

Mitsumasu, another San Francisco speaker, agrees: ““Today it’s less about product and more about providing a platform that truly meets the individual needs of every customer. Airlines can no longer afford to provide a set menu of irrelevant services”.

He cites Scandinavia’s city lounges and Korean Air’s solid ground inflight-food promotion of its unique national cuisine as ‘stories’ that airline brands have made their own.

Foodie fight

Like Korean Air, Cathay has also achieved marketing mileage from its inflight food – its signature cup noodles, for example, are stocked on every flight.

What marketers have discovered is that people love food, and they love to talk about it, not to mention share images of it!

Understanding this, Ma says the airline used this as an opportunity to partner with the “foodie community” in the New York. The result has been a series of pop-up experiences that showcase the food of some of their destinations including Vietnam, Thailand and Beijing. This, says Ma, gave them an opportunity to talk about the destinations that they might fly to. With over 800 million impressions and people signing up for future promotions, the campaign was about inspiring people to take action.

Truly understanding what gives a customer “bragging rights” is crucial to lending authenticity to a campaign

Instead of the traditional billboard or magazine spread, these integrated campaigns are run on social media to encourage interaction, sharing and engagement. More about driving awareness than delivering conversions, Ma stresses that there are unique insights to be gleaned from what people share and talk about on social media.

Truly understanding what gives a customer “bragging rights” is crucial, she says, as they then become content collaborators and brand ambassadors that lend authenticity to a campaign.

AR, VR, voice and the sweet spot in the home

Educating the customer and showing the customer what the inflight experience using VR and AR is something airlines are also exploring. In San Francisco Ma will be sharing insights from its VR experiment that documented the entire experience of two travellers taking a flight.

Ma explains that the initial goal was to empower sales people to share the video with prospective clients, but this was later repurposed into digestible 360-dgree advertising units. These allowed consumers to navigate the experience and book directly from their mobile phone. “This has done and continues to do very well in terms of engagement and ROI,” says Ma, who says consumers can spend up 26 seconds on each ad unit just to play around with the flight experience.

Augmented reality is also of growing interest, and Ma foresees people experimenting with placing themselves virtually into destinations like Hong Kong, in the way they do with images and Instagram today.

And let us not forget voice, which everybody is talking about. Ma sees voice as very similar to search advertising where hundreds, if not billions, of dollars are spent today. As Christina Heggie, investment principal at JetBlue Technology Ventures, puts it: “Voice will fundamentally change where those dollars go.”

Airlines definitely see voice as a way to inspire people because it allows so much flexibility and the freedom to ask questions

“Airlines definitely see voice as a way to inspire people because it allows so much flexibility and the freedom to ask questions,” says Ma. She adds: “We need to be actively thinking about the types of creative messaging we can pioneer to inspire people”.

Right now voice is still used in a functional way – to ask about directions or the weather. But as the drive to get more smart devices into the home gathers momentum that will grow exponentially and in many different directions. There will, says Ma, be a two-pronged and intertwined opportunity. The first will be to create imaginative and inspiring stories, the second to understand the data revealing when people are searching and what to target at the right time. This, she says, is the sweet spot!  The sweet spot that airlines like Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, JetBlue and other are actively exploring.

Time is running out. To hear more about how airlines are looking to engage customers with stories and new technology, join us in less than two weeks in San Francisco to hear more from Robecta Ma, Akira Mitsumasu, and Christina Heggie

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