Early this month, United Airlines posted a cheeky tweet encouraging travelers to always “read the fine print.” It cited Department of Transportation data proving United is Denver’s most-flown airline, and not Southwest, which the latter has long asserted.
Airline advertising gets a creativity upgrade—behind the industry's messaging pivot
The post, which one commenter lauded as “brilliant,” is another example in a long-running rivalry between the two carriers that includes United’s use of a phone hotline to poke fun at Southwest as well as an emotional Super Bowl commercial that ran in Colorado touting United’s travel success during the holidays. Southwest did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the new Twitter post.
“We think of ourselves like a living, breathing personality,” said Maggie Schmerin, head of global advertising and social media at United. “There are moments when we can be more serious like with the Super Bowl spot tapping into the emotion, and then we can also flex and use humor and wit at the right. Moments like we did with the courtesy stunt and [last week] in Denver.”
Welcome to the renaissance of airline advertising. Chicago-based United is not the only carrier breathing new life into sky travel. Across the industry, airlines including Delta, JetBlue and Iceland Air are injecting a hefty dose of creativity into their marketing strategies with fun messaging and new channels. New ads harken back to the golden age of travel—the 1960s, when the skies were limitless with possibility and airline marketers had a product all consumers craved. Similarly, the easing of pandemic restrictions opened the door to so-called revenge travel as people try to make up for lost time under lockdown by taking trips and vacations.
Many brands also have new agency relationships as they further their messaging. United began working with 72andSunny as global creative agency of record in 2021. American Airlines hired Walton Isaacson as its agency of record last year.
Advertising goes well beyond standard linear TV commercial buys. Delta Air Lines is tapping into TikTok trends and hosted a runway show. JetBlue teamed up with PepsiCo for an influencer campaign created with VaynerMedia. Just this week, Southwest released a 15-minute film created out of the winning submission in its “Storytellers On The Rise” writing contest with Wattpad.
“All airlines post-pandemic are slugging it out for the same leisure traveler,” said Carl Mueller, co-head of strategy at 72andSunny, noting that previously, each airline carved out its own niche in terms of business and leisure travel. “Suddenly it’s Delta, American, Southwest, United all trying to get that young leisure traveler who is revenge traveling and that has necessitated better marketing.” He added, “The game’s gotten harder so brands have to fight harder and that’s yielding better creative.”
However, better creative doesn’t necessarily mean more spending. In the first quarter of 2023, airlines invested nearly $62 million in U.S. advertising, including TV and print, digital and social media—a 51% decline from the year-earlier period, according to MediaRadar. But much of last year’s spend was due to Delta’s Team USA ads on NBC as part of an Olympics sponsorship and a digital campaign from Southwest, MediaRadar found. United is among the brands boosting 2023 spending, with a 120% increase in the first quarter compared with the same period last year.
Transactional gives way to emotional
The new advertising is using a new tone—much of it driven by higher pricing, as carriers seize on rising demand. Airfares were up 17.7% in March compared to a year earlier. While carriers have spent recent years relying on transaction-based messaging, touting lower costs but often charging more for certain seats and luggage, newer marketing is reaching for a more emotionally-driven narrative. Airlines are choosing to focus not on the price but on the destinations, the employees and the wonder of travel.
“For a while it was always ‘fares, fares, fares,’ ‘cheap, cheap, cheap,’ and now they’re starting to go for the emotional, the great things about traveling and really focusing on that,” said Robert Cole, senior research analyst at travel market research firm Phocuswright, noting that passengers previously had felt nickel-and-dimed. “The equation becomes travel is great and it’s worth it.”
Historically, such messaging used to be the case—particularly in the early days of mass travel—before price became a primary deciding factor between brands. Many airlines showcased impeccably dressed flight attendants and touted the glamour of airplane travel. Braniff International, an airline founded by two brothers a century ago, broke barriers for creative TV spots in the 1960s, during the “Mad Men” era of advertising when double entendres had viewers paying attention. At the time, United pursued its “Fly the friendly skies of United” tagline and Southwest promoted its dependable schedule.
“Braniff pushed the envelope—it was very iconic, incredibly high-quality, revolutionary advertising,” said Cole. “People had been on trains and then [with airlines] were like, ‘Wow, this is fast, this is cool and it’s modern, it’s 20th century’ and the airlines had fun.” (The TWA Hotel, which opened in 2019 at JFK, pays tribute to the era.)
But as today's airlines amp up the emotion, they must deal with rising customer complaints—particularly following a disastrous holiday season that included an FAA meltdown and a scheduling snafu that put Southwest on the other side of dependable. Indeed, some experts are surprised that the current marketing from airlines does not focus more on customer experience.
A recent survey from travel marketing firm MMGY Global found that 52% of travelers say they have higher expectations from travel service providers now compared with prior to the pandemic. In addition, one out of three travelers rank flight delays and cancelations as one of the top three most concerning factors of future vacations. JD Power's 2023 North American Airline Satisfaction Study, released this week, found that passengers rated their airline satisfaction a 791 out of 1,000, or a C+. That's a seven-point decline from last year.
“Overarching brand trust is becoming more and more influential on the decision-making in the travel space,” said Craig Compagnone, president and chief operating officer of MMGY.
The need for a fresh take on airline ads can also be traced to the sea of sameness in the industry. At the Association of National Advertisers’ annual Masters of Marketing conference last fall, United’s Schmerin spoke on stage about the overwhelming similarity of airline marketers, many of which favor the same blue hue in their branding.
She reiterated the point in an interview last week: “Looks wise, it was hard to distinguish [between brands],” she said, noting that “oftentimes we were talking about similar things—the places we flew to, this notion of wanderlust and daydreaming.”
Standing out in the sea of blue
During the pandemic, Atlanta-based Delta focused on customer and employee safety, but after the resurgence in travel, the brand found itself returning to more innovative marketing, according to Emmakate Young, Delta's managing director of brand marketing, sponsorships and Olympics/Paralympics. In addition to video, the brand has been experimenting with experiential marketing as well. For example, it hosted an intimate concert with the Jonas Brothers at Madison Square Garden for its loyalty members, and created a Los Angeles Fashion Week runway show with Issa Rae and six diverse designers.
“We’re trying to think outside the box and bring things outside of the traditional—we’re pushing into more experiences,” said Young.
And amid the industry's sea of blue, Delta added more color earlier this year with its “Kaleidoscope” campaign. “The world is losing color,” actress Viola Davis narrates in a voiceover for the spot, which was created with longtime agency partner Wieden+Kennedy.
Delta has also been building up its social media prowess. The carrier brought its social media marketing in-house a few years ago—that creative group is now called Window Seat, and it allows the brand to be more flexible when reacting to trends. For example, for a recent TikTok trend tied to the song "The Good Part" by AJR, Delta showed a before and after of its plane with new livery for its Olympics sponsorship.
“We’re able to jump on these trends super quickly and have it authentically related to something our brand is doing and our customers are seeing us in new spaces in a culturally relevant way,” said Young, noting positive feedback. “You’ll also see us push into cultural spaces—we want to get into cultural zeitgeist more than we already are.”
In addition to its ongoing rivalry with Southwest, United has also been introducing more sustainability-focused messaging into its marketing. The airline has made big ecological commitments and is using its platform to promote them by making science more palatable. Earlier this year, it tapped Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch as chief trash officer. The company is turning garbage into jet fuel as it seeks to improve its environmental impact. All of these moves are under United’s “Good Leads the Way” campaign, which rolled out last spring as an overarching brand platform.
“The worst thing is operating in a template—that’s not how the world sees things anymore—they still want to dream a little bit,” said Matt Murphy, partner, creative at 72andSunny. “It’s heartwarming to bring in Oscar the Grouch. It becomes inclusive for young kids understanding sustainable aviation as much as my parents do and that’s not an easy task.”
International interest surges
A lot of new creative is destination-driven. As many pandemic barriers to international travel have opened up, so has the marketing touting international flights. A recent survey from MMGY found that 27% of travelers plan to take an international trip in the next six months—a substantial increase over last year’s survey, which found fewer than 20% of travelers with such plans.
Icelandair this spring ran a campaign pushing Iceland as an ideal stopover vacation site for travelers flying to and from Europe, for example. The global campaign, with agency Pablo London, used the tagline “Easy to stop, hard to leave” and appeared to target a higher-income traveler.
“You’re seeing people with means in household income finally choosing to travel internationally,” said Compagnone, adding that airlines are trying to capture as many fliers as possible to avoid empty seats on planes—leading to strategies like Icelandair’s.
“This is why you’re seeing a lot of these spots that are focused on the destination and international experience,” he said.