World: Media analysis - Airlines refine their strategies in the struggle for supremacy

Prices and comfort still top the agenda in the battle for sales, Mark Tungate writes. Once upon a time, airline advertising was based on competing claims about who had the most legroom, the comfiest seats, the best prices and even (if they weren't concerned about political correctness) the most attractive cabin staff. Today ... it's just the same.

At least, that's according to Brian Elliott, a founding partner of the Amsterdam-based agency StrawberryFrog. The five-year-old outfit recently snagged the Emirates creative account. It will also play a major role in devising the media strategy, although who will implement this is still "under discussion", according to Elliott.

"Airline advertising hasn't progressed a whole lot over the past few years," he says. "The budget airlines have established their basic brand value as 'cheap', so their strategy comes down to communicating fares and slapping their phone numbers on the sides of planes. And all the others are still talking about nice seats."

Elliott says the departure of Concorde for the great hangar in the sky symbolises the lack of excitement surrounding air travel. "While more of us are travelling to increasingly exciting places, the experience of travelling - and the way that experience is communicated - is generally excruciatingly dull. Our mission is to put some of the passion back into air travel."

This does not necessarily mean glamorous TV campaigns, although Elliott stresses that the medium has not lost its effectiveness. "The key is making the customer feel involved in the brand. A long-haul airline such as Emirates is taking some interesting people to some fascinating destinations, so there's an opportunity to segment them by lifestyle."

Air France - whose media account, has just been retained by Media Planning Group following a review - has a similar niche audience. Its global account director, Pascal Olivier, explains: "Only 2 per cent of the French population are frequent flyers, and the majority of those are business-class passengers. Because they are an elite group, we tend to treat Air France like a luxury brand."

This approach is reflected not only in the polished advertising from BETC Euro RSCG, but also in the media strategy. Olivier says: "We utilise highly qualitative environments such as the French news magazines - L'Express, Le Nouvel Observateur - and the upmarket daily papers such as Le Monde, Le Figaro and Liberation. And when we buy TV slots, we are extremely careful to avoid environments that might denigrate the brand - reality TV, for example."

It also sponsors a business programme on the satellite channel LCI, and brands the weather on the radio station Europe 1. In terms of outdoor, MPG places giant versions of Air France's striking posters in highly visible locations in European capitals. Recently, it installed a 100-metre square poster on the side of the Petit Palais monument off the Champs-Elysees.

In the UK, bmi has a similar strategy, although its approach to media, through PHD, is less elitist. It sponsors the weather on LWT at weekends.

Kathryn Gregory, bmi's marketing manager for advertising and promotions, says: "We felt that the weather was the ideal setting, because we're always talking about how awful it is and how nice it would be to get away."

But she says the bulk of bmi's media budget is spent on press, "mainly in quality dailies such as the Daily Mail and The Times. We tend to aim for the news rather than the travel sections to achieve better stand-out." Bmi has also been able to cut through the clutter with a giant banner wrapped around a building on the A4-M4 route to Heathrow. Along similar lines, it has branded several London taxis.

One budget airline that is not content with pasting its telephone number on the side of its planes is Ryanair. Although the carrier uses neither creative nor media agencies - preferring to do everything in-house - it considers that its advertising is among the most effective in the business. Sinead Finn, Ryanair's sales and marketing manager for Europe, says: "We have 2,000 employees whose average age is 28, so between us we can come up with plenty of good ideas."

The airline challenges staff to come up with concepts through its internal TV service and its staff magazine. A team of two in-house designers are responsible for all the press and poster ads.

"A lot of our ads are based on humour or provocation. For instance, we once wrapped the Mannekin Pis fountain in Brussels (a statue of a small boy urinating) in a poster that said: 'Pissed off with high fares?'"

Similarly, Ryanair has a small in-house media buying team, based in Dublin, which negotiates directly with newspapers and magazines. "Having direct contact with sales teams and promotional departments gives us solid relationships," Finn says. "This enables us to strike very beneficial contra-deals. For instance, we will offer the Daily Mail free seats for its readers if the paper pays for a TV ad promoting the offer."

Ryanair's media budget is only £16.7 million a year for the whole of Europe. Yet it carried 24 million passengers in the financial year up until the end of March 2004.

Although these airlines have disparate positions in the market, they all agree that one medium is vital - the internet. The budget airlines were perhaps the first to use it effectively, but the likes of Air France and bmi now have a significant online presence. Indeed, most airlines have deals with the search engine optimisation companies, so that the words "cheap flights" call up their latest offers.

As so many more airlines now offer more routes and competitive prices, airlines are having to work harder to get themselves noticed. For Emirates, whose media business is reportedly up for review, the competing agencies will have to make sure their ideas are first class.

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