Why Nearly All Airline Advertising Fails

British Airways has a new ‘Experience the Welcome of Home’ video, telling the story of an Indian woman living in Toronto. She apparently flies British Airways to visit her family in India.

Great story, we all have places to go, and it’s well-produced. But I have no idea after watching it why it’s better to transit Heathrow on BA enroute to India than to fly any of their competitors? The ad gives me no reason whatsoever to choose British Airways, and I’m pretty sure that would be true even if I were an Indian woman living in Canada.

There are, best as I can tell, five types of airline ads:

  1. Those that sell flying (airlines used to do this for a reason – people were scared or flying was new – and now seem to do it for lack of any better ideas)
  2. Those that sell a destination (countries with one major flag carrier sometimes do this)
  3. Those that sell features and benefits (this was common when airlines had many of those, which sometimes distinguished them from competitors – and this is what United’s “friendly” campaign does while pretending to be about service)
  4. Those that sell sex (usually only Spirit Airlines even tries these days, with the humor of a teenage boy, because no legacy carrier could credibly do so)
  5. Those that sell service (United used to years ago, no US carrier can credibly do so today).

New York is a competitive market that airlines all try to convince New Yorkers they have the best flights and product and that they’re the home airline (“Newark is New York, really!“).

But beyond New York, what do you say? Checkers — the fast food chain — advertises “you gotta eat.” And technically what they have is food. So buying from them satisfied the logical condition, but provides no reason to buy from them than anyone else.

British Airways, like most airline advertising, is telling you you gotta fly! and guess what? They’re an airline. It’s the Checkers approach.

In order to advertise features and benefits you need something:

  • That your competitors don’t have
  • That will actually drive consumer purchase decisions other than price.

Good luck with that.

Some airlines could differentiate themselves based on their frequent flyer program, but they don’t do television advertising — why should they when they have 80, 90, or 100 million members in their file to market to? When they can rent hotel chain member lists?

So it’s really rare to see airline advertising that is well-done, credible, and could conceivably cause you to choose one brand over another.

That’s what made the Singapore Airlines “Understanding Your Needs” campaign so remarkable. The ads were heart-warming, sold something specific (service), and were actually credible.

Unless an airline can do that they really shouldn’t spend their money.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Maybe coffee fueled cyborgs don’t understand this, but the ad is encouraging an emotional purchase. It is making people think of BA when going to visit family, and it seems to work.

  2. Gary, isn’t there done marginal advantage to mind share or brand awareness? If I am booking on kayak and see BA and Lufthansa priced a few dollars apart, I might be willing to pay a *tad* more to an airline that I feel a connection to. Even fast food companies need to push money for advertising!

  3. why does BA seem to always feature indian people in these yearly ads? i suppose that’s a particularly lucrative market for them this time of year? flew JFK to BOM via LHR on air india back a few years ago around xmas and their flights were all packed.

  4. If my grandma finds out that I took any airline besides BA, she refuses to see me when I visit India. 😉

    @pavel, South Asians constitute the largest group among the immigrant population in UK. BA flies more people during the year-end holiday season to India than to China or to Vietnam or to ??. That is why.

  5. Southwest’s Bags Fly Free ads make sense according to item 3, although I believe that No Change Fee is a much more valuable featur

  6. I agree that the BA ad was bad but I don’t think that was an ads like a traditional sense per day but more a promote video for a certain sector of a market. But I agree that it didn’t give me a feeling of why I should fly BA, I could have done it with any other airline. On the other hand the SQ one is a traditional ads per say. But Is the SQ ads that great? To me, I feel a bit “Meh”, I feel SQ is trying to make you feel good over something very unimportant, does anyone honest think they go through all that length to pick a movie or in another version, to pick the tea, etc? You are argue it is a figure of speech that they did this just to makes us feel good onboard, but to me, that’s too old school gimmicks for me. They are trying to sell me something that we all know they didn’t do, so they are trying to sell me something fake. They want me to fall for that touchy touchy feel good feelings but at this day and age, it doesn’t work for me anymore. For me, I want them to tell me something real, tell me something I can related to them, tell me something real that I can connect and related myself with your airline and your brand. Never trying to sell me a dream / idea of service that we all know is fake and we won’t get event at the best airline like SQ. This is why I think the CX the last serious of ads from CX trying to tell a story about the people who works for CX works quite well. It give face time to the employee at CX that the average passenger can related to and it shows how their life’s and their life experience relate to the service from the heart service that they provide at CX. Much more real and personal and it works. BA also had a slight series of ads like this but instead of high lighting people background, they high light the airline traditions and how they came into play with their service. To me that works as well. Anyway, just my opinion.

  7. I am pretty sure BA knows what its market share is to India in the places that it runs these ads. It’s selling “time to go back and visit” to the expat and heritage Indian community in those markets, so it’s selling “flying” (number one on your list) in general, but focusing on markets where it knows increased flying in general will translate directly to more BA tickets sold. There could be a secondary benefit among other immigrant groups besides Indians who live in the same market and can see themselves in the ad too.

  8. I found the SQ ad pretty good overall but at the same time unrealistic given I know SQ has a rule flight attendants are not allowed to wear the kebaya uniform outside of work..
    One of the best commercials and airline marketing/branding videos I’ve seen was done by westjet for the holidays last year:
    Truly innovative. From numbers alone, it has received over 36 million pageviews compared to SQ’s 1 million youtube pageviews.

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