With Airlines In Shambles, American Debuts Campaign

After three years in post-9/11 survival mode, American Airlines decided the time was right to break out of a defensive posture with a branding campaign that dares to introduce humor while positioning the carrier as one that has a deeper understanding of its passengers.

“With much of the airline industry in chaos, this is an opportunity for us to re-inforce what our brand stands for in the marketplace and to strengthen our long-term relationship with our customers,” said Dan Garton, evp of marketing for the Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier.

Four TV spots from Interpublic Group’s TM Advertising in Irving, Texas, break today. Each presents a situation in an airport or aboard a plane that involves passengers heading to or from an important event. In every case, an American employee or a sign reveals clairvoyant knowledge of what the trip means to the passenger on a personal level. The spots are backed by a poignant, new-age soundtrack and end with the tagline, “We know why you fly.”

In one spot, two men are shown working late and preparing to send a presentation to Chicago through their computer. One asks, “Who’s presenting?” When the other says, “McClain,” they appear doubtful. The next scene shows them racing for the American gate, where the words “Saving your boss from himself” appear on a sign. As they present their tickets, the gate agent asks, “McClain?” They reply, “Yeah.”

Another ad shows a well-dressed businesswoman at the ticket counter, where the agent recites some favorite sayings of the passenger’s mother. “Return flights?” asks the customer. “On the hour,” replies the agent.

Sources said American will likely spend $60 million on the branding work over the next 18 months. The airline spent about $70 million on all advertising last year, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

American’s last tagline, “Something special in the air,” faded out in the late 1990s. Since then, the carrier has relied on price and promotions work. Stephen Schlacter, the client’s director of advertising, said a brand campaign in development in the summer of 2001 was grounded after terrorist attacks took down two American jets. In November 2001, another American jet crashed in New York.

Those events and the ongoing war on terror have continued to affect most of the major carriers. United and US Airways are struggling to find a way out of financial troubles. Delta last week said it would shutter its Dallas-Fort Worth hub and lay off 7,000 employees—and it could still face bankruptcy.

American flirted with bankruptcy last year, enduring layoffs and a major restructuring. When American’s advertising and marketing executives proposed a new tagline last fall, “you could see by the body language [of the airline’s top executives] that they were cringing,” Schlacter said. “There was just a fear of overpromising.”

But rough cuts of the spots sold the campaign. “Humor is a departure for us,” Schlacter said. “We’ve never used it before.”

“What we decided to do is use, sort of, a creative device that shows, quite literally, that the employees of this airline have this innate understanding of their traveler,” said Bill Oakley, creative director for TM. “If that traveler’s going home to have some of their mom’s rigatoni, we kind of know that.”