How WestJet’s Real-Time Giving Set the Bar for Brand Generosity

A yearly tradition has taken flight following its 2013 'Christmas Miracle'

WestJet's 2013 real-time giving was a smash hit. WestJet

When looking at brands’ benevolence during the Christmas holiday season, it’s hard to find a program that outdoes WestJet’s 2013 real-time giving. It’s still a favorite for many (yours truly included) because it ticks off quite a few boxes: It was generous, ambitious, filled with authentic emotion and, from a practical advertising perspective, was a runaway hit with over 35 million views after launch (it presently sits at over 48 million).

The idea of the stunt was surprisingly simple yet logistically complex. WestJet guests flying from Hamilton and Toronto to Calgary (the airline’s home base) were able to tell Santa—via live video link at the originating airports—what they wanted as gifts. Kids asked for things like Thomas the Tank Engine and video game consoles while adults gravitated to large items like big-screen TVs. One WestJet customer went the practical route, asking for underwear and socks.

Once each guest told Santa (decked out in the brand’s signature blue) their choices, the WestJet team in Calgary sprang to action, hitting local stores and malls to gather the gifts to be put into boxes. All in, the airline had about five hours to get every gift wrapped (with personalized notes) to the baggage carousel. What happened in the reveal was nothing short of amazing. Instead of luggage, presents rolled out, and the stunned passengers were overwhelmed with emotion at the airline’s generosity.

“We thought [the program] was really fun and lighthearted, and we underestimated the amount of emotion that came from our guests as they were given the gifts,” said Corey Evans, senior content manager for WestJet.

Mini-stories emerged from the moment—like a family that was moving from Hamilton to Calgary and having a difficult time with the change. One of the kids received an Android tablet and, on a whim, the airline decided to buy the mother a camera.

“A lot of times, when a family was interviewed, there was more focus on the kids, and the parents didn’t really tell us what they wanted,” said Evans. “This ended up being the perfect gift for her because, apparently, during the move, her camera was lost, so it was the perfect gift for her.”

In just about every case, the customers were overcome with emotion due to the gesture and, in hindsight, it was clear that this was a perfect way to celebrate the season … yet the idea almost didn’t happen.

A Fortunate Happenstance

In 2012, WestJet grabbed on to the flash mob phenomenon with a fun video shot at Calgary International Airport before an overnight flight to Toronto. The gesture was well-received by passengers and gained decent organic traffic, and Evans’ team started thinking about what was next.

“We really didn’t have an experiential marketing department at the time,” said Evans. “But an executive came down and said that he wanted us to try some new things and they basically let us run with it.”

Evans enlisted Studio M in Toronto to come up with ideas and to help the airline maximize the video medium. Among the concepts pitched was a flight school where Santa’s reindeers were taught to fly by WestJet’s pilots and to have kids experiment with 3-D mapping. In the end, though, Evans had to make a decision and told the agency that they were “settling” on real-time giving.

At that point, sorting out logistics for the plan went into overdrive. There were plenty of big things to address (ensuring efficiencies in getting, wrapping and delivering gifts) and small touches that made a big difference in some of the decision-making.

“A big fear we had was Santa himself,” said Evans. “We wanted it to be authentic—that the same person they talked to in Hamilton and Toronto was the same person they saw when they landed in Calgary. We thought ‘do we get triplets?’ But, in the end, we landed on the virtual Santa box, which was inspired by Coca-Cola in India and Pakistan where two border communities communicate through a screen.”

Other more personal touches to ensure authenticity included scanning of boarding passes so Santa could address each person by name. Additionally, WestJet staff were on hand with food and drinks to encourage travelers to interact with Santa and, overall, every piece came together for something truly magical.

“I wonder what would have happened had we gone with that other concept,” pondered Evans. “Obviously it was a crazy ride and surpassed all expectations.”

Building From Success, With Authenticity

While it’s easy to think that the brand would want to one-up its 2013 success, subsequent executions—all with Studio M as a partner—have continued the poignant spirit of giving to make the most significant possible impact.

WestJet’s 2014 follow-up was a recreation of the 2013 real-time giving program but set in the small seaside Dominican Republic town of Nuevo Renacer. Residents were able to speak with Santa, once again via video, on a sleigh set in the village’s center. The next day, the airline hosted a party where the villagers received their gifts (including a horse for one grateful man).

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.