Song: Not So Catchy

The ads aren’t as clever as the brand concept itself

Song is the new airline aimed at female leisure travelers who have great taste, love bargains and dread traditional airline food. That sounds like a shrewd marketing move—exactly what all brands would do if they could reinvent themselves: go after a distinct, sophisticated target, partner with smart food and entertainment and design companies, and make it all about the brand experience and not the advertising. The perfect new marketing paradigm!

Indeed, the Delta subsidiary was up and running for a few months before the ads appeared. The graphics (designed by Landor Associates, along with the logo) are a riot of colors in three palettes that seem to provide a Rorschach test for consumers: Is this fancy packaging for a powerful new antidepressant, a hip computer company or a bold yet retro take on color for an airline? (Sometimes the patterns look like the cropped, blown-up bottom of a beach ball; in others you can see a sort of break in the distance, at the horizon. Certainly, there’s nothing as obvious as a plane or a globe.) The logo is all lowercase, which makes the “song” name seem even less like an airline’s. It also includes a “flourish”—a line meant to convey an abstract route, from point A to point B, or what a conductor does when he puts down his baton. To me, it looks like a deflated microphone.

As a consumer, I’m game. I love the notion of a budget-type airline on which you can buy meals good enough for a foodie (including girly cocktails shaken at your seat) and be entertained by TV, MP3 players and GameBoys. There are a couple of big ideas here: that the airline is cheap but unique, offers many more food and media choices than other airlines (with nods to Southwest and JetBlue) and at the same time is reglamorizing air travel, evoking the Pucci-fied Braniff stewardesses and the groovy look of Catch Me If You Can.

The advertising is a team effort, with Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners doing outdoor, and print work created primarily by Andy Spade (Kate’s husband and former creative director at TBWA\Chiat\Day), now running in magazines. Kate Spade was hired first, to design the uniforms and flight bags, and then the Spade aesthetic and influence grew, since their clientele overlaps. Kate Spade is a brilliant living brand. From the top of her proper updo to the perfect bow on her shoes, there’s something mock-conservative (and therefore, not so trendy and disposable) about her whole look: It’s a postmodern take on what good girls wore in the 1960s. But at the same time, that nostalgic, Spade-ish bent is a bit stilted and hermetically sealed, not exactly in sync with the idea of Song and its “Let yourself fly” ethos.

The print ads, two- and three-page spreads, each feature a Song customer who matches the psychographics of the particular magazine’s readership. The photographer is Tim Walker, whom the Spades have worked with on some of their own ads, and the photos are a series of slightly edgy contemporary portraits in deep, saturated color. Each suggests flying in a subtle way.

The November InStyle spread features a young woman in jeans and a striped shirt hanging onto a tree (an earnest hippie version of a young Marilyn Monroe), her striking mop of long red hair flying back like a gorgeous flag (or a baton). The poetry-like two lines of copy tell us, “Kate isn’t afraid of flying, she’s afraid of conformity.” The first line is clever, alluding to Erica Jong’s book on sexual promiscuity but also current events. And the second seems to say that when not up a tree, she’d seek out an airline like Song.

Here’s the rub: You can’t legislate nonconformity, and having an airline come right out and say that passenger Kate is a real nonconformist is kind of embarrassing. Any business owned by a major corporation that thinks of itself as a rebel is deluding itself. It’s a business. Plus, airline passengers are not buying rebellion, they are buying services they like.

The back page, a sort of corporate manifesto (“founded by optimists, built by believers”), sounds like the brief. Way below, in tiny type, there is a list of Song’s offerings.

OK, so maybe that InStyle ad is not aimed at me. Another spread, in the New York Times Magazine, features a 60-ish woman, posing in front of her rose bushes and wearing a pink long-sleeved top, with beads and a flowered skirt. She faces the camera proudly and stands in a “ta da” position, with her hands on her hips as wings (there’s the flying again), like she’s gonna make it after all.

Here’s her story: “Magdalena could fly in first, but she’d rather save $600 and not meet another CEO.” I had a hard time relating to this one, too, though the hip white-haired woman did grab my attention. Of course first class is bizarrely overpriced, but then again, you get those big fat leather seats, so it doesn’t really matter whom you are seated next to. But why not tell me that all of Song’s seats are leather, with generous leg room, at a reasonable price? That’s more persuasive than Mrs. Palm Beach’s wacky anti-corporate profile.

Certainly, none of the print ads grabbed me the way “The Seat” does, a Delta spot running in New York, created by Brighthouse in Atlanta. It’s fresh and surprising, from the opening bars of the original music to the quirky casting of the woman with the gummy smile. She’s shown online in her office, and when she leaves, a big padded chair waddles behind her. The two tenderly get into the elevator and a cab, then make their way through the airport. The spot promotes do-it-yourself online seat assignments.

As for Song, I’d say the brand itself has taken off, and I’m still favorably disposed, but not because the ads have convinced me.