When Airlines All Look Alike, What’s a Marketer to Do?

Pitch the food

If there’s one thing that keeps a marketer awake at night, it’s commoditization—a nasty little bug that reduces a brand’s personality to the anonymous essentials of its segment. Put another way, it’s when a consumer believes it doesn’t matter what brand he buys, they’re all the same. Few businesses suffer from this marketplace malady more acutely than the airlines. Think about it. No matter how perky the flight attendant or how colorful the seat upholstery, competing airline brands fly the same routes from the same hubs with the same aircraft. Rocco Cipriano, president and founder of Aviation Marketing Consulting, explains where all this leaves the marketing department. “Airlines have a major problem because they’re considered buses with wings,” he said. “The majors don’t really have a differentiator that sets them apart.” In the old days, the miniskirt-clad stewardess did that job. But in our slightly more progressive era, there’s really just one differentiator left. “It’s service,” Cipriano said. “And I don’t know how else you’d communicate service than showing food.”

Food. Airline food. For the moment, let’s forget that today’s onboard “meal” in coach is a dry biscuit and a rubber chicken (if you’re lucky). When the big carriers duke it out for customers at 30,000 feet, fancy fare is how it’s done. And, as these ads show, that’s been the case for over 50 years now.

In 1960, Air France had just taken delivery of a new fleet of Boeing 707s—the narrow-body jets that, until the coming of the 747 in 1969, instantly embodied sophistication in the sky. The plane’s four Pratt & Whitney JT3C-6 turbojet engines cut flying time in half—six-and-a-half hours from New York to Orly Field just south of Paris—and even the “economy fare” of $532.30 ($4,140.37 in 2013 dollars) made clear that this was a rarified treat. But Pan Am, American and other major carriers were flying 707s, too, so Air France reached for one differentiator that the French could do better than anyone: la cuisine. In this 1960 ad, our smug passenger (yes, that’s Gregory Peck) has quite a repast spread before him: Le Homard, La Pâté de Faisan, and what’s assuredly a decent bottle of Cabernet. Remove the airline seat, and “you could be at a five-star restaurant,” Cipriano said, “especially with that dead bird.”

Now let’s fly ahead to 2013. We have another foreign-flagged carrier (Emirates), and another state-of-the-art plane (mostly likely an Airbus A380). The passengers are still beautiful, still smiling, and with the airspeed indicator nudging mach .88, they’ll hop right over the Atlantic in no time. But even with amenities galore (1,400 channels at every seat), the menu’s still doing the marketing lift. “The aircraft seats look very modern and big, but the food is definitely the focal point,” Cipriano said—the “realized experience” of the brand, as he says.

A quick disclaimer: None of the foregoing applies to coach, a place the airlines have seldom seen fit to portray in glorious color. After all, you already know what a Pepsi and a bag of chips look like, don’t you?