By Gary Leopold
The typical American has probably never heard of Emirates. But if you were an affluent international traveler living in London, Frankfurt, Moscow, Tokyo, or Sydney, you’d know it well. Emirates is one of the world’s most profitable and fastest-growing airlines, now serving 78 destinations in 55 countries. It has been continuously voted as one of the “best in the world” for its service and operations, receiving over 250 international awards. Dubai, their hub in the United Arab Emirates has become an important global gateway, serving millions traveling between Europe, North America, the Middle East, Africa, Indian subcontinent and Asia-Pacific.
Our assignment was to introduce Emirates’ service to North America, which included a daily non-stop flight between Dubai and New York’s JFK Airport. Specifically, our job was to fill seats, especially in First and Business Class — crucial to the route’s profitability.
We began where all good communications starts, by talking to customers and seeing how New Yorkers felt about the idea.
In a series of focus groups of New York area residents with over three First or Business Class international flights in the past year, we simply held up a white board with the Emirates logo: the word Emirates in English, with the Arabic symbol for Emirates displayed above it.
As you can imagine, the results were quite interesting. Even though they were seasoned international business travelers, surprisingly few knew what the logo represented. Some were distressed by the Arabic symbol. When informed it was an airline, a few wanted nothing to do with it.
As we showed our groups some of the existing Emirates image advertising that had been running in England and elsewhere around the world, the results were equally curious. Usually, ads provide answers to a reader. However, these provoked only questions. “How long have they been around?” “How old are their planes?” “Who flies the planes?” “Do they speak English?” “Do the flight attendants wear veils?” “Can you drink?”
Repeatedly in the groups they raised a question that underscores our geographically-challenged nation in all its glory: “Where is Dubai? Is it in Saudi Arabia?”
Even though the United Arab Emirates have created a progressive, modern, business-friendly, open society, and even though Europeans have been flocking to their beaches for years, with jet-setters like David Beckham (a.k.a. Mr. Posh Spice) owning villas there, and even though Dubai is farther from Saudi Arabia than Vienna is from Serbia and Croatia, it was a question that kept coming up. To Americans, and New Yorkers in particular, anything viewed as Middle Eastern was filled with a lot of apprehensions, stereotypes and misconceptions. The rest was just details.
Yet the more we told them about Emirates — its standards, awards, planes, luxury and history of innovation — the more their interest grew during the focus groups. The truth is, Emirates is an incredible airline. Ninety-nine percent of passengers who fly it once are enthusiastic about flying it again. By the end of our focus groups, virtually all of the participants were willing to give the airline a try, and many expressed new-found excitement about the prospect of having convenient direct service to Dubai and beyond. By creating this dialogue we knew that success in New York was possible, if we could find a clear and distinctive way to educate the marketplace, much like we had in the focus groups.
Our report back to Emirates boiled down to one simple idea: “Americans need to know you before they will trust you. And they need to trust you before they will fly you.”
Our marketing plan and tactics were created to do just that. To let people see that Emirates was not a national carrier of a Middle Eastern country, but rather an international airline based in the Middle East. To let people know that the flight crews included over 95 different nationalities — including Australian, German, English, Canadian and American. To tell people about the youth of their fleet, including the new long-range Airbus A340-500 flying non-stop from New York to Dubai. And the incredible experience Emirates offers, including private First Class suites, multi-course gourmet meals on demand, fine wines and over 500 channels of entertainment at every seat on the plane. Even mood lighting on the cabin ceiling that simulates a starry night sky to help passengers combat jet lag.
We worked with the Emirates team in New York and Dubai to craft an advertising and marketing campaign that would continue to reflect the “Keep discovering” theme that the company was using across the globe and that had already been introduced in the United States. Built around the idea that there are magic moments in life when people learn and experience new things, we wanted every visual in our campaign to be a “perception buster,” from the Australian pilot to the blonde-haired stewardess — and we used actual Emirates employees, not actors.
Our goal was to develop a set of messages so that when the reader would now see the Emirates logo, they would have already begun formulating a new and positive perception of its meaning. And our advertising copy (see box and ads) spoke to New Yorkers like New Yorkers, proactively addressing the issues brought up in our focus groups.
Our integrated campaign was carefully planned to reach affluent New York travelers wherever they were. Our media plan included print in business publications like The Wall St. Journal, The New York Times and Financial Times. Spot television and very cost-effective messages on National Public Radio helped elevate awareness and allowed the airline to be showcased in a culturally rich environment. Bus and transit posters reached affluent New Yorkers on the streets of Manhattan. Scores of targeted messages covered select sites and content areas on the Internet, including roll-over banners with information on Emirates, Dubai, and special offers. Plus we targeted exclusive e-mail promotions to members of Emirates’ Skywards frequent flyer program.
In addition, a marketing partnership was forged with American Express focusing on Platinum Card members with travel to Emirates’ destinations and a desk-top model of an Emirates airplane was hand delivered to key corporate executives and travel managers throughout the region. We even orchestrated a unique “station domination” in the Wall Street subway station and in Grand Central Station, where every message for an entire month was about Emirates (in a total of 90 different places), all strategically positioned to reach commuters arriving from wealthy Connecticut suburbs.
It was a massive amount of activity, for a relatively modest budget, all carefully orchestrated around a concerted media relations push from M. Silver Associates, Inc., which serves as the carrier’s public relations counsel in the United States. Their comprehensive efforts included a visiting journalist program, media events and tours, video news releases and the creation of an Emirates News Bureau, all of which helped garner coverage in such outlets as the The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, Travel & Leisure, Forbes, CNN, and CNBC. Most importantly every aspect of the communications and marketing activity — from opening parties, to direct sales calls, to the advertising campaign — focused on telling the same well articulated and clear story about Emirates.
The results have been very gratifying. Within several months of the launch, load factors and revenues had exceeded plan, and acceptance of the airline among the travel community, corporations and individual travelers was running extremely high.
Like millions of people who had come to New York from other countries to start fresh, Emirates had found success.
About the author: Gary Leopold is the President and CEO of ISM, a Boston-based marketing and advertising firm that specializes in the travel and leisure industries. In addition to Emirates, Mr. Leopold and his firm works with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, American Express, Barbados, Harley-Davidson, Red Lion Hotels, Massport and many others. He is the 2004 recipient of the HSMAI Albert E. Koehl Award for lifetime achievement in travel advertising and marketing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.