Battle for the skies takes off

The skies above the Middle East are full of airlines flying to the region’s business and tourism hubs. The marketing fight is on to secure bums on seats, writes Richard Abbott

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By  Richard Abbott Published  July 3, 2005

battle for the skies takes off|~|take-off200.jpg|~|Take off... Qatar Airways has carved a successful niche for itself offering a top-of-the-range experience|~|Self-made millionaire Richard Branson is coming to the Middle East. The first of his distinctive red and white planes will touch down at Dubai airport in April next year, adding yet another carrier to one of the most competitive routes in passenger aviation. For marketers, it is one of the world’s biggest battlegrounds. The economic boom in the Middle East has seen dramatically increased demand for flights from business passengers and tourists alike. Branson has identified the potential that exists in the region. Announcing the new four-times-a-week service between London Heathrow and Dubai, the Virgin Atlantic chairman said: “I have visited Dubai several times in recent years and I’ve been bowled over by what it has to offer and staggered by the commitment to further development. “This route is significant because it will be Virgin Atlantic’s first destination in the Middle East. Dubai has established itself as the key travel hub of the region and is also a major business centre in its own right. “It could offer many opportunities for other Virgin companies and I’m hoping Virgin Atlantic’s presence will be the platform for further expansion.” His words will hardly be music to the ears of the region’s other airlines — they now have another giant to compete with. The battle will intensify and it will be fought out on newspaper pages, TV screens and billboards. The Middle East boasts some huge airlines. Emirates, based at Dubai International Airport, is perhaps the best known due to its high-profile sports sponsorship, but there is also Saudi Arabian, which tends to keep a low marketing profile, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad, Qatar Airways and Gulf Air, which is jointly run by Abu Dhabi, Oman and Bahrain. Each airline uses advertising, sponsorship and PR to create its desired brand image, with the focus on anything from the flattest beds and best in-flight service to bargain basement fares. Emirates’s corporate communications arm handles all of the marketing and PR and is run by senior vice-president Mike Simon, a man whose mission is to turn the airline into a global brand. To that end, Emirates has used high profile sports sponsorship to quickly generate awareness. “Our target is to become a global brand,” he says. “At the moment we can call ourselves a global airline but we are not a global brand. That is one of the reasons we sponsor the FIFA World Cup. If you are seen alongside the likes of McDonald’s and Fuji then, by association, it also helps you in your efforts to become a global brand.” The World Cup sponsorship, which is currently appearing throughout Emirates’ campaigns, is the culmination of a focus on sports sponsorship that began with local events like the Dubai Desert Classic and culminated with the recent shirt and stadium sponsorship deal with Arsenal Football Club in London. This avenue has certainly generated quick awareness for Emirates, but other airlines have been effective with less high profile marketing campaigns. Qatar Airways may serve a small country but it has carved a successful niche for itself as an airline that offers a top-of-the-range in-flight experience. Indeed, it was recently awarded the prestigious five-star airline award by Skytrax. And its cabin crew have been voted the best in the Middle East for three consecutive years. It is this luxury and comfort theme that Saatchi & Saatchi uses when creating campaigns to advertise the airline. According to Rob Mitchell, managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi in Dubai, there are two essential roles for an agency working on an airline campaign — to support the process of building the airline’s brand image and to be noticed as announcements of the specific destinations and sell these accordingly. “It [Qatar Airways] has always had a premium product but the advertising historically lagged behind. The main work we have done is at a brand level to position them as a luxury airline. And then at a destination level as they grow their route network,” says Mitchell. The current campaign features symbolic reference to the destination in question with an aspect of the aircraft. In an ad for the Osaka route, a sushi roll is held up to one of the plane’s engines. “Most ads show a picture postcard image of the destination, we wanted something symbolic that we could integrate the aircraft with. They will use it a few weeks before the route opens and then during the early flights.” Virgin Atlantic is now putting people and agencies in place for its Dubai launch. Paul Moore, director of corporate affairs, says that the airline’s marketing spend tends to focus on fairly irreverent outdoor and press executions. But he sees PR as a major pillar of the Dubai launch. “I would expect we will try to be impactful, but we have to operate on around a tenth of the budget of BA or Emirates,” he says. “We put a large emphasis on inaugural flights, where Richard Branson and 200 VIPs and press fly out from the UK. This tends to generate press coverage.” At the other end of the scale is Air Arabia, the new airline that has brought to the Middle East the ‘value for money’ approach used to great effect by companies like Ryanair and Easyjet in Europe, flying from Sharjah airport, next door to Dubai. In its first year of operations 700,000 passengers across the region flew Air Arabia and the company is predicting a figure of one million for this year. Jyotsna Kaur Habibullah, marketing manager of Air Arabia, says the main pillar of the airline’s communication is about price. “Air Arabia’s mission is to revolutionise air travel in the region through an innovative business approach offering superb value for money and a safe, reliable operation,” she says. “In our first year of operations we established ourselves as the airline offering the lowest fares in the region. We focused on educating the market about our operations and generating first-time flyers and expanding the market in the region.” As the airline has developed, so has its marketing. It now uses a mix of above and below the line. Print for price announcements, outdoor for brand recognition and radio for customer interaction. Below the line, it uses online, direct mail and targeted promotions. Another airline utilising below the line activity is Royal Jordanian, which recently took this idea one step further by launching a co-branded Visa card with Arab Bank. It is the latest benefit in a 65,000-strong frequent-flyer programme that offers access to Royal Jordanian business lounges, free allowance for extra baggage, upgrades and free tickets. But while airlines in the Middle East may know their onions when it comes to advertising, they are not so hot on ||**||battle for the skies takes off|~|Baker,-David200.jpg|~|‘It is very important for an airline to get its PR right. It is a service industry and anyone who is in a service industry will tell you that it is very difficult to get people to say good things about you’ |~|public relations.“They are, in the main, useless,” says Neil Denslow, editor of Dubai-based Aviation Business magazine. “Most of the airlines in this region actively avoid talking to the press. I was speaking to one airline recently about a press release they had put on their website. I asked them if they could send it direct to me. She said ‘oh, we had never thought of that’. “That’s what we have to deal with. Most of them have organised processes for dealing with the press that encourage not speaking to us at all.” He highlights the recent Paris Air Show, where one Middle East airline had a major aircraft order — an undeniably positive news story — yet failed to communicate this to the world’s trade press who were present. But David Baker, managing director of Four Middle East, who manages public relations for Gulf Air, argues that bad PR is a thing of the past. He has worked with Gulf Air for three years, a period in which the airline has transformed from a tired regional carrier to a genuine contender in the competitive Middle East market. Its PR operation is run from its hub in Bahrain, with a network of PR consultancies reporting in. Four represents the UAE and Oman. “Gulf Air was on its knees and crippled with debt. We had to pretty much start from scratch,” he says. “Now I am pretty much an integral part of the team. Gulf Air’s policy has been one of transparency since day one of Project Falcon, which was the name of the turnaround programme. “We have focused very strongly on internal communication because when you are building a business the first people you need to be on board are your staff. “It is very important for an airline to get its PR right. It is a service industry and anyone who works in a service industry will tell you that it is very difficult to get people to say good things about you.” As well as the local GCC and Levant airlines, there are a whole host of international carriers fighting to take passengers in and out of the region. Alexandra Mellies, promotion and marketing manager for Air France in the Middle East, faces the challenge of competing with the big regional players — but on a much smaller budget. A mark of the airline’s mixed fortunes is that it has had to close its route to Doha due to intense pressure from Qatar Airways, while it has almost doubled its flights to Dubai. “It is very competitive. The Middle East airlines invest a lot in marketing and advertising. Our budget is not so big so we have to make choices,” she says. A central pillar of the Air France pitch is the brand, using the slogan ‘The French Touch’ in its branding. In a cluttered market, it often pays to fall back on national stereotypes to win consumers. The French are known for their love of food, so Air France invests heavily in its in-flight catering. “Arabs like French food,” says Mellies. “With some airlines you don’t feel you are getting a good sense of the brand. When you are flicking through a magazine, you know instantly when you see Air France.” With a limited budget, Air France uses quarter or half pages in newspapers such as Gulf News and magazines like Arabian Business. And with new newspapers scheduled to enter the market and Virgin Atlantic set to land in the Middle East next year, the job of airline marketing managers and their agencies looks set to take off in a big way.||**||

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