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The future of airline marketing is all about the mix of data and brand – says Cathay Pacific’s Edward Bell

Through his keynote address at the Mumbrella Asia Travel Marketing Summit, Cathay Pacific’s general manager of brand, insights and marketing communications Edward Bell gave not just a historic overview of the airline’s journey, but an insight into the future of its communication strategy – a mix of data and brand. 

It was these considerations that drove Cathay Pacific’s search for a new agency partner, which ended last August with the airline severing ties with McCann after 25 years. Bell said: “What we felt from Publicis was that they were super hungry, very organised and very much ready for the future. In the airline business, the future is all about how you use data and brand. You want a partner who really gets that.”

Speaking about the pitch experience, he added: “It was surprising to see a lot of agencies really not ready to have that conversation. Or the creative agency talked about it but the media agency was not synched in.”

The focus on data and brand was particularly relevant considering the companies that Bell wanted Cathay Pacific’s service experience to be benchmarked against – Netflix, Apple and Uber. He said: “In the past, we had the goal of being the world’s greatest airline, and we’ve been that many times. But we want to acknowledge the relationship between the business and the customer, by becoming the world’s greatest service brand.

“It is not just about competing with other airlines but with Netflix, Apple and Uber – not on product, but to be a great service experience. That’s where the best service these days is coming from and it helps to have those brands as our competitive set.”

Bell also believed digital marketing in the airline category was due for an overhaul describing it as “A series of oasis of brand communication in a sea of tactical marketing.” He said: “We mostly spend time selling a destination with a price point. This, to me, is madness. I know it drives the sales because if someone is in the mode of buying, what they want is a way to get there. But if that’s your only strategy you are actually unwinding your brand, transaction by transaction; you just don’t realise it yet.”

“You have to sell your point of difference as a premium carrier. It is what we are moving to: integrated marketing where our story becomes the main story. We will sell destinations but with stronger entertainment values and creative power.”

Giving an example of the successes, he pointed to the recent Rugby Sevens campaign.

Speaking about the campaign, he said: “It was about having fun. We took the balls, Hong Kong culture and wrapped it all together. It got five times the engagement from the previous year. We took a bold approach, moving away from the quietness of the previous years, that has characterised Cathay’s marketing.”

This approach had also helped the airline tide through crisis situations like the time the paint job on a plane had an F missing or when premium tickets were found to be selling at discounted rates.

Responding to a question on how Cathay Pacific dealt with these situations, in a way that positively affected the brand, Bell said: “When we lose an F off a plane, we don’t lose our shirt, but turn it into a viral success with a dose of humour that represents our self confidence. We acknowledge it was a slip-up but say ‘we are still in control, know what’s going on and we are turning it around.”

This was also where having a strong brand made a difference, according to Bell. He said: “Airlines are massively complicated. It’s very easy for something to not work right. And so, it is important to share with your customers, what your vision and values are.

“When things go wrong, people understand that you really are trying your best and sometimes it is just beyond your control. If you have that reservoir of goodwill, people take it into account, and then, of course, you try to make light of it.

“I’m not saying it doesn’t matter, but we have a lot of things working well at the same time. It’s not the end of the world.”

As he concluded his presentation, Bell said: “We have seen our ad and brand awareness climb pretty steadily. We’ve seen how the willingness of the workforce to work with Cathay has gone up. That’s a big indicator. We are at number three, a long way ahead of Singapore Airlines – its nice to be ahead of them, every now and then.

“We have won business awards again for our frequent flyer programme. We are back in black, as AC/DC used to say.”

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