Why do airlines invest so much in creative inflight safety videos?
As more airlines couple a life-saving tool with a creative brand strategy, The Drum asks: what’s the pay-off?
Turkish Airlines’ tie-up with The Lego Movie franchise has resulted in an onboard safety demonstration video made from 2,938,840 Lego bricks. This was painstakingly arranged over the course of 950 days. The five-minute video, presented to passengers on all of the airline’s flights, heavily features the movie’s self-deprecating humour through thick and fast quippery. It leaves the viewer chuckling at a narcissistic Batman figurine in lieu of contemplating a potential plummet to earth.
Turkish Airlines’ inflight video is the Hollywood version of a trending strategy – produce a safety film that’s memorable, and often amusing. British Airways made no bones of this tactic when it announced a partnership with Comic Relief in 2017, resulting in a spot filled to the brim with iconic British comedians playing it funny. This year’s version, created by Ogilvy instead of BBH, reproduced the formula with added Michael Caine.
The veteran in this space, however, is Air New Zealand. Its 2009 film entitled ‘Bare Essentials’ featured cabin and ground crew demonstrating an aircraft’s safety covered in body paint – and nothing else. Since then its beautifully shot, distinctive releases have garnered as much attention on land as they have in the sky due to online distribution.
Air New Zealand's success in the safety video space has proven that a once boring, mandatory production – that historically would only have been seen by an existing customer base – can be turned into a crucial piece of marketing collateral.
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“The key objective when we set out to make our safety videos is to engage customers with important safety messages,” said Emma Field, brand communications manager for UK and Europe for the brand. “However, we also see these videos as a wonderful marketing tool for both Air New Zealand and New Zealand.
“They definitely reflect our brand personality and how we like to think outside the box, which is important when you’re a small airline in the South Pacific. They do a great job of inspiring people to get on our planes and explore new destinations, which in turn helps to further build our business.”
For Turkish Airlines, a brand that has begun to compete with the likes of Delta, Emirates and American Airlines on fleet size and destinations, its tie-in with Lego was brokered to bolster its global credentials.
"Turkish Airlines aims to keep with the trends, and to collaborate with celebrities and content creators that help us distinguish our content from the other," said Seda Kalyoncu, senior vice president for corporate communications at the company. "As the airline that flies to more countries than any other, collaborating with global brands such as Warner Bros and Lego also contributes positively to our brand image and strengthens our position and prestige as one of the leading global airline brands."
But not every brand has been successful at treading the fine line between conveying life-saving information, capturing the imaginations of both its audience and potential customer base and staying true to its brand identity. Shashank Nigam, the author of airline marketing book Soar and chief executive of airline marketing strategist Simpliflying, believes the airlines that miss the mark often forget the latter point, which leads to creative overshooting.
“[Airlines] can go overboard with the humour, or completely follow a competitor and go way too far away from their own brand,” he said, adding that the most successful films find the sweet spot between the enjoyable and the annoying over the course of time.
“Think about the business traveller that's flying once a week – they have to watch that same video again and again. It's not funny after the second time. You have a fine balance where it needs to be on brand and humorous, and yet not annoy your most important customers. That's where someone like Air New Zealand and Turkish Airlines win, because they update their safety travel videos quite regularly, so they never really get old. But there are others who may have done an innovative safety video a few years ago that's been playing ever since. And that doesn't really work.”
Passenger fatigue was the reason behind Virgin Atlantic's 'Trip', a film that may not be as hilarious as its competitors' offerings but rewards multiple viewings.
"Ultimately, rather than aiming for a blockbuster that might entertain on first viewing, we wanted a ‘cult safety video’ with subtleties and layers that manage to capture attention on first viewing, while continuing to be appreciated with time," said Leon Trigg, production manager of Virgin Atlantic.
"The final result differed somewhat from the original treatment, as we were keen to push boundaries further to ensure the film had an edgy, surreal and almost dreamlike quality. We wanted to avoid a style that was safe and obvious, and instead produce a compelling film that conveys the key safety messages in a very elegant and engaging way.”
Conversely, Nigam believes Delta Airlines’ 2015 ‘Meme Airlines’ spot didn’t work because of its crudeness: the incessant references to obscure internet culture would likely have rattled an older business traveller than endeared them to the brand. He added that Taiwanese carrier Eva Air also missed the mark with its expressionist dance because it “distracted from the safety instructions, rather than emphasising them”.
This is a pitfall that the modern airline safety video can stumble into: make the film too creative or funny and the message – which is, fundamentally, how to stay alive – gets lost. It’s a risk that Air New Zealand negates by integrating its safety team into the production process; it invites an expert on set to ensure the messages are communicated correctly and clearly in line with regulatory requirements.
“The finished product is also shared with the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand prior to release,” said Field. “Each video is also consumer tested with a cross-section of customers prior to release, including understanding the messages they take from it and its overall impact in order to ensure we strike the right balance between safety and entertainment.”
She added that all customers have access to an onboard safety briefing card in addition to the film, and customers travelling within on domestic turbo-prop aircraft receive a manual safety briefing in lieu of the video.
Similarly, Turkish Airlines stated its production team works "intensively and meticulously" with its technical management and quality assurance management departments. In the case of the Lego film, these teams monitored, controlled and audited the visibility of the safety regulations at each step of the animation process.
Recent incidents of passengers misusing oxygen masks on-board a Southwest flight and shambolically using the emergency exit slide of a Ryanair craft have called into question how much attention flyers are really paying to in-flight instructions. But ultimately, until a fatal incident is systematically proven to be the fault of a creative yet confusing safety video, it’s unlikely airlines will pass over the off-air branding opportunity the media presents.