‘It’s been a challenge’: Qatar Airways top marketer on emerging from a make-or-break year

Salam Al Shawa

From a blockade to World Cup controversy, Qatar Airways has faced numerous challenges in a fierce political climate. The brand’s top marketer tells The Drum how she’s survived the lows and is paving the way for new highs.

Qatar Airways most senior marketer would be the first to admit that the past two years have been tumultuous, to put it mildly, for the company. Between navigating a blockade from neighboring countries to laying the groundwork for a World Cup campaign in the face of bribery allegations, Salam al-Shawa has faced the most challenging moments in her career.

The marketer first joined the Doha-based airline in 2002 before departing four years later to join Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC). However, in 2012 she was lured back to take on the role of senior vice-president of marketing and communications, reporting directly to chief executive Akbar Al Baker.

With her feet firmly under the table, she overhauled the brand’s marketing in 2015 to “inject more emotion” into the work, saying the airline had succeeded in establishing itself in the luxury market but had failed to fully engage customers along the way. It’s a strategy that continues today, with Shawa having just launched a new global ad campaign last month.

However, in June 2017 the business hit severe turbulence and time spent on dreaming up wistful adverts was quickly put into simply keeping it afloat.

In wake of a series of diplomatic events, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt all severed relations with Qatar. The countries claimed that it had supported "terrorism", had too close a relationship with Iran and accused it of being overly-influential in the internal affairs of their countries. All allegations Qatar would deny.

In response, Saudi Arabia cut-off its land borders with Qatar, swiftly followed by the fellow three countries which also imposed land, sea and air blockades.

The political turmoil hit Qatar Airways hard. Overnight, flights to over 18 destinations were grounded while planes that would normally go through 'banned' airspace suddenly had to take much longer routes.

At the time, the four markets accounted for 20% of its global seat capacity and in a matter of weeks, net bookings at the airline plummeted to minus 23,000 after mass cancellations, according to Travelport.

This all led to a near $70m loss last year.

“It was an absolute challenge but we had to open new doors. Within a year of the blockade, between June 2017 to June 2018, we launched 18 new routes. We're now at about 25 new routes since the start of the blockade,” recalls Shawa. In a normal year it might, optimistically, launch half that number.

While this may seem like a bigger headache for the airline’s operations teams, it was the marketing team under pressure to establish, launch and promote these new destinations and get passengers on plane seats to offset the commercial hit it was facing.

“[Establishing each route] means doing market research and intelligence, picking the right local partners, and developing [ad] campaigns. Then doing a launch event and press conference and office openings,” she says, highlighting that all of this falls into her job remit. “We worked harder that year than any other.”

Shawa, whose boss has repeatedly blasted the “illegal” blockade, describes it as having been a game of “psychological war” as the airline tried to combat brand-damaging (and, Shawa would stress, false) reports that had been published by news organisations in the four countries neighboring countries.

“We dealt with it with class. I didn't bother responding to negative stories. I stayed positive and rose above it and whenever they wrote negative stories, I would launch another destination,” she laughs.

The marketer created a campaign called ‘No Borders, Only Horizons’ in response, to tell travelers it believed the “sky is open for everyone”. She said the film has had over 58m views to date and, beyond drawing a line on where Qatar Airways stood on the blockade, it also supported Shawa’s wider marketing goal of making the brand more “human” and getting people on Qatar’s side.

World Cup

While there’s no end in sight for the blockade, Qatar Airways has adjusted to its new reality. No longer in panic-mode, Shawa’s attention has turned to her next challenge - the 2022 World Cup, an event equally embroiled in political crisis amid numerous allegations of corruption over the country’s controversial bid to host.

For the past five years, Shawa has tried to forge a place for the brand in football culture, predominantly through a partnership with FC Barcelona. It became the first non-charity shirt sponsor in 2013 after inking a €215m deal that would last a little over four years, a costly asset but one she describes as a “blessing” to its aggressive marketing strategy.

“With FC Barcelona we did an amazing job - when we started working with [the club] they were worried because they had never had a commercial sponsorship. They were worried about what we were going to do. I said: ‘relax we're a luxurious brand. I'm not going to do any commercial stuff. We're going to do things in style’, she says.

'The Land of FC Barcelona' and Qatar's in-flight safety film featuring the team are among her highlights from that deal, which she says demonstrated the value sports sponsorship brings in building an “emotional connection” with people.

That led another sponsorship deal, this time with the Fifa 2018 World Cup. A star-studded campaign featuring an all-singing-and-dancing Nicole Scherzinger was among the activity that helped the brand reach two billion people per match and, in total, generate more than 90m social media interactions during the tournament.

“Our visibility was amazing compared to other brands”, Shawa claims, adding that the company achieved the best ‘third best brand’ ranking following the event.

With over 1.5 million fans expected to fly into Qatar, a nation of fewer than 3 million people, in 2022 the airline is planning to transport the bulk of them.

“Everything we've done so far with our sports assets is in preparation for the World Cup. Our key message is that Qatar is the best place to be, football is a universal language and it brings people together, so that's what we do,” she says, declining to go into further detail on the strategy in place.

“We bring people together and to watch the game and be part of the World Cup. We're committed to this.”

Bolstering its marketing team

With what will undoubtedly be the biggest event in her marketing career, Shawa is carefully considering the agency partnerships it’s forging and how to best use its burgeoning internal resource.

She describes her team of 40 – which work on everything from events to advertising, social media and PR – as "highly efficient". In the last two years, it’s shifted almost 40% of its ad spend from TV and print to digital channels and that has seen it in-house large swathes of expertise, particularly in content and production.

It stopped outsourcing social media in 2012, then digital advertising (though its media buying is still handled by local agencies) and then its content creation and advertising production. The “big idea” is still managed by ad agencies, including 180 Amsterdam which worked on its latest campaign, but Shawa expects her team to have equal input.

“The content department is key to being creative. Copy and pasting is not a word in my dictionary and that keeps us on the edge,” she says.

“The production team gives me control. When we're doing some edits [on a past campaign the agency was saying it couldn't happen or would need 19 of days to turn it around]. But my team, got it done in half an hour. I'm a perfectionist. I can't accept work with mistakes.”

In the lead up to 2022 she expects her team will grow but not “double or triple” as you might expect given its volume of in-bound travelers will increase by as much. “We are expanding but in a very subtle way. We're growing gradually and managing the pressure of work.

“Unlike other airlines, I don't have 300 or 400 people. I don’t believe in having a big team.”

Her hope too is that the World Cup will see the advertising scene in Doha grow significantly. She works with numerous international ad agencies but asked why there are few local creatives on the roster she carefully mulls the question.

“If I was to be honest... that's why I go to...I would rather not answer this question and not upset anybody,” she says.

“But with local agencies but unfortunately they don't have the creative minds which are sitting in London or Paris. We have a JWT office here but not the same calibre or skillset. "But I think that [the creative scene in Doha] will improve and that's an exciting prospect. We want more agencies to come. To have better agencies to work with locally would make my life easier.”

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