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Helping Japanese airline ANA take off with millennial American passengers

VMLY&R was highly commended in the Media Planning and Buying Strategy category, at the US arm of The Drum Awards for Marketing in 2020. Here, the team behind the high-flying campaign for airline ANA shares the detailed research and inspiration that drove ‘Japan Elevated’.

The challenge

At the start of this campaign, most Americans weren’t aware ANA was an airline. They certainly didn’t know it was a Japanese airline transporting passengers throughout Asia, nor a premium airline delivering unprecedented experiences perfect for them.

ANA wanted its key target prospects to know that as a premium Japanese airline, with superlative status in Japan, it consistently ranks in the top three among the world’s leading airlines. In North America, it expanded from three to eleven hubs to accommodate interest in travel to Japan and Asia, yet the brand was largely unknown due to fairly limited marketing communications. Meanwhile, the US had been designated one of ANA’s most important growth markets, especially with the 2020 Olympics on the horizon.

Primary competitors already had simple recognition baked prominently into their names with the word ’airline’ - Japan Airlines, Singapore Airlines, United Airlines. After a business-specific decision to use the brand name ANA, the airline needed to build recognition with new audiences and existing audiences alike. Knowledge of the ANA brand was 42% below the airline competitive average. With a modest media budget for the year, ANA spending in the US lagged significantly behind other premium airlines.

Airline marketing creates great impact for a brand but can also be overshadowed by wider market forces such as competitive initiatives and other negative news, like crashes, airplane malfunctions, legal actions or high-profile customer service issues, all of which can make marketing in this category an uphill challenge.

The ’Japan Elevated’ campaign launched at the end of January 2019, and during that time the airline category had no lack of front-page news. One of ANA’s key competitors, Cathay Pacific, launched a new, big budget rebranding campaign. Other big headlines like the Boeing 737 Max airliner groundings after two unexpected crashes and Singapore Airlines entertainment system cameras spying on customers all had an impact on brand perception and customer decision making when booking a flight.

With the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo in mind, and a commitment to raising their brand profile in North America, ANA embarked on a mission to win over millennials considering air travel plans to Japan - informing them of the best and most enjoyable option to get them to their destination.

The strategy

The challenge was clear: increase knowledge and awareness, engagement, and relevance of ANA as a premium airline, all in a way that reflected the brand’s core values and benefits.

The audience was defined as US-based affluent millennials, between the ages of 22 and 39, who had travelled to a foreign country in the last three years. Research clearly identified this audience segment to be resistant to advertising and brand messaging they deem inauthentic, which presented another challenge.

There was an attitudinal opportunity below the surface to garner real growth potential amongst the millennials. Millennials are known for being experience-driven and are consequently much more comfortable spending their hard-earned money chasing what they perceive to be genuine experiences.

For millennials who desire unique, culturally authentic travel experiences, airlines are deemed a necessary evil to get to that destination. Through qualitative interviews, the team at VLYM&R discovered that desire for cultural experiences did not extend to airlines. Authentic Japanese experiences could set ANA apart in addition to their commitment to premium service throughout the cabin.

The campaign

Knowing that to grow knowledge and relevance they had to create intrigue, the team showcased the efforts that ANA makes, striving to bring the best of Japanese culture, cuisine and service aboard every flight.

To engage the audience’s proclivity for cultural experiences, it was important tto frame ANA’s offering in the context of the service customers received. So, when it came to storytelling, the team focused on specifics like dining, destinations, hospitality and awards for quality. Their research found that 84% of millennials are skeptical of traditional advertising, but many appreciate messages that are tailored to their interests.

The media spend was focused on pushing the ANA message across the millennial digital ecosystem. With less than $5m nationally, the team chose to concentrate media dollars in digital and social platforms, carefully optimizing for maximum audience engagement by platform and across devices. Millennials own an average of 7.2 devices per household and maintain an average of nine social networks/messaging app accounts, plus one in three do not have cable or satellite subscriptions.

VLMY&R also worked with its media partners the build a highly relevant, no-banner approach. This prioritized personalization and authenticity while aligning with publishers who are trusted by affluent millennials. The campaign also aimed to show a relevant brand fit by testing more focused partnerships such as LGBTQ digital pride network.

Developing a targeted interactive program, highlighting ANA as the go-to airline through a multiplatform custom content program, the team deployed content across social, credible publishers, programmatic, and Online Travel Agency including Conde Nast Traveler, Bon Appetit, Matador, Out Traveler, Facebook and Expedia.

They also engaged influencers to provide first-hand experiences through custom articles both on and off the flight. Instructional food videos gave audiences the taste of Japan one can get aboard every ANA flight. Custom units crafted personalized experiences where our audience can either explore various cities or develop itineraries based on the type of jet-setter they are. Custom articles provided itinerary ideas for various destinations in Japan. Articles were amplified to drive engagement further. Chatbots encouraged consumers to interact with ANA. All messages were delivered in an organic, inspiring and creative way, seeking true audience connection.

The results

According to Brand Asset Valuator, VMLY&R’s proprietary consumer brand study, the campaign increased brand knowledge by 5.52 rank points from 38% to 436%. Since the target increase was 2%, this was was an overwhelming success. Further supporting the awareness/knowledge results, it out-performed Facebook’s travel industry benchmarks for almost every message pillar.

With increased relevance for the audience (by 9.27 rank points, from 69% to 79%) the team surpassed its goal, set in line with premium Asian airline competitors benchmarked at 72%.

One of the custom articles written on Matador was the second most-shared branded article ever published on the platform.

Another remarkable achievement was that every engagement rate of the custom content exceeded benchmarks (between 5% to 86%). The amplified articles exceeded benchmarks for both time spent and engagement rates.

This project was a winner at The Drum Awards for Marketing in 2020. To find out which competitions in The Drum Awards are currently open for entries, click here.