Airports: the best place brands that cities aren't using

Photo by Cameron Stow on Unsplash

Can airports ever be a destination in their own right? One man who thinks so is Ryanair chief Michael O'Leary, who said this at a 2016 industry conference: “I have this vision that in the next five to 10 years the airfares on Ryanair will be free, in which case the flights will be full, and we will be making our money out of sharing the airport revenues; of all the people who will be running through airports, and getting a share of the shopping and the retail revenues at airports.”

Leave it to O’Leary to set the cat among the pigeons. Will he be right about this, as he has been right about so many other things during his tenure at Ryanair? It does seem farfetched to think that airports could be a destination all on their own. However, these days, international, regional and local airports are increasingly focusing on shopping and leisure experiences, making themselves over as “multimodal” shopping malls where you can come by plane... or by car.

O’Leary’s proposal basically boils down to offering free transport to shopping hubs. It’s a bold vision, but – no guts, no glory. It could well be that years from now we will go shopping globally, following the trend of returning to what is known as source-identity-behaviour, in which people prefer to buy products in the country where they are grown or made. Flying to Cupertino to buy your iPhone, travelling to Paris to buy your Hermès bag, buying your dim sum kitchen set in Guangzhou, your chocolate in Brussels and your cheese in Amsterdam.

It sounds a bit strange, but let’s not judge, because with bold visions you never know. In 1990 America’s largest telecommunications company asked a top management consulting firm to look into the future of mobile communication. The consultants concluded: “People will never walk and talk at the same time.” Oops. Looks like they were wrong – with billions of dollars of lost opportunity as a result. Situations like these have taught me to look at unorthodox thinking as open mindedly as possible.

Who knows – perhaps we will start seeing some kind of new airline concept in the near future: Free Hop & Shop Airport Flights. And lo and behold, Ryanair has just been offering to fly people to dozens of European cities for just €4.98 during its 'Cyber Week' of deals. It is this close to being free, and certainly less money than you’d be paying for a cup of coffee in Paris, London, Rome or Barcelona. Cities that, I hope, would still be the main reason to buy a ticket, however great the shopping and leisure experiences at the airport might be.

But there is a lot of movement on that front. Over the last decade, airports around the world have started investing tremendous amounts of money into taking their shopping, food and beverage and leisure experiences to the next level.

Many large international airports are indeed aiming to become the shopping malls of the future. This has led many airport boards to suggest that their airports have earned the status of being a destination in their own right, even of being a unique brand. I understand their pride, but this would be a slightly lightheaded way of thinking. Especially considering that without the destination to which they are the gateway, all those airports would literally be nowhere.

The hottest place for city marketing?

Airports! They are major assets for cities. And cities are major assets for airports. Because the latter depend on cities for the passengers they want to stream through their great shopping and leisure experiences. The city to which an airport is a gateway will always be the brand. It will never ever be economically viable for an airport to attempt to offer travelers the same experiences and attractions that have defined some cities as brands for over a thousand years.

But why do airports need their end-destination in their name in the first place?

Some cities have it easier than others. Places like London, Paris, New York and Sydney, to name a few, are on everybody’s bucket list. The must-see, once-in-a-lifetime destinations don’t have to go out of their way to sum up all their attractions.

It is telling, for instance, that Bratislava Airport saw its passenger numbers soar when someone came up with the bright idea of calling it “Vienna-Bratislava Airport.” With famous Sisi capital Vienna only 40 miles away, it was clever thinking.

Hardly anybody knew about Beauvais Airport, 54 miles from Paris. Ryanair moved in and pushed it to rename the airport “Paris-Beauvais” and in came the crowds. The airport of Charleroi (Belgium), an hour from central Brussels, now calls itself “Brussels-South.” Oslo-Torp Airport is 73 miles from Oslo. Frankfurt Hahn is 68 miles from Frankfurt. The list is endless.

City marketers have been smart enough to understand that adding their destination’s name to their nearest airport is a win-win: they have a unique medium for their city brand, the airport profits from the city’s name and fame. But the smartest city marketers don’t stop there: they use their airport as their biggest medium, activation platform and calling card to boost their city brand around the world.

Airport(s) are the hottest instruments available for city marketing. Think about the incredible size of the captive audience on any given day, ready to be reached on a personal level as well as through retail, leisure, food and drink, social media platforms. Think about what a connected world an airport is, the very crossroads of technology and media ready to be deployed for purposes of merchandising, sales, customer service and activation.

The only thing they need to be sure of is having a healthy slice of their city marketing budget and working together with their airport to unite the best of both worlds. If the city is the big brand, the airport should reflect this in every nook and cranny, physically, strategically and in all its communication.

More city, more airport

Let me line up some airport slogans for you: See, Buy, Fly – Many happy returns! – Meet the world – Your friendly airport – Possibility. In every direction – Let’s go! – Good to go. All these slogans are used by important international airports such as Abu Dhabi International, Frankfurt, Portland International, San Diego International, San Francisco International and Amsterdam's Schiphol.

There are a lot more where these came from, obviously. The common feature shared by most of them is that they specifically address the airport function. Those with a nearby city destination in mind or some semblance of city marketing are few and far between. I feel there is a lot to win here, for both airports and cities. It looks like the marketers at Schiphol also figured that out recently, when they started adding “Connecting the Netherlands” to claim its position as Royal Schiphol Group, and adding “Welcome to Amsterdam Airport” instead of “See, Buy, Fly” to position Schiphol Airport.

I also made a quick scan of the websites of international airports like Hong Kong, Madrid and LAX, and the absence of true city branding is just plain incredible. No local culture, no national pride or iconic attractions on view. Not even the suggestion of a national flag. The net result is that they show audiences around the world their logistical and functional aspects next to their glitzy shopping and leisure experiences.

Without the added emotional value of the city to which they welcome you, these airports don’t work on a brand level. Inside so many international airports, the story is very much the same. You could be dropped blindfolded into many of these airports, and once the blindfold is removed: Would you know where you are? Which country or region? What shopping mall? Any airport can add a cinema, attraction parks, hotels or squash courts. Great, but it won’t help them to become a distinctive brand.

One of the better airports at combining destination marketing with local colour is Brussels Airport. Its slogan, “Welcome to the heart of Europe”, is as relevant as it is distinctive. The slogan is lent authority by Brussels’ role as the nerve centre of European politics: it tells you something about the hub function while welcoming you to Belgian hospitality and lifestyle. Just as importantly, it makes sure there is no escaping Belgian culture inside the airport. The airport holds a number of world records in this regard: it is home to the world’s biggest Belgian beer cafe by volume and sells more than 1kg of Belgian chocolate per minute, making great use of the world’s favorite treat in iconic Belgian shapes like the Atomium, the Smurfs and so on. Chocolate art as outreach!

Of course, it is more a Belgian, regional proposition than city marketing per se. But there is no way a traveler will not recognise that he or she has arrived in Belgium. The international airport has been made national again. And this makes a big difference for the distinctive branding of any airport.

Airport branding by association

We all know a brand can best be described as the set of associations that people have with a company, product, service, individual or organisation. Apply this to most of the airport brands around the world: shouldn’t they be associated first and foremost with the destinations they represent?

For instance, many of them seem to sell the impression that they are efficient. I could understand this if efficiency was one of the main associations people already have with the destination brand, like Germany or Switzerland. Do I associate efficiency with Spain, Idaho or New Delhi? Do you?

There is the airport brand, there is the city brand, and there is the country brand. They are all imbued with the same culture and identity. They are rooted in their own particular spot on the planet, with their own particular people, culture, identity, authenticity, habits, language and behaviours. They share all that. Therefore, they need to show that as gloriously as they can.

Looked at from this perspective, the national airport should reflect the distinctive national brand characteristics as much as possible, instead of playing on the generic “reliable” or “sustainable” or “efficient” or “modern” values.

As a generator that supports economic growth, the national airport should get help from the city destination and the country it represents in terms of communicating the key messages of that nation. Meaning: more of their marketing budget, intelligence and creative power. Not only because it helps any brand to have a core message that drives all communication, but also because it makes the best possible use of the airport as medium and platform.

A medium more than a brand

There is no medium in the world that is able to connect with target audiences on a more personal level. As if that weren’t enough, all those people are now virtually and seamlessly connected to their own lives and geographies through social media. Inside airports, they are “sitting ducks for city marketing purposes”.

Whatever special experiences they have there will be shared live with friends and family, colleagues and followers of their blog, vlog, website, Twitter and Facebook. Being abroad does something to people. The amount and intensity of all those new impressions makes them share their experiences even more frantically than in normal everyday life.

There is no question that anything “quaint,” typical for that destination and country, that happens or is visible inside an airport will be travelling around the world faster than any plane – or global commercial, for that matter. The airport that breathes the distinctive personality of its destination will become a true, living brand experience in its own right. In today’s connected world, this is a goal worth striving for.

Another great advantage of tandem branding is that it is a whole lot easier to market a destination and country through an airport than through costly global communication campaigns. Airports are dynamic places; there is always room and space (literally) to generate extra attention – on a weekly basis if you like – and there is always something new to talk about.

Promoting shopping and leisure facilities is all well and good, but it will not make an airport brand stand out. If an airport would like to see itself as a brand, it should do more than just present little instrumental bits and bobs.

Airports flying the flag

I’m not denying that airports can have and do develop their own meaningful message. But honestly, at heart they are the humble servants of the country and their closest city destination. They are their gateway and gatekeeper. They are their host and ambassador.

The best brands in the world know that the time of instrumental communication, of facts and figures, of material and facilitating stuff, is behind us. It is now all about story and of telling that story in ways that people can connect to. No one connects with an airport, however comfortable it may be. People connect with countries, cities and cultures. They can connect with free-spirited Amsterdam and warm-hearted Thai smiles, not with high-tech baggage carrousels and underground parking.

Local, regional or national flavour/character is what airports should be about. Associations with the nation should be embedded in the airport for the good of everyone in that nation. Airports should see themselves as the sportsmen chosen to carry the flag at the Olympics – that kind of pride should be the pinnacle of city marketing and airport branding.

Awareness on this front is growing. Some airports are now incorporating more of the character of their destination and nation within their precincts. They have started creating a sense of place and showcasing, if not celebrating, aspects that are typical for where they are and who and what they represent.

Scandinavian airports, for instance, promote local values through local design and motifs. They have integrated airport services, retail and food and drink concepts with Scandinavian lifestyle trends that are currently gaining ground at home and abroad.

But it is still rare to see totally integrated city-airport branding campaigns. Communication built around a core, identity-rich brand message, with the airport as its major spokesman – physically as well as culturally. And of course carried across all social media channels.

City, country, airport: they would do well to do likewise. It would make for marketing budgets more efficiently spent, more focused messaging and most of all more distinctive city branding. So, airports, be more than just a shopping mall – be the pride of the nation.

Erik Saelens is founder & executive strategic director of Belgium's Brandhome group

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