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How Etihad's marketing set new global airline standards

How Etihad's marketing set new global airline standards

By UTalkMarketing Founding Editor, Clark Turner. 

How do you set new award-winning standards in the airline industry with your marketing? The answer – look outside the sector.

Taking the Best Marketing Strategy accolade at the 2008 Airline Business Awards, Etihad Airways was praised for its strong brand identity and innovative sponsorship programmes.

It’s perhaps all the greater an achievement considering the national airline of the United Arab Emirates is just four and a half years old. In that time it has built up a network serving 45 destinations in the Middle East, Europe, North America, Africa and Asia.

Being such a young company, however, has had its advantages according to Etihad’s executive vice president for marketing and product, Peter Baumgartner (pictured).

“Having the opportunity to do things without having a legacy meant we had a clean slate to do things right and build an airline that lives up to the highest expectations,” he told UTalkMarketing.

“We aim to be the best airline in the world but importantly our benchmarks are not set within the airline sector, but elsewhere where customer service is at its best.

Baumgartner added, “It’s difficult to market a point of difference within the industry based on seat pitch, service, food and drink, and so on. Rather, we want to be compared to the best restaurant or best hotel in the world offering a five-star experience both in our lounges and in-flight.”

Recent developments include a new in-flight concept in a la carte fine dining and the airline’s lounge at Abu Dhabi airport which includes a fine dining area, spa and cigar lounge.

“Competition is harsh, “Baumgartner admitted. “There a couple of leading airlines reaching similar levels of quality and comfort but they are faced with the dilemma of ‘how far can we go?’”

“It’s not in the hardware that we can make a difference, but in other areas. We’re a big airline, but, for customers, size is less important than service so we offer the standards you might expect on a private jet with the personal approach.”

He added, “We consider ourselves a luxury brand but we also have to offer accessibility and luxury for all so the brand experience can still be had in economy.”

Sponsorship plays a major role in the airline’s marketing with UK involvement including Chelsea Football Club, the Harlequins Rugby Football Club and additional grass roots projects.

Etihad has also become the title sponsor for the new Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which will launch in 2009 as the last race in the Formula One season, as well as the Ferrari Formula 1 team.

“Our sponsorship partners are carefully selected and for us it’s about more than simply putting a logo on a car or in a stadium,” Baumgartner said. “As Abu Dhabi’s leading consumer brand we act as a PR vehicle in placing the city as global destination and try to identify appropriate global partners.”

Activity has included hosting a Chelsea Soccer Schools for children, which took place in February 2008, and Abu Dhabi Day where the airline’s UAE partners were brought over to the UK.

Media research is used to assess sponsorship effectiveness and the value of exposure, while loyalty and feedback help determine the qualitative aspects of promotion.

Etihad’s Guest loyalty programme has been recognised as one of the best in the world with innovations which include special online auctions and raffles, giving members the opportunity use their miles to bid for rewards, including tickets for top sporting events and sell-out pop concerts.
Members of the loyalty programme have also donated more than half a million ‘miles’ to humanitarian and environmental charities and projects across the world through the scheme’s innovative reward shop.

“In 2006 there was nothing in place, so we were in the fortunate position of being able to draw up a programme for the 21st century,” said Baumgartner. “Unique features include a transparency in the exchange rate for miles and cash and complete flexibility to make the programme more accessible.

“It makes for a strong proposition a win, win situation but operates within a wider CRM programme.”

He added, “The digital dimension is something we strongly believe in and have big plans in the pipeline.

“So far we use online communities to support our sponsorship programme and as a channel to engage in dialogue with our customers.”

Despite fast growth, the airline is still aware of its Corporate Social Responsibilities. The airline is a partner of Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 – an urban development programme which also aims to foster local talent – but also be at the forefront in researching sustainable energy solutions.

Plans for the coming months include the development of products, sponsorships in the US, Australia and Europe as well as a new global brand TV campaign.

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