Although Delta Air Lines, Inc., was the number three airpassenger carrier in the early 1990s, by 1996 it was feeling the pressures of low-cost carriers such as Southwest Airlines. Budget-conscious air travelers were embracing cheap tickets and willingly giving up first-class seating, onboard meals, and other frills offered by older carriers such as Delta, United Airlines, and American Airlines. When Southwest expanded service into the lucrative Florida leisure-traveler market in 1996, Delta realized that its customers were abandoning it for that airline. To compete with Southwest, in 1996 Delta unveiled a low-cost carrier called Delta Express. Although Delta Express was initially a success, discount fare wars and consumers’ brand confusion, among other problems, caused the carrier to falter. In 2002 Delta announced plans to close Delta Express and introduce a new lowcost carrier, Song Airlines, in its place.
To assure that Song’s launch was a success and to send the message that low cost did not have to mean low quality, Delta planned a major branding campaign with a budget estimated at $10 to $12 million. Working with its advertising agency, Kirshenbaum Bond þ Partners, as well as the agency’s units Media Kitchen (media strategy) and Lime (public relations), Delta developed a unique marketing strategy that included print ads, television spots, and outdoor efforts. Also part of the creative team were Andy Spade, who had served as creative director of various ad agencies, and Spade’s wife, fashion designer Kate Spade, who was responsible for creating new uniforms for Song’s customer-service staff and flight attendants.
Song’s branding strategy was a resounding success. The company reported that, within five months of the ‘‘Let Yourself Fly’’ campaign’s launch, brand awareness had jumped from zero to as much as 44 percent in key target markets. In early 2005 the original campaign was replaced with a new one, ‘‘Fly Your Own Song,’’ created by Shepardson Stern & Kaminsky, New York. Later that year Song, along with its parent, Delta Air Lines, filed for bankruptcy. Delta reported that Song Airlines would be discontinued in 2006.
After starting as a crop-duster service in 1924, Delta Air Lines’ first passenger-carrying flight took off in 1929. The fledgling airline served customers traveling between Dallas, Texas, and Shreveport, Louisiana. Within one year Atlanta was among the destinations, along with Monroe, Louisiana, and Jackson, Mississippi. Through a series of mergers with other airlines—Northwest in 1972, Western in 1987, and Pan Am in 1991—Delta grew and expanded its routes to become a global carrier. By the mid-1990s Delta was the number three air-passenger carrier, ranking behind number one American Airlines and number two United Airlines. By the mid-1990s customers were abandoning the carrier for discounters such as Southwest Airlines, especially in the popular Florida leisure-travel market. To try and win back passengers, in 1996 Delta launched its own no-frills, low-cost airline, Delta Express. It was initially successful, but as other low-cost airlines—including JetBlue Airways—started up, Delta Express’s business began slipping. In 2002 Delta announced plans to disband Delta Express and launch a new low-cost airline, Song. The new airline was planned to compete directly against other low-cost airlines that continued to win Delta’s customers. Song’s first target markets were those dominated by JetBlue’s service: Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and cities in the Northeast, including Boston and New York.
According to the Travel Industry Association of America, in 2003 the core customers of most airlines were business travelers, although they accounted for just 28 percent of all air travel. The rest of air travel was leisure (59 percent) and combined business/leisure travel (13 percent). As Delta Air Lines prepared for the launch of its low-cost subsidiary, Song, the company had its eyes on a nontraditional target market: women. Tim Mapes, the new air carrier’s managing director of marketing, told Adweek that, while most airlines targeted male business travelers, Song was the only airline ‘‘targeting female leisure and business travelers.’’ The women that Song was trying to reach were described as sophisticated people with discerning taste who loved bargains and hated typical airline food. More specifically, Song’s target market was any frequent traveler in the airline’s primary markets, New York and Boston. Also targeted were those leisure travelers in Florida who had used Song’s key competitor, JetBlue Airways.
JetBlue Airways Corporation, based at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, was launched in February 2000 and set the standard for a new breed of low-cost air-passenger carriers. The airline offered only coach service, but it included first-class amenities such as additional legroom and wider leather seats, free snacks during flights, and video entertainment, including DirecTV, in every seat. More importantly, JetBlue’s focus was on customer service. It offered the convenience of e-ticketing, toys in airport terminals to occupy children waiting for flights, and blue-corn tortilla chips onboard. The strategy seemed to work; the airline reported boarding its 500,000th passenger within eight months of its first flight. To promote its services and build brand identity, in September 2000 JetBlue released its first marketing campaign. Created by the Boston office of Arnold Communications, the $1 million campaign’s initial advertisements were billboards that emphasized the frustration that air travelers felt as a result of high prices and poor service. Television spots followed in October. By 2003 JetBlue was serving customers, especially those traveling for leisure, in 20 cities in Florida, in the Northeast, and on the West Coast. Also in 2003 JetBlue introduced flights between Long Beach, California, and Atlanta, home of Delta Air Lines. The flights between Atlanta and Long Beach seemed to be a direct response to Delta’s plans to introduce its low-cost carrier, Song, with flights between New York and Florida, JetBlue’s primary market.
United Airlines took on JetBlue and Delta’s Song in November 2003 with the introduction of its own lowcost carrier, Ted. It made its first flight in February 2004. Described as an airline-within-an-airline, Ted—its name was derived from the last three letters of ‘‘United’’—was based in Chicago and operated within the United brand. It offered passengers opportunities not typically provided by discount carriers, such as the ability to earn United’s Mileage Plus miles and to upgrade from economy to economy plus (with more legroom at each seat). Ted also targeted leisure travelers, who accounted for 59 percent of all air travel, rather that the smaller business-traveler market. Once Ted was established, United planned to drop United service from its Denver hub to cities likely to be visited by leisure travelers—such as Las Vegas; New Orleans; Phoenix, Arizona; and Orlando, Florida—leaving those destinations to be covered by Ted. Passengers on Ted were served snacks (pretzels and biscotti) on morning flights and could buy more substantial snacks or light meals on longer flights. To support the launch of its new airline, United worked with agencies Fallon Worldwide, Minneapolis; Frankel, Chicago; and Pentagram, New York, to create a branding program, which Adweek said was ‘‘lighthearted’’ and ‘‘comfortable.’’ But Ted’s purpose was twofold. It took the place of United’s original discount carrier, Shuttle by United, which operated for seven years until it was disbanded in 2001; and it was hoped the new low-cost carrier would attract customers, build business, and help the struggling United emerge from bankruptcy, for which it filed in 2002.
To guarantee that its spin-off airline, Song, would stand out from the crowd of discount airlines, Delta embarked on a major branding campaign for the new carrier that was intended to convince consumers it was offering more than just low-cost tickets. The effort involved every aspect of the new airline, from the uniforms of the customer-service agents and flight attendants to the food and entertainment provided on board. Marketing for the new airline supported the message that Song was unique and would provide customers an experience equal to air travel in the 1960s, when flying was an adventure in glamour and sophistication rather than simply a way to arrive at destination B from point A. In addition to the work of Delta’s advertising agency, New York–based Kirshenbaum Bond þ Partners, work on the project was provided by Andy Spade, former creative director at ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day and husband of fashion designer Kate Spade, who developed Song’s new uniforms. Kirshenbaum Bond þ Partners divisions Media Kitchen and Lime worked on Song’s media and public relations/promotions accounts.
Kirshenbaum Bond þ Partners and Andy Spade partnered on Song’s marketing campaign, with the agency handling outdoor advertising and Spade creating print ads. Television spots were also a part of the campaign. Print ads, which ran in publications such as InStyle, Travel & Leisure, Food & Wine, and the New York Times Magazine, were two- or three-page spreads, each depicting a Song customer who matched the specific publication’s readers. The InStyle spread portrayed a 20-something woman dressed in jeans and a striped shirt, her red hair flying out behind her as she held onto a tree. The copy read: ‘‘Kate isn’t afraid of flying, she’s afraid of conformity.’’ A spread that appeared in the New York Times Magazine featured an older woman with coiffed white hair. She was posed in front of rosebushes with her hands on her hips, and the copy read:
‘‘Magdalena could fly in first, but she’d rather save $600 and not meet another CEO.’’ The ads visually alluded to flying; for instance, the redhead’s hair was flying behind her, and the older woman’s arms on her hips hinted at the shape of wings. Ads also included the slogan, ‘‘Founded by optimists, built by believers,’’ the tagline ‘‘Let Yourself Fly,’’ and a list of Song’s variety of product offerings.
Television spots for the campaign followed a format similar to the print ads, using imagery that evoked flight. The spots also used the theme and tagline of the campaign, ‘‘Let Yourself Fly.’’ During an interview on PBS television’s Frontline, Spade described the spots as ‘‘kind of a morph between a music video and a commercial.’’ One commercial featured a small group of people laughing and running across a meadow while flying a kite in a crystal-blue sky. Text on the screen stated, ‘‘Now boarding happy people,’’ followed by a list of Song’s benefits (such as organic food and low fares) and the tagline ‘‘Song. Let yourself fly.’’
In addition to print ads and television spots, Song’s marketing strategy included outdoor work by Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners’ media-strategy division, Media Kitchen. One of the projects entailed hiring skywriters to fly over beaches on the East Coast, such as those on the Jersey shore, Martha’s Vineyard, and Florida, writing in the sky the message ‘‘Wish you were here. Fly Song.com.’’ The outdoor effort also featured signage that read, ‘‘Fifth Avenue style at Lower East Side prices,’’ and that was placed in fashionable locations in New York City, such as the corner of Broadway and Houston Street. The agency’s public-relations unit, Lime, opened a Song retail store in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. The shop gave consumers an opportunity to try out Song’s leather seats, sample its food, view the onboard entertainment options, and book a flight.
With its initial ‘‘Let Yourself Fly’’ campaign, which created a brand identity for Song that established it as a stylish and fun way to travel and set it apart from other low-cost air carriers, Song emerged as one of the fastestgrowing travel brands. In an interview with Adweek, Tim Mapes, the airline’s managing director of marketing, noted that, five months after its launch, Song had established a brand awareness of 44 percent among consumers in target markets such as New York and Boston. After a three-year run, in May 2005 Song replaced its ‘‘Let Yourself Fly’’ campaign with a new campaign titled ‘‘Fly Your Own Song.’’ The effort was created by New York agency Shepardson Stern & Kaminsky and featured a series of print ads supported by outdoor and online advertising. The ads focused on Song’s options that allowed passengers to personalize their travel experience. The campaign was released in select markets, including New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, before being expanded to other areas served by the airline. Despite the success of its multimillion-dollar branding effort and of the follow-up campaign, in September 2005 Song Airlines filed for bankruptcy protection along with its parent Delta Air Lines. At the time Delta reported that Song would continue operation until 2006 and then would be absorbed back into its parent, Delta Air Lines. Gerald Grinstein, Delta’s chief executive officer, told the Los Angeles Times that many of the best aspects of Song, such as additional legroom for passengers and high-tech entertainment options, would be incorporated into Delta as the airline continued to evolve as a more passenger-oriented carrier.