‘‘Millions of reasons to fly today; only one that matters to you’’ was the central message of the ‘‘On Top of the World’’ campaign for Delta Air Lines, Inc. The campaign acknowledged that customers had individual reasons for flying, and it assured them that the airline would strive to meet their needs. To the accompaniment of ethereal music, some of the television commercials focused on individual passengers dreaming that they were being pampered by airline employees and then awakening to discover that the reality of a Delta flight was almost as pleasant as the dream. One woman was gently fanned by attendants as she slept on a bed of feathers. In another spot a man danced while an orchestra played just for him. Later spots showed people writing down their reasons for flying on Delta, attaching the pieces of paper to balloons, and watching them float into the air. Delta employees gathered the papers and placed them on airplane seats to indicate that they had assumed responsibility for ensuring that each customer’s needs were met. The fantasy advertisements were intended to change the company’s image and to portray the comfortable conditions in Delta’s new transatlantic business-class seats. The ‘‘On Top of the World’’ campaign, which was created by Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, began in May 1997 and was scheduled to run through the fall of 1999 in various media.
Delta Air Lines was founded in 1924 as Huff Daland Dusters, the first business to offer aerial crop dusting. C.E. Woolman, B.R. Coad, and George Post were instrumental in the formation of the enterprise. A division of Huff Daland Manufacturing, a New York firm that made airplanes, the dusting company began operations in Macon, Georgia, and then moved to Monroe, Louisiana. In 1928 the enterprise was sold to a group of Louisiana businessmen, and its name was changed to Delta Air Service in honor of the Mississippi delta region where it operated. During the 1940s the company moved its headquarters to Atlanta, and its name was changed to Delta Air Lines, Inc. The company offered crop-dusting services in the United States until 1966. Meanwhile, the firm began transporting passengers and mail among cities throughout the South. Mergers with Chicago and Southern Air Lines (C&S) in 1953, Northeast Airlines in 1972, and Western Air Lines in 1987 expanded Delta’s operations nationwide. By 1998 the airline was making more than 5,000 daily flights to 318 destinations in 41 countries. Over the years Delta’s advertising slogans included ‘‘Trunkline to sunshine,’’ introduced in 1945; ‘‘Delta is ready when you are,’’ used from 1968 to 1984; ‘‘We love to fly and it shows,’’ introduced in 1987; and ‘‘You’ll love the way we fly,’’ introduced in 1994. The airline often emphasized passenger comfort and personal service in its marketing efforts. ‘‘We take the time and effort to make you feel comfortable and relaxed on each Delta flight. Because we care,’’ said an advertisement in Sunset magazine in 1986. In 1996 the $20 million ‘‘Delta Marathon’’ campaign during the Olympic Games showed the worldwide travels of British actor Nigel Havers, who had appeared in the film ‘‘Chariots of Fire.’’ The commercials were intended to enhance Delta’s status as an international carrier by appealing to the general public but also to frequent business travelers, who were becoming increasingly important to airlines.
Before 1978, when the U.S. airline industry was deregulated, advertising campaigns for Delta and other carriers were typically designed to promote a brand image. During the chaotic competition of the 1980s and 1990s the emphasis shifted to affordable prices as airlines launched fare wars and incentives such as frequent-flier programs to build customer loyalty. The industry lost enormous amounts of money, and many new carriers went out of business. After surviving economic difficulties during the early 1990s, Delta embarked on a dramatic cost-cutting program called Leadership 7.5, which streamlined its operations and increased passenger traffic but lowered employee morale and customer service. By 1997 the company was moving away from Leadership 7.5 and adopting a bold new marketing strategy that would change the airline’s image and strengthen the Delta brand.
The ‘‘On Top of the World’’ campaign was aimed primarily at business travelers flying on expense accounts. Because corporate travelers tended to fly frequently, they valued comfort and service during their trips. Since their fares were being charged to a business, these passengers tended to be less concerned about price. Nevertheless, they often traveled in the moderately priced businessclass section because their employers were not willing to pay for the more costly first class. Some customers paid for less expensive seats and then used their frequent-flier credits to move into first class, reducing the airline’s profits from the first-class section. During 1997 Delta’s business-class market increased four times as fast as its first-class market, and the airline adjusted to the changing times by introducing a new transatlantic business class. (International operations, particularly transatlantic flights, accounted for about 20 percent of the company’s revenues.) In 1998 Delta reconfigured its first-class and business-class sections into one group of luxury seats known as BusinessElite, which offered passengers greater legroomand space to recline. One newspaper advertisement in the ‘‘On Top of the World’’ campaign called attention to the more spacious seating arrangement by stating, ‘‘Delta presents the last news today’s hardened business executives would expect to hear from a company. ‘We’re upsizing.’’’ The campaign also emphasized the sincere, courteous service for which Delta had always been noted.
In 1998 Delta transported 105 million passengers, more than any other airline in the world. According to Aviation Week & Space Technology, United Airlines, Inc., was in first place in the United States, with American Airlines second, Delta third, Continental Airlines, Inc., fourth, Northwest Airlines Corporation, fifth, and US Airways Group, Inc., sixth. During 1998 Delta considered a marketing and code-sharing alliance with United Airlines, since the two carriers served more than 200 destinations but competed in only 34 of them. The virtual merger, which would have given the two firms nearly 39 percent of all U.S. traffic, was opposed by government officials on antitrust grounds, and it was abandoned when Delta’s pilots withdrew their support. In the same year Northwest and Continental began planning a similar alliance, which would control about 16 percent of U.S. traffic, but the partnership was delayed as the two companies awaited antitrust clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice. Meanwhile, American and US Airways considered a cooperative arrangement, which would control 25 percent of the market, but they ultimately converted the proposal into little more than a reciprocal frequent-flier plan. Because the three alliances would have created three gigantic airline blocs controlling 82 percent of the market, they were opposed by government regulators, consumer groups, and smaller airlines.
Like Delta, other airlines were using new advertising slogans in 1998. United, a subsidiary of UAL Corp., had abandoned its familiar ‘‘Come fly our friendly skies’’ tag line and in 1997 launched a candid campaign called ‘‘Rising,’’ which admitted that air travel was not always pleasant. The campaign promised that United would rise to the challenge and improve its performance. One magazine advertisement said, ‘‘We figure by the time you reach the gate agent, you’ve had enough red tape.’’ The text explained that the company had given its gate agents the power to resolve problems for customers without consulting a supervisor or asking the customer to wait. In one television commercial the narrator promised, ‘‘Air travel needs to be easier, more professional, especially for people who do it most. Now it will be, because, compared to the rest of the industry, United Airlines is headed in a different direction.’’
Continental Airlines, a subsidiary of Continental Air Holdings, also had a new marketing slogan, ‘‘Work hard. Fly right.’’ Like Delta, Continental advertised a businessclass fare (known as BusinessFirst) that offered first-class perks to attract international fliers. The 1990s were a time of flux for Continental, which operated at a loss early in the decade and filed for bankruptcy protection, from which it emerged in 1993. By 1997 Continental was generating $7.2 billion in annual revenues and was growing faster than any other major U.S. carrier, but because one of its primary investors was attempting to withdraw from the company, Continental was viewed as a possible takeover target. Delta considered merging with Continental during 1997, and in January 1998 Continental received takeover proposals from both Delta and Northwest, but no agreement was reached during the year.
Northwest lost $224 million during the third quarter of 1998 because of a pilot strike that lasted from June to September. The company had revenues of $10.2 billion in 1997, and in 1998 it reported a profit of $71 million during the first quarter and $49 million during the second quarter. Northwest’s marketing efforts in 1998 included a notable advertising campaign for the company’s E-Ticket service, which allowed customers to purchase tickets electronically via the Internet. Northwest was also known for its popular ‘‘What in the World’’ advertisements in USA Today, which was based on interesting facts, for example, the number of glasses of milk a cow produced in its lifetime tied to the line ‘‘Milk your vacation for all it’s worth.’’
Another top competitor, American Airlines, emphasized the familiarity of its brand during 1998. In its advertisements international travelers felt as if they were almost home when they saw the company’s red, white, and blue emblem. American, a subsidiary of AMR Corporation, had led the U.S. airline industry in 1992, with a market share of 20.3 percent, compared to 19.3 percent for United and 16.8 percent for Delta. By the late 1990s American held the second largest market share in the United States but was generating more revenue than any other carrier in the world.
By 1997 Delta was ready to move away from the straightforward themes and simple melodies of its earlier advertisements and to try a daring new strategy to change its image. It hired a new agency, Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, to design a consistent, multimedia ad campaign that would build the Delta brand. The campaign revolved around the message that Delta was a global carrier that treated customers as individuals and made them feel as if they were ‘‘on top of the world.’’ Gayle Bock, vice president for consumer marketing at Delta, explained, ‘‘We all know the rational reasons for choosing an airline: schedule, convenience, frequent flier miles, and cost. However, to connect an airline brand with its customers, it is essential that we also understand their emotional needs. In this regard, Delta already has a long history of commitment to personal customer service. No courtesy is too small to extend to any customer, anywhere in the world. The new branding campaign demonstrates that Delta professionals recognize customers individually. It is who we are, and it is our competitive advantage.’’ The surreal quality of the ‘‘On Top of the World’’ campaign was underscored by its chantlike theme music, a New Age song called ‘‘Adiemus.’’ The first five television commercials in the U.S. campaign, launched in the spring of 1997, looked a great deal alike and had the same overall tone. They showed passengers dreaming that airline chefs, flight attendants, and other personnel were catering to them as if there were no other travelers on the plane. When the passengers awoke, they discovered that Delta’s transatlantic business class was almost as pleasant as their dreams. A second series of television commercials began airing in the fall of 1997 and ran through 1998. Like the first spots in the campaign, they featured the song ‘‘Adiemus’’ and voice-over narration by actress Christine Lahti, star of the television series Chicago Hope. In the spots that aired during 1998 Lahti said, ‘‘There are millions of reasons to fly today. Only one that matters to you. At Delta Air Lines, it is our pleasure to get you to the place you want to be.’’ The fantasy television commercials depicted a wide range of passengers who wrote their reasons for flying on Delta Air Lines (using words such as ‘‘success,’’ ‘‘fun,’’ ‘‘home,’’ ‘‘the deal,’’ and ‘‘the thrill’’) on pieces of paper, attached them to balloons, and watched as the messages floated into the sky. Delta employees collected the pieces of paper and assumed responsibility for meeting the customer needs written on them.
The ‘‘On Top of the World’’ campaign was a global promotion initially launched in the United States and Europe. It included print and billboard advertisements, radio spots, and network television commercials aired during programs such as ER, Good Morning America, 20/20, and sportscasts. The campaign received a large percentage of Delta’s estimated $100 million annual advertising budget. According to Competitive Media Reporting, Delta spent $30.8 million on all advertising during the first half of 1997, compared to $31.9 million for United Airlines and $28.6 million for American Airlines. In the previous year Delta had spent $70.2 million for advertising, United $71.2 million, and American $61.3 million.
The ‘‘On Top of the World’’ campaign was acclaimed for its style and creativity. One of the television commercials in the European campaign, ‘‘Synchronized Flying,’’ which starred dolphins swimming together as if in a water ballet, won a Golden Kompass Award in 1995, and the public frequently called to learn when it would air so that they could tape it. ‘‘Adiemus’’ won a gold Clio in 1998 for original music.
Delta’s research indicated that most consumers understood the central message of the promotion, but some people were mystified by the surreal advertisements. A new multimedia campaign promoting the airline’s intercontinental BusinessElite service was launched in April 1999 with the tag line ‘‘Delta BusinessElite, outclassing business class.’’
In January 1999 Air Transport World named Delta the global airline of the year. In May 1999 Aviation Week & Space Technology named Delta the industry’s best-managed major airline, citing the company’s organizational strength and ability to compete in the global marketplace.