No doubt about it – Middle East Airlines has had a rough time of it over the last 25 years. Two years ago, the trading value of the Lebanese national carrier was, in the succinct summation of chairman Mohammad El-Hout, (as quoted on the Skytrax news website): “Nil.”
Then came September 11 and things looked like they might suddenly get a whole lot worse.
How much worse? Hout’s stark assessment reflected the reality of an airline that found itself grossly overstaffed, paying too-high leases on its fleet of airplanes and in the beginning stages of trying to eliminate about a third of its 4,000-strong workforce.
In a tale that has been documented ad nauseam, in June 2001, the company had warned some 1,450 employees that it had to reduce staff as part of its cost-cutting initiative and that it would declare bankruptcy if they did not accept their dismissals and severance packages.
The cost-cutting led eventually to a series of threatened and actual strikes by pilots and other workers earlier this year – and any airline executive knows that a pilot’s strike can be the death knell for a struggling airline. (Just look at what happened to US-based United Airlines, or at what’s happening to struggling British Airways.)
But out of the post-September 11 crisis arose tremendous opportunity for Middle East Airlines.
The business climate offered new opportunities. Regional travel in general and Lebanon’s tourist industry in particular, received a big boost. “Many Gulf travelers chose to remain in the Middle East rather than travel to Europe or the United States for their annual vacations,” said Ayla Dame, director of marketing for Middle East Airlines.
It also helped that Middle East Airlines had survived the workers’ actions, and had managed to cut costs. It had also completely re-engineered its flight schedule in 1998, and it began to seriously examine its options.
The lease on the airline’s fleet was coming up for renewal in 2003, and the management decided that this would be a good time to make a bold move. The airplane industry (also hard hit by September 11) was in a position to offer a good deal on selling rather than leasing planes, and MEA took them up on the offer. “We bought six single-aisle Airbus A-321s, and three wide-bodied A-330s,” Dame said.
Suddenly the airline that had been at the bottom of the business trough was riding the wave. So the MEA management team decided to try to see how they could capitalize on this through an original advertising campaign that would focus on this new sense of optimism.
“Mohammed El-Hout was given the mandate of bringing the company back into profitability, and now profitability has been achieved. So the next step is to create a new image,” said Joe Ayache, manager of Beirut-based advertising company BatesLevant, which was given the job of creating that image.
His first task was research. “We spent four or five months conducting research, and we found some extremely interesting things,” Ayache said.
The most interesting was the emotional bond that many Lebanese had with their national carrier. He immediately recognized that this was one of the key assets the company had going for it.
The bond was a reflection of the airline’s history. “Throughout the whole war, the MEA logo was sort of a national emblem,” said Ayache. “Whenever the fighting would ease up, the first that many people knew about it was when the airport opened and they could see a plane landing or taking off with that national logo on the tail.”
That’s partly why Middle East Airlines has always stuck with a strong cedar motif in its logo – to identify with the wellspring of affection that people who remember the war still retain for the airline. “The MEA logo was sort of made into a national link between the Lebanese people and themselves,” Ayache said. The latest logo, created by an Airbus in-house advertising agency when MEA leased planes from the jetmaker in 1996, is simplicity itself. It features a giant cedar tree on the tail of the airplanes, which is impossible to miss from almost any recognizable distance. In the past, the logo has varied, with many variations created by the Leo Burnett Agency, MEA’s main ad agency that still retains a substantial amount of MEA advertising work. One of the most durable of these images featured a cedar tree in the foreground, with a pair of jet airplane wings projecting from each side. Another memorable image featured a wavy white cedar tree outlined by clouds in a blue-sky background.
With the new planes, however, Dame has focused on implementing a new national advertising campaign that capitalizes on both nostalgia and optimism.
This last point is especially important. “You can’t advertise unless you have something to advertise,” she stressed. “That’s why in 1996, 1997 and 1998, when the company was struggling, we focused mainly on tactical advertising – that is, targeted ads listing routes, prices or specific campaigns.”
This was the time for something broader. “There were two challenges: the first had been taken care of, with the purchase of the new planes, and the setting of the new standards of service, punctuality, etc. That was essentially a business challenge – to provide something to advertise. The second challenge was to somehow leverage that newfound sense of optimism into a new identity in people’s minds.”
And this is where Joe Ayache and BatesLevant came in. To get that new sense of identity, he brought in a team of designers working with Laudy Sleiman, Dame’s advertising manager, to create a new regional ad campaign.
“We wanted to build on the sense of identification that Lebanese people had with MEA. But we also didn’t want to focus on the past. Besides, we were also trying to reach many non-Lebanese potential customers. So this is a forward-looking campaign. When MEA bought its new fleet, these airplanes had zero miles on them. This fleet is completely new. That is a tremendous selling point,” said Dame.
MEA’s new fleet provides personal entertainment screens in all classes, with personalized video or audio options, wider seats, larger aisles and enhanced business-class comfort. It is the first Airbus model to provide digital video in all classes.
The planes may be new, but the cedar on the tail is still the main brand identity for MEA, said Dame. “Are we trying to change that? No. But can we possibly evolve that to some degree? Yes.”
“Traditionally, you have a ‘master brand’ that underpins the essence of the message you’re trying to convey. Then, beneath that, come sub-messages that you might base a small campaign advertising on. For instance, one of these sub-messages could be the quality of your business class, another could be the services on your planes,” explained Ayache. With this campaign, Ayache is taking what is normally one of the smaller sub-messages – the newness of the fleet – and building it into the master brand.
“The idea was to find a concept uniquely Lebanese,” he said. “So we combined experience (the hands of the officer holding up the child), and youth (the young child).”
The first wave of ads was rolled out in April of this year. There were two concepts: one featured a little girl being held up in the air by two male arms clothed with the gold-striped cuffs of a captain’s jacket. She is surrounded by blue sky and looking up into the air in front of her with her arms outstretched to each side, smiling hopefully, as if just catching first sight of an enchanted kingdom.
The other ad features a boy who is standing in the same pose, with the same smile on his face. In each ad, above the children runs the tagline “Youngest fleet in the world; most experienced airline.” Above the tagline is a row of jets with the trademark cedar logo on the tail.
The ads were placed in quarter-page outlets in many newspapers in Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries, as well as magazines and billboards.
The second wave of ads is due to come out in October.
“This is how you usually conduct a campaign like this one,” said Dame. “The first wave is to get people’s attention. The second wave is to reinforce and cement the image in the minds of the people.”
The ad campaign cost MEA $300,000, Ayache said, with about 70% of this money being spent on press ads, and the remaining 30% on outdoor advertising. There are no plans for any radio or television ads as yet, but Ayache “wouldn’t rule it out.”
Perhaps the biggest difficulty of the ad campaign stems from one of the airline’s strengths, according to Ayache: people’s identification of MEA with the civil war can be a double-edged sword.
“In 1973, the entire MEA fleet was decimated on the ground at the airport by an air attack,” he said. “Of course the insurers paid up, but that is just one example of a bad memory that came out of the war. The Lebanese are very patriotic people, but to most of them the memory of the war isn’t all that great.”
Another difficulty is that a lot of young people don’t have any special affection or attraction to MEA. That affection really was something that was born of having lived through the war. According to Dame, 73% of MEA customers carry Lebanese nationality, and 50% live in Lebanon.
We won’t know the results until next year. With an ad campaign like this, said Dame, the goal is to make the new image stick in people’s minds. It’s to get them to the ticket counter based on an image and an identification. But then they have to want to come back.
Ayache agreed: ”The best campaign is worthless if the airline doesn’t deliver. Now MEA has to deliver.”