Tell Me about My Flight

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

Heathrow’s new terminal five will utilize 333 billboards and 207 flat screen TVs to barrage each visitor with 50 to 200 ads. One of the billboards already crows that the display company and airport operators are "…bringing the world’s best brands and audiences together."

Airports, like doctor offices and subway cars, are places where audiences are captive, so they seem like obvious opportunities for brand marketers to exploit every available surface and media. Airports might be even better because they can skew upper-income, especially during the work week.

That’s why Heathrow is already gummed up with lots of bistros and retail stores. I’ve run the gauntlet through Terminal 3 more than I care to remember, and it’s like wading through an endless shopping mall. U.S. airports from Portland to Minneapolis are no better. 

Stores I get, mostly, as they’re something to do other than work when waiting for a flight or making a connection. It beats a smoky bar, most of the time. 

But I happily ignore the TVs and billboards already plastered around me, just like I do in any other public space. We’ve all learned to ignore the advertising background noise that’s unavoidable where we least care about it, like on sports stadium walls, in video games, and wherever else TVs and billboards can be thrust before us.

So is the idea that this "captive audience" wants to consume branding is perhaps a bit misplaced?

Instead of looking at airports as another place to catch consumers who might be relevant to your business plan, why not consider doing things in airports that are relevant to them?

I say forget about brands. Tell me about my flight.

No airline (or airport) seems able or willing to get its collective marketing heads around the central, overriding priority of keeping people informed…consistently and responsibly. It’s telling that the Heathrow signage plans are all about using every available inch of space to tell people things they don’t necessarily need to know. Information from the airlines remains a process problem that yields communications that are spotty, imprecise, and often-times flat-out wrong. 

So why not let them outsource the information and notification functions to third-party brand names?   It wouldn’t matter what the product or service actually sold (hamburgers, insurance, whatever), because at the airport it would be selling relevance and utility.

Imagine the brand setting up the reporting system(s) required to all but guarantee that passengers on so-and-so airline would get real and dependable updates on schedules every, say, 5 minutes. TVs and billboards would present this information instead of recasting its branding nonsense, so there’d be no presumptions of associations with vagaries of emotion or other associations. 

Brand X would be in the airport because it provides an incredibly useful service. 

Think of all the wonderful brand associations that come along with being so relevant. Once you stop thinking about airport visitors as victims for brand marketing as if they were sitting in front of a TV or computer screen waiting to get sold to, there are other riffs worth pursuing:

  • How about a brand developing some unique weather predicting tool, so its signs could post some forward-looking information on what storms might arise in so-and-so flight corridors?
  • Maybe a branding presence could focus on predicting likelihood of weather forcing delays or cancellations, posting a running, real-time picture of what delays could occur? There could be a historic basis for calculating future issues that got ever-better with time.
  • A brand could assume responsibility for posting "most popular" stores in the shopping mall/airport, or ranking "best deals" in real time.
  • Another brand could cross-analyze flight schedules and pricing, and provide travelers with up-to-the-minute information on change options.
  • Billboards could be keyed to actual flight performance, and offer immediate sales benefits (call this # now for a discount, etc.) that were keyed to actual flight/schedule issues, giving the best deals to people with the most time to kill/greatest desire for something ‘good’ to happen after learning of a terminally-delayed flight.

But the last thing we need in airports are more ads featuring celebrity endorsers, or just content that is inwardly-focused on the needs of the brands. There’s nothing futuristic (or particularly intelligent) about using new tools to do something archaically old like waste people’s time.

Be the business that helps me in my time of need, and I’ll far more likely to drink your soda pop, buy your floor cleaner, or invest in your mutual funds. In airports, we need information, and providing it could earn brands some real affection, if not outright loyalty. 

Don’t tell me about your brand, though. Tell me about my flight.

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