Air Canada Rio

Air Canada plants Olympic marketing flag

JWT's 'Fly the Flag' campaign celebrates airline's role in bringing Canada to the world

Andy Shibata took over as managing director, brand for Air Canada at the end of April, assuming responsibility for the national airline’s Olympic marketing efforts on just his second day.

“The planning cycle was really short, but there’s nothing like a deadline to get people going,” said Shibata on Friday afternoon, just hours before Air Canada’s new “Fly the Flag” campaign debuted during CBC’s coverage of the Rio Games’ opening ceremonies.

“I’ve been in situations where if you have too much lead time it leads to over-analysis, you get paralyzed and there’s a chance [for things] to become over-democratized,” said Shibata, who was still suggesting final edits on “Fly the Flag” a week-and-a-half before the Games. “This is a really strong campaign that I’m really proud to be a part of.”

Developed by J. Walter Thompson Canada, “Fly the Flag” celebrates Canadians making their mark on the world, assisted by Air Canada. It is the agency’s first Olympic-themed campaign for Air Canada since winning the account from the airline’s long-time agency partner Marketel in 2013.

The campaign launched with a 60-second spot called “Many Paths,” which begins with a welcome to a baby girl – identified in a voiceover as being “one of the lucky people in this world to call yourself Canadian.”

It then follows the girl on her life journey, which features her leaving her mark – and Canada’s – on foreign lands. The spot ends with the voiceover saying, “The world needs more Canada. Let’s bring it to them.”

Shibata said the campaign was trying to forge an emotional attachment with its customers by focusing not on what Air Canada does – its routes, its fleet, etc. – but why it does it.

He quickly acknowledged an emotional connection was something nearly every brand is striving for these days, but said Air Canada had earned a reputation for being operationally driven – more likely to be acknowledged for the strength of its fleet and its ability to get people where they need to go.

“We tend to forget that emotional connection we should be having with our customers,” he said. “The fact we have the maple leaf emblazoned on our tail is a privilege we can’t forget. It’s something we take very seriously.”

Josh Budd, senior vice-president, creative director for JWT in Toronto, said the campaign celebrated the airline’s role in bringing Canada to the world, with the national pride stirred up by the Olympics serving as a subtle backdrop.

“It’s a story that hasn’t been told, but resides deep within the organization,” said Budd. “Every day Air Canada helps Canadians go out and make their mark on the world, and that’s the story we wanted to tell.”

While Air Canada has been a Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) sponsor since 2006, the new spot features only subtle references to the Games, with a brief image of a gymnast and the use of the COC logo at its conclusion.

It does feature the gravitas and earnestness of an Olympic marketing effort, but looks beyond our every-four-years infatuation with the likes of rowing and beach volleyball.

“It’s more – and bigger – than the Olympics,” said JWT’s executive vice-president, managing director Scott Miskie. “While Air Canada has in the past been much more Olympics-centric, a lot of the things we’ve been doing from a brand development perspective gave us pause to say this is a really great opportunity and it’s congruent with the things we want to say about the brand.”

Shibata said the Olympics typically provided two main angles of attack for marketers: A focus on the athletes who are the “heroes” of the Games, and the national pride associated with a global sporting competition.

“Sometimes people put the two things together… but we thought there was a bigger story to tell because we have this country’s name in our name,” aid Shibata. “We can’t ignore the fact that the maple leaf is part of who we are and what we do every day.”

In addition to the video spots, JWT has created a series of out-of-home banners displayed in airports across the country that show Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes standing with Air Canada employees.

“It’s easy for brands to put their logo on things come Olympics time, but you’ve got to try and find something you can own,” said Budd. “Air Canada is the only one that can say it delivers athletes to Rio to make their mark.”

Air Canada flew more than 150 athletes to Rio on July 29, and also created a video featuring its employees wishing them well at the Games. The airline is also urging Canadians to share messages of support for Team Canada athletes using #FlyTheFlag, and has also created a custom Twitter emoji of a passenger jet pulling a Canadian flag to accompany the hashtag. Mindshare handled media buying.

Shibata’s marketing career has embodied several iconic Canadian brands. He arrived at Air Canada after spending nearly 10 years with RBC in various roles including vice-president of brand marketing and prior to that seven years with Molson Canada, overseeing campaigns for its Canadian brand, among others.

“I’m definitely a patriot and love the homegrown Canadian brands,” he said. “I’ve got that coursing through my blood for sure.”

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