February 19, 2013

US Airways and American Airlines produced a full-page ad in both the New York Times and Washington Post last Friday to help tell their story about their intent to merge.  The challenge is the story that they tell in each paper is wildly different, and is meant to conjure very different reactions.  In a time where consumers have more access to information than ever before and are looking for reasons to distrust companies, this divided strategy should make us stop and think.  Do the benefits of a customized message outweigh the risks of appearing duplicitous?   Consider the following five key differences, noted in the actual ads below:



1. The DC ad tries harder to make its case.  The DC ad on the right doesn’t want you to take its word for it.  It’s much more of a lobbying piece.  It employs third-party validation through a series of quotes, while the NYC ad is only copy.  They must think the DC audience will be more skeptical of what the airlines have to say and so they’d rather someone else tell the story for them.  The fact that the quotes come BEFORE any copy in the ad only reinforces this.


2. In DC this merger is about choice somehow.  The DC ad communicates the explicit benefit of “choice” while the NYC ad vaguely states that the merger “will create something greater”.  They must believe that DC is difficult enough to warrant fishing for and communicating a tangible benefit instead of leaving it vague like they did in New York.  And choice is certainly a benefit consumers value.  But is it credible to communicate choice?  The merger by definition will take one airline away, resulting in less choice.


Perhaps they believe they are speaking directly to AA frequent flyers in the DC ad, who will now have more AA choices out of a hub that was dominated by US Air.  And frequent flyers of both airlines will have a larger network.  But this will not create more choice for all flyers.  And consumers are skeptical of mergers to begin with, because mergers take away choice.  So by focusing on this benefit they at best appeal to a core audience of frequent flyers and at worst come across as phonies to everyone else.


3. The DC ad is about the lawmaker.  The copy in the NYC ad communicates to the consumer.  It’s about customer service, experience, and access.  But the DC copy communicates to the lawmaker.  It’s about more competition, jobs, and communities – all areas that are of significant concern to legislators and regulators.


The DC ad also implies that if the merger does not go through then jobs could be lost.  This is a difficult message to deliver.  Most audiences usually reject it as too negative.  They’d rather hear how people will gain rather than be threatened by what they could lose.  Yet AA handles it well, letting the reader only infer the negative. First, they deliver the positive message that the merger will deliver “a path to improved compensation and benefits and greater long-term opportunities to our employees”.  And second, they offer the quote from the President of the US Airline Pilots Association that supports the merger as one that will help keep AA “financially strong”.  The ad leaves us to infer that the opposite outcomes – no path to long-term employee opportunities and a financially weak American Airlines – may threaten pilot job security.


4. In DC it’s about the benefit to American.  AA is emerging from bankruptcy.  The benefits of this merger are clear and tangible to AA and its many employees.  This is a powerful story to tell, and may be why the DC version focuses more on AA than on US Air.  And notably when you read from left to right at the bottom of the ad, the AA logo comes first and the US Air logo comes second.


But the logos are in the opposite order in the NYC ad.


Perhaps they gave US Air the left side in the New York outlet because they gave AA the left in the DC outlet and they simply wanted to be fair.  Perhaps they think US Airways has a better story to tell in New York.  Regardless of the reason, it only hardens the appearance that these companies want readers to walk away with different interpretations of the merger depending on which outlet they are reading, and presumably which type of reader they are.


5. The NYC ad focuses on both companies equally whereas the DC ad focuses on AA.  The photos help bring this to light well.  The DC ad prominently features an AA jet, and leads readers to only one website: newamericanarriving.com.  The NYC ad shows a ramp service operator with his two wands pointing directly at EACH company’s logo.  And each company has their OWN URL dedicated to the merger.


These URLs deliver on the strategies outlined above: the American and US Air URLs on the NYC ad focus on the benefits to the consumer (like the ad copy) while the URL for the combined companies that is on the DC ad focuses on the benefits that appeal to lawmakers.


Perhaps they banked on the readership: the New York Times is liberal and the Washington Post is conservative.  But this doesn’t fully account for the challenge of looking two-faced.  It’s not just that consumers have more information and can spot this stuff more quickly.  It’s the actual people who fly.  Consider the amount of decision-makers – those who could very well have influence over this merger – who frequently take the shuttle between La Guardia and Reagan.  They pick up both the New York Times and the Washington Post to read while taxiing.  It’s easy to believe that seeing these two ads side by side will only raise eyebrows higher among an audience these companies are clearly hoping to appease.


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