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Air Canada shifts marketing focus to increase global presence

Air Canada planes are pictured at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Sunday, May 18, 2014.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

It may have Canada in its name, but the country's largest airline is dedicating more marketing dollars than ever to wooing flyers beyond our borders.

On Tuesday, Air Canada will launch a new marketing campaign and a major repositioning of the company's brand image. The goal: to increase the carrier's presence on the world stage, and accelerate its strategy of becoming a global player in air travel.

While brands such as Air Transat, Porter and WestJet continue to be rivals, the company now sees airlines such as Air France-KLM as competitors too. As a result, it is devoting a larger share of its ad budget to global marketing. While Air Canada traditionally spent about 25 per cent of its marketing dollars outside its home market, the proportion in this campaign will be larger and, in time, will range closer to 50 per cent, according to vice-president of marketing Craig Landry.

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"We feel the time is right to make a change," Mr. Landry said.

The timing of the new campaign coincides with the delivery of Air Canada's first Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which touched down in Toronto on Sunday afternoon. "Everything about this aircraft … will redefine our flagship product in the international market," Mr. Landry said.

It will be a marketing challenge, too: The Dreamliner faced delivery delays and also encountered problems with battery fires before authorities gave a revised design the green light.

The new planes carry more passengers and go longer distances on less fuel than the old Boeing 767s. That's crucial to Air Canada's strategy, which is focused on international growth. It has added new routes to destinations such as Rio de Janeiro and Istanbul, and has bulked up service to the U.S. and Asia, boosting its international capacity by about 20 per cent in the past few years.

Canada is still the airline's biggest source of business, but the domestic market "is not growing that quickly," Mr. Landry said. The carrier will continue to spend here, but is attempting to seize growth opportunities, particularly in the U.S. and Asia.

The international strategy was behind Air Canada's decision in September to name JWT Canada its advertising "agency of record," ending a 27-year relationship with Montreal-based agency Marketel.

In the pitch process, agencies were asked to propose an advertising plan that would "reflect a global brand image" for Air Canada. The new campaign is the beginning of that branding effort.

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For the first time in many years, Air Canada will have a tag line: "Your World Awaits." It is meant to convey a global scope but with a personalized touch, said Brent Choi, chief creative officer at JWT. It is also meant to upgrade the airline's image, an important point for attracting higher-margin business class travellers.

"It hearkens back to 'Your carriage awaits' – very invitational, a sense of discovery, and has a premium feel to it," he said. "We're creating a voice for them."

Air Canada is also dropping the red and blue diamonds it featured in commercials and other marketing materials in the past. The maple leaf logo remains, however.

The campaign will begin with billboards and other "out-of-home" ads in commuter transit locations and airports, as well as digital and social media ads. The national TV campaign will kick off in July with the brand's continuing sponsorship of reality show The Amazing Race Canada.

Ads will use translucent photographs of people's faces, superimposed on lush shots of global destinations. It's an effort to connect to an aspirational idea of what travel signifies for people, Mr. Choi said. This basic idea will guide further campaigns, as well as the TV ads when they launch.

"It's an understanding of the core reason why people fly and what they get from it, versus talking about an airplane and an airport," he said. "To be sure, we talk about the emotion of flying."

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That's important for addressing the brand's biggest challenge here at home. JWT's research found 81 per cent of domestic business travellers prefer to fly the airline, but said it lacked a "human" side – ranking below WestJet and Porter for people who thought "the airline is genuinely interested in me." Air Canada's brand identity is strong, but needs softening so consumers can feel closer to it, according to the research.

"We're trying to make the brand very human," Mr. Landry said.

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