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Cessna Flies Into a Headwind

Last week Advertising Age published a fascinating case study of a company in the crosshairs of changing times: The Cessna brand is seeing sales slow not only due to the overall economy but additionally because media coverage and everyday citizens have made corporate jets the new pariah. Exhibit A is the virtual riot against the Big 3 CEOs who all flew to Washington, D.C., in their own jets. What to do? An advertising campaign, of course! But Cessna’s strategy looks flawed from the beginning.

Cessna has decided to support its business by releasing full-page advertisements in the Wall Street Journal, with a copy message (see above) that essentially encourages corporate executives to ignore the naysayers (“Timidity didn’t get you this far”), and to continue to use “the full range of tools to do your job.” While this attitude might help a few CEOs screw up their courage and ignore the complaints from shareholders or the finance department, I believe Cessna is doing a disservice to its customers with this campaign.

There are a few big reasons why this campaign won’t stop the bleeding. First, it defies reason to expect that a full-page print ad is enough to tip a corporate executive into feeling better about flying a personal jet. “Taking advice from print ads” didn’t get them this far either. If anyone actually bothers to read the ad while flipping through articles, he or she would be more likely to see this as a blatant self-interested message.

But the bigger issue is that Cessna is completely ignoring the winds of change, which no well-placed print ad can hold back. Private jets are expensive, luxurious, and out-of-reach of most workers in this country. Those of us who fly around the world for a living (and are increasingly told to take coach overseas or drive 90 minutes to a cheaper airport) resent that top leaders get to avoid the surly security guards and greasy food-court meals. Other workers who are losing their jobs and benefits cringe at the idea that their bosses are too good for commercial travel.

Because of economic pressure and growing excesses at the top, the court of public opinion has shifted, and private jets are much less acceptable than only a few years ago. Cessna cannot change the movement of public opinion, and it will fail as a company if it doesn’t figure out how to change its image to adapt to modern times.

The good news is that I believe Cessna can shift public thinking by moving to Marketing with Meaning instead. What if the company started by focusing on its customers’ situation. Here’s one thought: The CEO with a private plane is feeling pressure from shareholders and stakeholders and is looking for ways to pare back for PR sake at least. Cessna could do something to meet this need while propping up its demand and brand image.

For example, Cessna could create a private social network that executives could use to coordinate flight sharing. After all, many executive offices are clustered around the same metro areas and they often travel to the same large cities or customer locations. Throw in the fact that they just might enjoy some value from the networking opportunities, and grow some much-needed digital sensibility.

Another option is for Cessna to create a software system that companies could use to coordinate flights by other employees who have reason to go to the same destination. Both systems would take some extra effort by executives’ administrators, but imagine the boost in media and public opinion that both Cessna’s customers and its brand would enjoy. I guarantee that both moves would generate significant, positive news coverage.

By being part of a solution instead of generating more problems, Cessna has a chance to salvage its image and its sales. My examples might not be perfect, but they show that meaningful marketing ideas can be generated very quickly as soon as you start thinking about how you can solve customers’ problems by doing something through the marketing itself.

UPDATE: JetBlue is advertising a welcome to C-Suiters who are downgraded to commercial flight. More of a laugh than actually adding value, though.

5 Responses to “Cessna Flies Into a Headwind”

  1. Marty says:

    I was having a conversation with Scott the other day, he’s an active pilot, I have my private license. It’s often cheaper to take private planes than actually a commercial airline. Granted, you’re on point with this piece with elite level jets, but they don’t even begin to make a case for anything except Larry Ellison-types eschewing the public opinion. I’m surprised that companies like Netjets (www.netjets.com) isn’t coming out to raise company awareness. They offer timeshare for private jets–something along the lines of there is a choice when it comes to cutting costs. You just don’t have to own the choice…

  2. Bob says:

    Good idea, Marty. I’m guessing the problem with Netjets is that they, too, are struggling financially with everyone cutting back on flying.

  3. John says:

    Bob, I’ve been following the blog for a while now and I have been “onboard” with all that I have read and seen until now. I agree that a print ad is NOT the place to reach or have impact with, those who are flying these jets, and the campaign does not fit the definition of marketing with meaning, but the jury is still WAY OUT on this in the court of public opinion. There is an all out assault on business and success in this country right now, and I think Cessna is making a stand against it. Perhaps that is “meaningful”.

  4. Rob F says:

    See this link http://www.noplanenogain.org/ for a better approach than Cessna’s ad. Agree its a ham-handed ad, however there is lots of misinformation about general aviation. For many companies that have remote locations the jet is the most practical way to reach out from corporate and see what is going on in the field. The jet lets the executive and team see 2-3 locations, customers, potential investments in one day versus 3-4 days. Lo and behold after the public show trials of the Detroit 3 execs led to a drop in jet orders 7000 layoffs in Kansas at Cessna and Hawker. Lots of jobs tied to General and business aviation. Probably one area we still have a strong US based manufacturing industry.

  5. Bob says:

    I think you guys (John and Rob) bring some great points. First, let me say that I personally have nothing against private jets. I’ve been lucky enough to fly in a few and totally agree that there is a strong business case for them.

    I can see the point that Cessna taking a stand can be valuable and a service to the executives – thus meaningful. But my opinion is that it won’t work, and could actually further fuel the general public’s anger…

    I don’t see much chance of using a traditional ad campaign to change the winds of public opinion – however unfair it is (hey, I’m in advertising and am used to the public opinion looking down on our industry!). Rather, if the industry could use some “judo strategy” by visibly listening to the push back and doing some small but real measure to adjust, then it could basically deflate the growing momentum toward negativity.

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