Roots Air charts its flight plan

Make no mistake - despite its earthy name and casual clothing heritage, the people behind Roots Air are serious air industry types. ...

Make no mistake – despite its earthy name and casual clothing heritage, the people behind Roots Air are serious air industry types.

The venture, a marketing and branding alliance initiated last year by Skyservice Airlines in partnership with retailer Roots Canada, was established to fill a void in Canada’s airline market.

According to Ted Shetzen, Roots Air’s executive vice-president and chief commercial officer, the airline will offer business travellers the only viable alternative – in the wake of Canadian Airlines’ demise – to Air Canada.

Set to take off March 26, with Toronto-Vancouver, Toronto-Calgary and Toronto-Los Angeles the first routes, the airline has a five-year plan to serve the top 15 long-haul domestic routes.

The end result, Shetzen says, will be an airline that carries domestic and international business class passengers in a style never before seen in Canada. Think of it as a Canadian Virgin Atlantic.

But that’s down the road. The first order of business is to introduce Roots Air to the Canadian public. Toronto-based Grey Worldwide has developed a fully integrated campaign, including airport banners, print and direct mail, which emphasizes premium service, without a premium price. Television will break in the spring.

The creative, under the tagline, ‘Be Transported,’ features quintessentially Canadian scenes. In one, a boy floats on an inner tube, with the shadow of the Roots Air logo on the water next to him.

The airline has also launched a fully loaded Web site.

Under the guidance of Grey president and CEO John Clinton and executive creative director Marc Stoiber, the airline has endeavoured to extend the brand’s identity – including Roots signature colors of brown, tan, red, black and two shades of gray – to everything from ad creative and ticket vouchers to the Roots Air airport lounges.

While details are still being worked out – no one could say whether passengers will have the opportunity to buy Roots merchandise on board, for instance – the emphasis will be on impeccable service and four-star cuisine.

Strategy sat down recently with Shetzen, Clinton and Stoiber to talk about the new airline and the challenges of introducing Canadians to a new style of air travel.

Q: How will Roots Air fit into Canada’s airline market?

TS: Basically, there are going to be two carriers who go at it in major markets for the frequent premium traveller. We are David in the ‘David and Goliath’ scenario. So there is the big, monolith, dominant monopolist offering all things to all people. And then there will be Roots Air working with a variety of strategic partners providing global access through our best-of-breed associations. Then there will be a bunch of point-to-point guys who are in the most price-sensitive segments.

Q: What are the immediate strategic challenges of marketing and communication around the brand?

JC: Right now in people’s minds, there is no brand called Roots Air. There’s Roots and there’s this airline thing. The reality is it has mostly been defined by the public’s expectations from what they’ve read in the media… This is not about being Roots. This is about a new, unique, distinct brand called Roots Air. It’s an airline brand and it’s going to be differentiated, by and large, on experience. It’s going to be about the way it makes you feel.

Q: Why tie it to Roots, then? Why not just launch a premium airline?

JC: Roots brings some wonderful things to the party in terms of brand imagery. Number one, it’s the most recognized Canadian brand in the country. This is a made-in-Canada solution. This is a Canadian-owned and a Canadian-developed airline coming in as an alternative to Air Canada. That is a big thing. The other huge thing it brings is a sense of style and lifestyle expectation. As soon as you hear Roots, you conjure something up in your mind. You now have an expectation. For example, people are going to expect lots of blankets and leather on the airline. That’s a good head start…You’ve got a huge leg up if you have people with expectations, as long as you can deliver against them.

Q: What do you see as the immediate goals of the new campaign?

JC: The ultimate goal is to put bums in seats. Period. [Airline seats are] the ultimate perishable. Once that seat has left, you can never get it back. So the campaign’s got to do two things. It’s got to launch the brand and it’s got to be capable of responding to competitive initiatives.

Q: Once the initial excitement surrounding the carrier wears off, how do you keep the brand image fresh?

MS: Virgin hasn’t kept going the way it has just because it brought out this unique offering and had a sense of flair to it. They kept adding new things. That’s what we have to do with Roots Air. They’re talking about constantly updating their menus in an unconventional way, so it isn’t just the same bland stuff with a different name, but is really a unique offering. Or, as Virgin Air did, they introduced a shiatsu massage. They don’t have to be huge things. It’s a constant regeneration of the brand by adding more value to the price offering.

Q: How large is your target market?

TS: We’re interested in about a $2-billion market made up of domestic and trans-border customers. When you add to that another $1-billion of stranded, disenfranchised international customers [who arrive] on foreign carrier partners [but] can’t access heartland Canada, it significantly increases the size of the market.

Q: What are the plans to expand the routes?

TS: Our intention is to serve the top 15 domestic long-haul routes and some of the key, potential sectors and essentially strive for a 15-20% share of the domestic, premium markets. That’s the goal over five years.

Q: Are routes to Europe part of the equation over the long-term?

TS: No. We’ve elected to work with international carriers of similar breed.

Q: How did the void created by the demise of Canadian Airlines play into your emergence?

TS: The people here would never have launched this. Skyservice Airlines would never have been looking for a brand partnership unless Canadian was completely gone. Canadian Airlines created the void and the marketplace wanted choice.