2020 MOY: Rob Daintree stays the course

When WestJet went premium, it didn't lose its personality. How the marketer is maintaining its approachable brand even amidst the crisis.

2020 MOY Rob Daintree

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of strategy. 

Since 2018, WestJet has attempted to transform itself from a low-cost regional airline to a global player. But that path came to a screeching halt when the COVID-19 pandemic hit its industry. Rob Daintree, who leads marketing for the country’s second-largest airline and spearheaded its brand transformation, was suddenly asked to help mitigate the impact.

“We were coming off a record-setting January and February and, of course, like the rest of the world, were blindsided by this pandemic,” Daintree says. “It caused us to have to shift gears very rapidly.”

In response, WestJet pulled back its marketing campaigns while striving to maintain a brand presence as much as circumstances would allow, says Daintree. “Wherever possible, we tried to ensure that WestJet was present in terms of doing what we needed to be doing to support Canadians during a really difficult time.”

There is some risk involved, he admits, given the “tensions that exist in the marketplace,” such as customers wondering whether they would receive a refund for cancelled flights. (WestJet was the first major Canadian airline to offer refunds instead of credit on COVID-19 flight cancellations.)

To demonstrate its commitment to safety and care at the onset of the crisis, the company offered repatriation flights and transported medical supplies across the country. The marketing team was brought in to support the implementation of new policies and procedures, such as mandatory mask wearing and seat distancing, as WestJet became the first airline in North America to temporarily suspend bookings for certain seats to keep guests safe.

Daintree’s team was also tasked to communicate its cleaning and sanitation practices. “You read and hear a lot about hygiene theatre,” Daintree says, “and we were very intentional to not go down that road.” Instead, they added a human touch with the “Safety Above All” campaign by Rethink. In digital and social videos, WestJet employees informed prospective travellers of what the company was doing to keep them safe, including wiping down surfaces at airline kiosks and check-in counters and conducting temperature checks during the onboarding process. The campaign drove a significant uptick in bookings.

“[Safety has] been one area where the brand has done what it can to be present,” the marketer says. Outside of that, the focus has been on “where we are able to support the organization and what it requires, right now. We’ve been able to do that reasonably well, despite all of the uncertainty and the ever-changing landscape.”

WestJet

The reason the company has so far been able to protect its brand during the crisis is, in part, a result of the “people-first” positioning that Daintree and his marketing team pursued when the company first revealed plans for its international expansion.

Back in October 2018, WestJet purchased three Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft – not an entirely new plane, but one that was new to WestJet – with direct flights between Calgary and London, Paris and Dublin, scheduled to start the following spring.

Those Dreamliners opened up new skies for WestJet. They enabled the introduction of a business class and cabin – to complement its existing economy and premium economy fares – complete with lie-flat seats and in-flight entertainment screens. WestJet also added a platinum tier to its rewards program, offering a higher earn-rate for frequent flyers.

Daintree says the new “premium enhancements” allow WestJet to pursue international and business customers who were less likely to consider a low-cost, challenger brand. This was part of CEO Ed Sims’ plans to make international flights account for 15% to 20% of all traffic within three years, up from 5% to 10% in 2018. But the new direction, while opening avenues of growth, meant the marketing team had to reimagine how it aligned with the company’s longstanding brand pillars, says Daintree.

The team had to “carefully maintain and preserve those key components that are true to the core of who we are around care, humanity, fairness and fun,” while incorporating brand attributes required to win over a new audience, he says. So the team decided to refresh WestJet’s brand and communications strategy with the help of new and expanded agency relationships.

WestJet, We Treat People Like People

At the time of the Dreamliner announcement, WestJet unveiled a new brand identity and “Love Where You’re Going” slogan that spoke more directly to the company’s global ambitions. A commercial supporting the launch described “the new WestJet” as an airline for “those who fly in the face of convention.” This marked, according to Daintree, a turning point in how the company would market itself going forward.

Despite having new planes and premium features, Daintree recognized the importance of having the WestJet brand remain approachable. So it launched “Flight Light,” a smart device that used real-time data to help families stay connected during international flights. Another campaign, “We Treat People Like People,” showed cows being treated as, well, cattle at the airport – a reminder that WestJet is unlike the competition in that it treats people like people. These and other efforts have earned WestJet global recognition and more than a dozen industry awards in the last year alone.

The aforementioned work was led by Rethink, which was selected as WestJet’s new lead agency in April 2018. Not only does Rethink’s “scrappy and entrepreneurial” spirit align with the airline’s challenger-brand mentality, says Daintree, but it’s also a part of ICOM (a global network of independent advertising agencies), which allows it to help WestJet market in other countries.

WestJet, Flight Light

Daintree was also looking to make changes to the internal marketing team to align with the needs of a global business in a “very structured, disciplined and cost-effective way.” Partnering with U.K.-headquartered agency Oliver, which builds and runs bespoke in-house agencies for its clients and is present in more than 45 countries, “ticked a lot of those boxes,” he says. Oliver was brought on to work alongside Rethink and Media Experts, helping WestJet tap into new markets and scale internal work quickly when needed.

Before the pandemic, results were strong. WestJet’s creative introducing the Dreamliner fleet helped the company achieve a more than 90% load factor (an industry metric for the percentage of available seats that have been filled with passengers) on planes flying to its new European destinations.

Last year, the company considered expanding its Dreamliner fleet to 20 aircraft. If that eventually happens, Daintree says the company will have a “strong playbook to reference back to.” For now, while there’s some optimism with a COVID-19 vaccine being deployed, the future of the global aviation industry remains uncertain. As of July, the International Air Transport Association projected global passenger traffic would not return to pre-COVID-19 levels until 2024.

WestJet’s marketing team continues to do whatever it can to support the company. But Daintree looks forward to “getting back on our strategy, on our roadmap, and on our plan around premium transformation” as soon as he can in 2021. “We’re going to have to treat the year with a lot of agility, speed, and fluidity,” he says. “But we’ll be ready… It certainly can’t be much worse than 2020.”