Inside the Mix

British Airways' word push endears airline to Americans by providing valuable information

British Airways' word push endears airline to Americans by providing valuable information

When I saw the giant word "engaged" on the side of a Manhattan phone booth recently, I figured it was an ad for a telecom company's voice-mail product.

Until I thought twice and realized that I hadn't used the term "engaged" for a busy signal since I moved to the US.

In fact, it was part of an expansive campaign running throughout New York City by British Airways (BA), using a whole dictionary's worth of British slang to educate New Yorkers as to how to speak the lingo once they hit Heathrow and, more important, to drive home the message that BA offers an authentically British experience.

It's unusual to find a campaign that uses so much of what we Brits call ambient media ("out-of-home" media over here). Phone kiosks, deli bags, bar coasters, outdoor cafe umbrellas, even London-style taxis display different words, all appropriate to the environment. The work was done by three agencies - M&C Saatchi on the creative side, on all the interactive work, and media agency Optimedia on all the planning and placement. The mainstream press ads showed how media can be creative just by the right buy - Liz Smith's column in the New York Post was faced by an ad asking, "Who's snogging who?"

But it's the website that really shows how much work went into the campaign. The list of words is enormous, and very funny. Best yet is the mechanism by which you can send an e-mail or text message for each word, simultaneously upping the chances of viral dissemination and taking a chance on the nascent medium of mobile-phone marketing.

The overall goal of the campaign is to push more people to choose BA for preference rather than price, and while the words are fun and drive people to the web, it's the website that really backs up BA's key offer: to provide real insider knowledge to those visiting the UK.

The knowledge provided is unusually valuable. BA could have stopped at 25 words and a few bland recommendations of tourist traps. But the extensive vocabulary, coupled with some pretty good local tips, truly paints it as a bridge between New York and London. The one thing that raised an eyebrow for me was the suggestion in the press release that Americans learn these phrases ahead of their vacation and then use them abroad, which is in my mind a little like running a tourist campaign in London suggesting that visitors to New York make friends on the subway by smiling and saying, "Hi, I love your President! And what's your name?"

BA currently has about 25% of the New York-London flight market - the largest share - with American, United, and Virgin behind it, says BA's director of advertising, Amy O'Kane. Like many Londoners of my age and demographic, I've been a diehard Virgin flier for most of my transatlantic life. Flying to London on BA earlier this year, however, I was surprised at the high ratio of Americans to Brits on the flight, as compared to the typical mix on Virgin. That fits in with what O'Kane says is a large reason for Americans choosing BA for that route: Your British vacation starts as soon as you check in. And it backs up my unofficial theory that people fly Virgin because it's Virgin; people fly BA because it's British.

Of course, that could just be a load of bloody rubbish.

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