Diversity's high fliers

As air travel continues to rise, the multicultural segment, too, is growing - and American Airlines knows it.

As air travel continues to rise, the multicultural segment, too, is growing - and American Airlines knows it.

Diversity is not a new concept for American Airlines (AA). Recognized by both Hispanic magazine and Black Enterprise last year alone as a top workplace for diversity, the company has long had a commitment to its diverse group of employees and customers. But in the past few years, that commitment has translated to more aggressive PR and marketing efforts to attract the African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American communities.

"If you look at our business, it is more and more becoming commoditized," says Roger Frizzell, VP of corporate communications and advertising for AA. He notes that such things as price, schedule, network, and frequent-flier programs act as differentiators. "But I believe there's another element that's important: the ability to create a relationship with a customer," he adds. "Sometimes that'll supersede many other elements if, in fact, you've been successful in building that relationship. So we are obviously trying to do it with a number of our key customer sets."

In fact, late last year AA formalized its diversity marketing committee, which comprises people from all facets of its business - including customer service and ticketing - to develop ideas on how to reach diverse audiences effectively.

AA's commitment to multicultural marketing reflects a broader trend. While the travel industry has been slow to implement multicultural marketing tactics, it has seen a flurry of recent activity, says Lisa Skriloff, president of Multicultural Marketing Resources and editor and publisher of Multicultural Travel News. "Since the travel industry is a bit of a laggard in this area, there are some companies that lead," she says. "American Airlines stands ahead of the pack."

Building relationships with different multicultural media outlets has been a big focus of AA's recent PR efforts. This strategy has been especially important in targeting African Americans, Frizzell notes. Although the company has had relationships with such groups as the United Negro College Fund and 100 Black Men for some time, there was very little awareness.

"Nobody was telling the story," Frizzell says. "It's one thing to be doing some work; it's another thing to be telling the story in a fashion that builds that relationship to the next level."

Getting personal

While Weber Shandwick, AA's general-market AOR, provides support for its multicultural efforts, AA in 2005 began working with Lagrant Communications, its first-ever African-American PR agency. Over the past year, one of Lagrant's main tasks has been to enhance relationships with African-American media outlets.

"[African-American media outlets want] more up-close-and-personal 'handshake PR,'" says Sonja Whitemon, manager of media relations and publicity for AA. "The editors want to know that we are who we say we are and we're not just using the African-American media to build up a façade that looks like a diverse organization. So getting these people to... know the company... is very important."

Lagrant has also worked to promote existing marketing sponsorships targeted to that community. They include the Family Reunion Sweepstakes, which gives consumers an opportunity to win 10 airplane tickets to anywhere in the country, making a family reunion - a strong tradition in the African-American community - easier.

"They get that the African-American consumer market is important," says Kim Hunter, president of Lagrant. "They value it."

Media relationships have also been at the core of AA's recent push to target the Asian-American community. When the company began working with LA-based IW Group in 2005, the agency conducted a baseline measure of mentions about AA in Asian-American media. There were none.

"There really wasn't any domestic air carrier doing any PR work targeted to this community," says Jimmy Lee, VP at IW Group, which like WS is part of Interpublic. Yet "The Minority Traveler," a 2003 Travel Industry Association report, showed that 37% of Asian Americans travel domestically, compared with 31% of the general market, proving that the audience was one that should be a PR focus.

Mary Sanderson, director of corporate communications at AA, says the work began by hosting media days in Dallas, Chicago, New York, and LA, aiming "to formally and more consistently reach out to that community."

The media days gave editors from Asian-American publications the opportunity to meet with AA executives. Because Asian-American journalists are more apt to ask questions one-on-one rather than in a public Q&A, Sanderson says, the team made executives available for such conversations.

Thus far, the efforts appear to have been successful. IW Group's monitoring of Asian-American media shows 25 to 30 mentions of AA per month. And Sanderson reports an increase in the carrier's Asian-American passengers.

Of the three multicultural segments, the Hispanic population is perhaps the one with which AA has the most established outreach. The airline has been flying to Mexico for nearly 65 years and to Puerto Rico for 25 years.

Martha Pantin, AA's director of corporate communications, says the company's involvement in such community events as Puerto Rican Day parades and groups like League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), has built a sol- id awareness of its commitment to the Hispanic community. Even so, AA has "turned up the volume" in recent years, notes Billy Sanez, director of advertising, corporate communications, and promotions for AA. "We've seen that just a little bit more effort has seen a huge return on investment," he adds.

Much of the increased focus has been online. In November, AA launched a special portal to communicate to Hispanic business travelers. Taking into account the preferences of the Hispanic population, it offers a more personal experience, including a welcome letter from members of the sales team. "We literally introduce ourselves," Sanez says. "It's a lot more personal than AA.com."

He says the company will increase its online outreach in 2007.

While the AA's marketing initiatives are truly integrated, Frizzell says PR plays an important role. "Our awareness is very much off the charts," he says. "PR helps to turn that awareness into consideration and purchasing. What we are undertaking now is to... build programs to position American Airlines as the airline of choice for each of those audiences. We believe that it could differentiate American in the marketplace."

AA's outreach

Power lunch series
AA works with securing a respected lifestyle expert in the African-American community to record podcasts on such topics as work-life balance. This year's effort featured author Michelle McKinney Hammond and offered visitors to the site the chance to win free airline tickets.

Media days
Targeted to Asian-American, African-American, and Hispanic communities, these events gather specific groups of journalists to educate them about AA's general offerings or surround a specific product launch or new service.

Community events
AA supports events, such as Puerto Rican Day parades in various cities and Chinese New Year celebrations, and groups like LULAC, La Raza, and the NAACP.

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