Author Greg Caterer

Date February 2018

Categories Virtual Reality

Aviation show insights – how major airliners are using immersive marketing

Over the past few weeks, we’ve had the pleasure of visiting a number of aviation-focused trade shows. They have provided an intriguing insight into how major players in the aviation industry are using increasingly sensory marketing methods to win business.

I joined Neutral Digital in January this year from a consulting and design background, so I really felt as though this set of trade shows was to be the ‘cherry on the cake’ of a steep month-long learning curve.

The first thing that struck me was what’s important for a major carrier to show at a trade fair. Clearly, depending on where the airline sees its competitive advantage (price point, variety of routes flown, brand associations or in-flight experience), different carriers are looking to hook different kinds of customers.

Being business-focused shows, the calibre of the airlines exhibiting was predictably high – with clients ranging from global management consulting firms to UK public sector organisations relying on specific carriers to ship employees on well-trodden routes for training programmes, the demands placed on the airline industry to deliver a quicker, smoother, more pleasant and more individually compelling flying experience are greater than ever before.

Asides from the regular trade show procedure of handing out goodie bags with USB sticks, free drinks from 5pm and vying for business based on loyalty schemes and how well customers can expect to be treated in the airport lounge, so many of the conversations I overheard and partook in had a pronounced focus on the ‘experience’ of flying with one brand over another.

The ‘experience’ of flying with different airlines

It was for precisely this reason that I found myself a little confused by some of the ways in which a large number of these carriers were using technology to represent their brands in this intense tussle to win and retain clients. Our Marketing Manager and I visited a number of interesting companies and, with only a couple of exceptions out of some 50 airlines exhibiting, every stand had a digital experience designed to let the prospective customer ‘feel’ what it’s like to fly with them. These experiences were broadly the same, with the obvious difference that each one portrayed aspects of the customer journey that were specific to each carrier – the main point of commonality being that each one involved 360° video together to form an experience that could be stored in a mobile HMD (Head-Mounted Display), allowing the user to look around and witness the virtual world surrounding them.

My confusion comes when so many of the carriers employing these kinds of visual marketing methods label them as ‘VR experiences’. To call them such endows them with properties of somehow reflecting a version of ‘reality’. One of the key ways to make this a useful experience is to make it interactive – 360° video, while good at representing the look and feel of a space, offers little more than a panoramic image or a visual walk-through of the place in question.

With this in mind, I was intrigued to observe Air Canada’s 787 and 737 VR experience, built by Neutral Digital, and how it differed from the norm. Customers at the booth seemed genuinely delighted by the immersiveness and interactivity of Air Canada’s take on the virtual in-flight experiences. They followed a logical storyboard through from checking out the exterior visuals and routes of the Boeing 787 aircraft, entering the cabin, selecting a class to sit in, being served food and drink (and occasionally throwing it across the cabin for fun – because there’s an inner child in all of us!) and then landing in a quintessentially Canadian scene – throwing snowballs under the Northern Lights. All this was achieved by pairing the experience with the Oculus Rift headset and controllers, and allowing every piece of the environment to be in some way interactive – from taking headphones out of the cubbyhole and putting them on, to choosing food by pointing at sections on a menu, to running a virtual hand through the snow to pick up a new snowball, all combining to create a truly personalised and branded experience.

Stay front-of-mind by being a digital innovator

As flying becomes an increasingly experiential activity, carriers will live and die by the effectiveness of their visual and immersive marketing. Airlines that leverage them correctly will stay front-of-mind for their customers during the purchase decision thanks to having created strong brand associations. Those who do so by giving a true-to-life and fun representation of what it’s like to actually exist on one of their flights will emerge as digital innovators. They will also position themselves well for competitive advantage in an industry where choices are no longer made based purely on price and routes flown. Using VR in this capacity is what differentiates between simply showing a customer what a space looks like and allowing them to feel as though they’re part of it.