You open what looks like an in-flight care package to find 50 feet of Sudoku puzzles on a tapelike roll, Champagne-flavored gummy candies and a scratch-and-sniff patch that smells like boeuf bourguignon. If you fly a low-cost airline, your ticket might not include an edible hot meal or free access to electronic entertainment, but the box reminds you of what could be if you flew Air France.
That’s the idea behind the airline’s new “Take a Chance or Fly Air France” campaign, which will begin showing up in American digital ad space this week.
“We want to remind our clients and our future clients that there is another way to travel, even in economy, where everything is included,” said Dominique Wood, Air France’s executive vice president of brand and communication. “You’ve got a very comfortable seat, you’ve got a hot meal and a full complement of entertainment, and if you can have it — if you’re the right age — a glass of French Champagne.”
The airline is seeing more and more competition, even on its trans-Atlantic routes, from mostly European carriers that advertise rock-bottom fares. (Air France also has its own low-cost option, listed online as a “light” fare, which doesn’t include a checked bag. To keep its base fares more competitive, the airline charges a fee for seat selection on most economy tickets.)
With cheap flights becoming increasingly popular, Air France wants to let travelers know that flying doesn’t have to be a bare-bones experience, and that ultralow fares aren’t always as cheap as they seem.
“We are quite convinced that most of the low-cost carrier’s clients don’t know that they pay nearly the same price when they travel with the low-cost company because when they have the luggage, the meal, the drinks, the entertainment, at the end of the day it’s very similar to the all-included price they could pay with Air France,” Ms. Wood said. “As we have the image of a quite premium airline, it’s not obvious for them to understand that.”
The Air France campaign will mostly be a digital one, but visitors to the Grove mall in Los Angeles on Saturday can win pairs of round-trip economy tickets. The Sudoku puzzle tape, gummies and scratch-and-sniff patches will also be given away, and will be available in an online sweepstakes.
American low-cost airlines don’t directly compete with Air France, but they use some of the same advertising techniques that its less-expensive international competitors do.
“Obviously, we promote our low fares heavily — it’s the price point that will be successful at getting attention,” Tyri Squyres, the vice president of marketing at Frontier Airlines, said in an email. “And then we educate customers on all the options they have with us.”
She added: “Our goal is to simply let people get off the couch and go. Our low fares enable more people to travel and do it more often.”
Fare-based advertising has been a popular tactic for decades, but as travelers have become more price conscious, in part because researching cheap tickets has never been easier, they sometimes gloss over the fine print. Many ultra-low-cost carriers charge extra fees for services like selecting a seat before departure, checking a bag, and receiving onboard drinks and snacks.
This, Ms. Squyres said, is where the company’s branding becomes even more important.
“The last thing we want to do is have a customer surprised at the airport,” she said. “We have invested heavily in all of our touch points to ensure customers understand our product and all of their options.”
Frontier’s website recently had an overhaul, which emphasized making the fee structure more clear.
Henry Harteveldt, the founder of Atmosphere Research Group and a former marketer at a number of airlines, said Air France’s and Frontier’s marketing strategies were both good examples of how airline advertising has changed over the decades.
“Airlines don’t do a lot of advertising anymore,” Mr. Harteveldt said. “They focus a substantial amount of their media investment now in search engine optimization.”
He noted that American carriers were some of the least likely to advertise. “When you have four very large airlines, they don’t have to market as aggressively as they once did,” he added.
That’s a big change from a few decades ago. From T.W.A.’s “Up, Up and Away” to United’s “Friendly Skies,” commercial branding was central to an airline’s image.
One of Mr. Harteveldt’s favorite ads was British Airways’ “Manhattan” commercial, which emphasized how each year the company flew more people across the Atlantic than the population of Manhattan.
While that kind of creativity can still be fun to see in retrospect, it’s no longer necessarily the best way to attract customers.
“The challenge is that an airline today, with its advertising, needs to think beyond just the media portion of it,” Mr. Harteveldt said. “Will they be running the ads on price comparison sites and on social media? Those are critical now — to reach travelers of all ages, frankly — when people are in that phase of dreaming of travel before they have selected an airline.”
And when carriers do choose to advertise more traditionally, they have to pick their message carefully. “Airlines have to strike the balance between image-based advertising and very hard-hitting retail or tactical advertising,” Mr. Harteveldt said.
But it makes sense, he said, for Air France to be investing more in advertising in the United States than some of its American competitors.
“The foreign-flag airlines tend to be more aggressive in advertising because they’re not as well known and in many cases are promoting destinations beyond their home market,” he said.
The “take a chance or fly Air France” campaign stands out because of its emphasis on in-flight service.
“As airlines have unbundled their product, they almost don’t want to remind you of what it’s like to fly them,” Mr. Harteveldt said. “What Air France is doing is a smart marketing move, but it’s also a brave marketing move.”