Fly the Branded Skies


Canadian Airlines "Wingwalkers" ButtonThere’s an old joke that a town too small to support one lawyer is still big enough to support two. Canada is a small country that, historically at least, has been able to support two airlines: Air Canada on one side, and a variety of challengers over the years on the other.

The difference between this brand duopoly and, say, Coke and Pepsi, is that in Canada there has always been a subtle political dimension to airline branding.

Air Canada, the erstwhile Crown corporation, is the flying symbol of the central Canadian establishment. Its branding is sedate; its flashiest advertising so far featured a song by Celine Dion, an approved Canadian choice. Its headquarters are in Montreal. If Canada’s natural governing party had a natural governing airline, Air Canada would be it. Its symbol is a maple leaf; it is, after all, the flag carrier.

Air Canada’s competitors have come and gone, but they have invariably been symbols of Western populism over the Central establishment. CP Air, Pacific Western, Wardair, Canadian Airlines and WestJet were all based in Vancouver, Calgary, or Edmonton. If Air Canada is the “Liberal” airline, then these airlines are the “Progressive Conservatives”—Western, business-friendly, and plucky. It’s hard to imagine Canada’s natural governing airline deigning to run an ad like this:

None of these airlines painted maple leaves on their tails, but two of them used Canada geese—a symbol that is no less Canadian while still being rather less presumptuous. Landor’s tragically short-lived “Proud Wings” identity for Canadian Airlines was perhaps the most elegant livery ever painted on an aircraft. (On the other hand, it’s hard to see the Canadian connection in CP Air’s orange planes with Pac Man on the tail, but then again, it was the seventies.)

Of course, times have changed. Air Canada is no longer government-owned; in 2000, it bought its western competitor Canadian Airlines, and in 2003 it went through bankruptcy. But the dynamic today between Air Canada and WestJet still feels very familiar. The East-West divide in Canadian politics doesn’t seem to be going anywhere; maybe the East-West divide in Canada’s skies is here to stay, too.

Then again, it’s possible to take this analogy too far, as these two photos demonstrate. You may also want to get your fix of Hal Riney voiceovers from two other classic Canadian Airlines spots, Jungle and Buzz Wagner, and read a case study about the whole campaign.