Fly the Branded Skies

Tropes: Employee-Owners

Every kind of advertising has—well, let’s call them “conventions.” Airline advertising is no different. This is part of a series of posts on the clichés of airline advertising.

When airlines get into trouble, as they often do, they eventually end up being worth more dead than alive. But there’s one group of people that always has an interest in keeping the planes flying: the employees. Over the past few decades, a number of airlines have been saved — however temporarily — when employees took ownership stakes in them, usually in exchange for pay cuts.

And as soon as employees become stockholders, the airline advertises.

For as long as there have been employee-owned airlines, there has been advertising touting employee-owned airlines. In 1955, Lake Central Airlines became the first employee-owned airline in the United States. Soon it was advertising its ownership status on billboards and timetables.

Then, in the 1980s and 90s, employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) became something of a fad in the airline industry. At one point, employees at United, TWA, Northwest, and Western owned more than a third of their respective carriers under ESOPs, with smaller plans at Eastern, Republic, Pacific Southwest, Pan Am, and Continental.

The biggest plan was at United, which in 1994 became the only large airline to be majority-owned by its employees. Suddenly, the tagline read by Gene Hackman at the end of United’s television commercials changed. It was no longer “Come fly the friendly skies.” It was “Come fly our friendly skies.”

The buyout was heralded in an $8-million advertising campaign. New spots were created. Old spots got new voiceovers. Through the magic of one such voiceover, this spot — already six or seven years old and something of a classic — stopped being about the importance of face-to-face communication and became something more amorphous about United being a “people business.” (You can see the original spot here.)

Other businesses are employee owned, but with one exception, I can’t think of any that advertise the fact so diligently. The exception, Avis Rental Car, was employee-owned from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. Airlines, however, really seem to think that being employee-owned says something about the kind of service they offer.

One example is WestJet, the Canadian airline where 87 percent of the employees are shareholders even though the airline has always been financially stable. Since 2005, WestJet has featured employee ownership prominently in its advertising on the theory that employees with a financial stake in the company will be more caring:

On WestJet’s YouTube page, you’ll find 191 videos of WestJet employee-owners making “care-antees” promising not to lose your luggage, fly the plane too slowly, or be grouchy.

That’s part of the appeal in advertising employee ownership: logically, owners are more invested in the success of their companies than mere employees. In the case of airlines that are going through tough times — like United or Eastern — it’s a little like hanging up an “under new management” sign. Sure, you didn’t like us when we were putting off fleet improvements and shrinking the size of the peanut bags, but take another look!

Of course, there’s another reason why employee ownership gets featured so prominently in airline advertising, and it goes back to one of the basic rules of advertising:

It never hurts to suck up to those in charge.

You should never underestimate the importance of cheerleading in advertising. Employees consume the same media customers do. Advertising can build team spirit, and when things have gotten so bad for an airline that the employees have had to invest in it to keep it flying, it’s time for some team spirit.

Plus, the employees you feature in the ad are now paying for it. Sometimes literally.

In the mid-1990s, the employee-owners of TWA — the people you see walking around randomly in the spot above — voluntarily contributed money out of their paychecks to pay for advertising and to cover the $233,000 monthly leasing cost of an MD-83. So it seems only fair to focus on the people of TWA. If you can’t pay them, you can at least make them feel good about the work they do.

Today, with some exceptions, employee ownership is fading in the airline industry. Its legacy was not particularly good for anyone involved. Consider all the airlines mentioned in this post: only two, WestJet and United, are still in business, and United abandoned its ESOP in 2000 and went bankrupt in 2002. Airlines will always talk about the commitment of their employees, but from now on most of them will have to do so without referring to their financial interest.

Update (Feb. 4, 2011): I knew there was another spot I’d seen that I’d forgotten. Here it is: a spot from 1994 for Canadian Airlines — it’s as strong an example of this trope as you could ever find.

Update (Jan. 22, 2012): Here’s another example: America West Airlines.