Fly the Branded Skies

Jingle: Braniff “We Better Be Better” (1980)

We better be better. We're Braniff!

Listen: Braniff International Airways: “We Better Be Better”

The problem with jingles is that they almost inevitably sound prideful. When you get a bunch of singers to belt out an anthem to consumerism, the advertiser tends to sound like it’s pretty proud of itself. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a little pride. It’s just that, ultimately, consumers get to decide whether you really have anything to sing about.

And in some cases, pride goeth before the fall.

I have to admit, as jingles go, I think this one is pretty great. It’s got a great tune. It’s got a great disco beat to it. And yet, ironically, it was tremendously tone-deaf.

Because in 1980, Braniff really didn’t have anything to sing about.

At the time, Braniff was in the midst of a mad, ego-fueled international expansion. Its chairman, Harding Lawrence, added dozens of new routes in the year after deregulation, including routes to Europe and the Pacific. But Braniff didn’t have the resources to manage these routes, or the passengers to pay for them. Service was poor, the staff were notoriously surly, and Braniff was, quite simply, hated.

This account from shortly after Braniff’s bankruptcy in 1982 reveals an airline led by a man totally disconnected from the precariousness of its situation. The article describes Lawrence as a Howard Hughes-like figure who lived in an apartment connected to the Braniff boardroom and refused to listen to bad news. As early as 1978, a company executive had tried to tell Lawrence that Braniff’s growth was unsustainable; that the company was doomed. It continued to grow.

This jingle feels just as disconnected from reality. Within a year of its premiere in January of 1980, Braniff would be losing $6 million a week. Within two and a half years, the airline was gone. “We Better Be Better” is a song about an airline that didn’t really exist.

The lyrics are part of the problem. Steve Karmen was an excellent composer of jingles, but his lyrics were often lackluster (his jingle for Pan Am began “Experience/is knowing what to do…”) The song doesn’t say much, except that Braniff promises to be the best. “World” is rhymed with “world.” “We are better and that’s what we better be” is a fairly inane tongue-twister. For this reason, I’m not sure the “full sing” version of this jingle was ever used in advertising. It appears as the last track on the “Braniff Promise” flexidisc and may just have been a demo.

The TV campaign itself is not online, as far as I can tell, but it was described in the New York Times a week before its release:

The lead-off print ad and TV commercial will list the promised services, which include everything from on-time performance to prompt baggage delivery to the “best food you’ve ever eaten on an airline” to flying new and “meticulously maintained” planes.

Three other commercials deal with the newness of the Braniff aircraft, the food service and the multitude of destinations. The title of this last spot is “Grand Tour,” and it is an example of just how far the agency will go in search of a good commercial. Ten different quintets of Braniff employees were photographed marching arm in arm on location in 10 different Braniff destination cities.

In other words: it was expensive. Very expensive. You can hear the “Braniff Promise” in this track off the same flexidisc. (This might be the track used in the commercial, but the Braniff Pages have a link to another version on their homepage that sounds more finished.)

Listen: Braniff International Airways: “The Braniff Promise”

But the spoken track is hardly better than the sung track. The problem is the tagline. It’s ambiguous. Did Braniff mean to say that they better become better, because at the time they weren’t really very good at all? Or did they mean that the name “Braniff” is so exalted that they are held to a higher standard? I suspect the airline intended the latter. But by 1980, “We’re Braniff!” no longer meant much to passengers.

Clearly what Braniff needed in 1980 was some good advice. One questions whether they got it. In 1979, Wells Rich Greene resumed its hold on the account a decade after dropping it for TWA. The “Wells” in the agency’s name belonged to Mary Wells Lawrence — Harding’s wife. It’s possible Braniff’s marketing advice was no more independent than their financial advice. There’s a good reason surgeons aren’t allowed to operate on family members.

On December 30, 1980, Lawrence resigned from Braniff, prompting immediate speculation that Wells Rich Greene would be fired. In September of 1981, Wells Rich Greene dropped Braniff for Continental Airlines.

And on May 12, 1982, Braniff stopped flying.

Airline: Braniff International Airways
Title: “We Better Be Better”
Agency: Wells Rich Greene, Dallas
Written By: Steve Karmen
Year: 1980

We better be better…
We better be better…
We better be better…
We’re Braniff!

We promise
to give every Braniff passenger
the finest airline service in the world. (We promise!)

We promise
that we won’t rest until you say
that Braniff is the best in all the world! (We promise!)

We make promises to keep.
Try us and you’ll see.
We are better and that’s what we better be!

We better be better…
We better be better…
We better be better…
We’re Braniff!