Icelandair as an airline made a name for themselves through the Stopover Buddy campaign that launched in 2016, enabling customers to take advantage of a stopover for up to seven days without incurring any additional costs. Being the only airline originating from Iceland and global competition increasing, Icelandair needed to find creative and unique ways to stand out from its competitors. Icelandair's campaign enabled them to create huge PR buzz around the stopover concept and increased overall brand awareness, leading to significant growth in bookings through Iceland as their hub. The ingenious campaign and the unique involvement of their employees made us curious to learn more about Icelandair, its brand and marketing activities. We interviewed Hjalti Jónsson, Marketing & Communications Manager UK, and Jón Skafti Kristjánsson, Director Marketing and Business Development at Icelandair to understand what impact the Stopover Buddy initiative had on the brand, organisation and overall growth of the airline.
Quick introduction to Icelandair
Icelandair is a relatively 'young' airline, celebrating its 80th Birthday in 2017. As the only airline originating from Iceland, Icelandair has quite a unique Icelandic offering, both due to its geographical position and its character. It is a transatlantic airline connecting 27 gateways in Europe with 16 gateways in North America, through Iceland as a hub. Icelandair has operated for 80 years, focusing their activities on brand building and increasing flight bookings. Icelandair is positioning the airline in a unique way through their stopover product, offering passengers on any transatlantic route the opportunity to take advantage of a stopover in Iceland for up to seven nights at no additional airfare.
Icelandair's team is spread across key markets with local marketing teams in London, Copenhagen and Boston, supporting the head office in Iceland with local knowledge and contacts. In each region, Icelandair has a marketing manager plus up to three marketing assistants that support marketing and communications in each market.
Background & Research
Needless to say that the airline industry is highly competitive, making it critical for individual organisations to position themselves in a unique way. For Icelandair, this meant being able to compete with other airlines that focus on being a cheap getaway for consumers. To establish a unique added value when travelling to a destination, Icelandair started the idea development process by conducting in-depth consumer research. The aim was to identify a unique opportunity for the airline to highlight its core values and unique relationship with Iceland while appealing to the growing market of Millennials seeking to experience destinations in a different way.
Consumer research showed that many travellers feel they overspend on holidays, having to dedicate a lot of time to research places, looking for local and authentic experiences in a destination. Especially Millennials don't want to look like tourists but want unique and truly local experiences when travelling. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for tourism organisations wanting to cater to the needs and preferences of Millennial travellers. Icelandair was able to spot an emerging travel trend of consumers wanting to see a destination off the beaten track and experience it like a true local.
In addition to the need for local experiences, consumers are also increasingly interested in personal relationships with locals and people they meet while travelling. Having friends show off a destination is much more powerful, relying on local tips and recommendations. Icelandair saw this as a unique opportunity, bridging consumer preferences with core company values of being proud to be Icelandic. By bringing in their own employees as Iceland ambassadors, it gives Icelandair the opportunity to tap into the unique interests and hobbies of their staff while still being close to the brand and overall message. A recruitment process was started, asking employees to submit unique ideas and suggestions on what to do in Iceland. Icelandair was able to pull together a range of local and unique experiences. The idea behind marketing the stopover service was born.
Stopover Buddy Campaign
The stopover buddy campaign was launched in 2016 as a personal way of presenting the brand through passionate employees wanting to become buddies and show customers around Iceland. Customers could stopover in Iceland at no extra charge for 7 days, selecting buddies based on themes that previous research highlighted as most popular. These are active, health, culture, food, lifestyle and nature shaping an interesting programme for visitors, enabling them to find buddies based on consumer preferences and needs.
Consumers could select buddies from the 120 people strong buddy programme and experiences based on their preferences. So far, Icelandair managed to deliver 6oo stopover trips with their buddies, generating huge buzz and excitement around Iceland and the stopover service. Icelandair managed to shift the overall communications to much more personal stories around the stopover experiences and people behind the buddies, telling their own unique stories about being ambassadors for the company and Iceland.
The Stopover service is an initiative Icelandair promoted since the 1960s but something that is now supported by a marketing campaign, involving individuals from within the organisation. Icelandair's management worked quite closely with the HR team to activate employees to become part of the buddy system and support the delivery of a unique service for its customers. To achieve this, it was essential to motivate the team and reward their passion for Iceland and the experiences on offer by showcasing those in a personal way to consumers.
The HR team works closely with the individual buddies, checking their availability and matching them on the buddy calendar with consumers wanting to do a stopover in Iceland. This allows employees to become ambassadors for the company and serve customers not just in the air but also on the ground in Iceland. While this might be a risky step to take for an airline or any organisation, it is rewarding for team members to be able to step out of their day to day job and add value by providing some unique experiences to visitors through their local knowledge, hobbies and interests.
Brand Positioning in the Market
The campaign helped to strengthen the overall brand positioning of Icelandair, showing a more personal side and character in comparison to simply positioning it as a corporate brand. Icelandair used media channels and outlets for the brand positioning and awareness campaign, using a dedicated website as a landing page for all communication. In addition to that, Icelandair's marketing team worked on an extensive PR outreach, sharing the unique stories and inviting media to participate in the programme themselves.
This led to an increase in followers on social channels, more engagement with their content, especially of those consumers active in the programme. The airline saw a 30% growth in bookings in comparison to previous years and a lot of consumers talking about Icelandair and its unique service.
Throughout the campaign, the use and involvement of influencers was an essential part of communicating what it is like to experience the programme. By working in partnership with influencers, great content was created on Instagram and Twitter, sharing powerful stories, images and highlighting the unique stopover experiences. Throughout the stopover trips, influencers shared live content and memorable experiences through storytelling, increasing overall reach of the campaign content and personal stories.
While the first round of the campaign focused on matching buddies with consumer interests, the second round running until March 2017 put unique celebrations such as music festivals, Icelandic events, Christmas, New Year's, Father's day, birthdays and proposals at the core, enabling customers to get buddies to help with the planning. This limited the stopover service, focusing on celebrations as the core element, in line with 2017 being Icelandair's 80th birthday. The goal was to be more selective and deliver even more personalised stories and stopover experiences.
The aim of the second round of the campaign was to raise awareness, build on the current brand positioning, increase bookings and repurpose additional content produced. This helped to grow the brand and brand awareness in general and for the stopover product in particular, it meant bringing out a more personal side of what the airline stands for.
The campaign enabled Icelandair to increase their stopover bookings by 31% but it was really the overall media coverage that made a huge difference for the airline to position the brand and raise awareness. The stopover campaign itself achieved £106.1 million worth of global coverage, reaching 2.1 billion people worldwide. Icelandair's videos about the Stopover service received 6.2 million views on their channels. Consumer satisfaction involved in the stopover buddy service was also very high, with over 90% of consumers recommending the service. Overall, the introduction of the service had a huge positive impact on the overall perception of the brand and service, enabling the airline to highlight a more personal and experience driven relationship with its customers.
In addition to that, the investment into the service went beyond budgets by investing time in employees to develop and create great experiences in Iceland. From an organisational point of view, Icelandair had to make adjustments to plan around employees and their buddy time. This also meant ensuring that all operations are running smoothly and the buddy system integrated seamlessly into their overall planning of services. Employees that actively wanted to be part of the buddy service, are working in their current role but also took on an ambassador role for Iceland as a country and Icelandair as an organisation. It is great to see an organisation encouraging its employees to take on new responsibilities and help shape Icelandair's brand and overall awareness.
There are a number of things that stand out from Icelandair's stopover campaign that are equally relevant for destinations. Putting a more personal brand and stories at the forefront of campaigns is hugely powerful, as consumers want to have personal, authentic and local experiences in a destination.
For Icelandair, the stopover campaign is very important to ensure they can differentiate themselves in a meaningful way in a highly competitive environment and market. It is vital to find unique and different ways to highlight unique experiences. Icelandair and its employees pride themselves to be Icelandic and offer a unique Iceland experience as part of their core product. This is a story that travels and works when communicating what the airline is all about.
For Icelandair's management, the stopover service showed and confirmed that the service and concept has a high consumer appeal. It is now a big part of their overall offering and the route network is built on the fact that Icelandair always stops in Iceland to change aircraft and then fly to the final destination. What might have been a disadvantage previously when converting customers now turned into an advantage by enabling people to take the time and relax in the stopover destination. Icelandair is in a unique position to give consumers time to enjoy in Iceland, which is turning the overall flight and travel experience into something truly positive.
This is quite an innovative approach, presenting Icelandair as an organisation in a truly authentic way by focusing on being an experience-driven organisation, strengthening the overall loyalty to the brand. Icelandair is working closely with Promote Iceland, the national tourist board, as they are marketing to the same consumers and use similar partners when creating content. This is a huge advantage as they can tap into each other's knowledge and work more in collaboration as both want to show off Iceland from a local point of view, focusing on the local culture and way of life.