Cathay Pacific

How our airline made the connection

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 June, 2010, 12:00am

Her beguiling smile has graced billboards, TV screens, newspapers and magazines worldwide and earned her admirers everywhere. But it was the words of a five-year-old boy from Frankfurt that melted flight attendant Doris Wong's heart.

Little Theo Maxeiner was so taken with the image of 29-year-old Wong after seeing one of the Cathay Pacific advertisements featuring her that he posted her a drawing of a plane in an envelope plastered with love hearts.

'I like Doris' smile and I like her so much I made a drawing for her,' Theo wrote in his letter, which a weary Wong found in her staff mailbox at the end of a long flight. Wong said afterwards: 'I was so touched I almost cried.'

Theo's letter is just one of thousands of little scenarios that show how a marketing campaign by the airline called 'Meet the Team' - featuring real-life flight attendants, pilots and other staff - has turned the lives of some ordinary employees upside down.

For more than a year now, Cathay Pacific has been running adverts in Hong Kong and dozens of countries featuring pictures and profiles of its staff in uniforms alongside images of them in their out-of-work clothes, talking about their lives, loves and interests.

The campaign has offered an intriguing insight into the human side of a group of people many of us can only imagine existing in the cockpits, aisles and galleys and has unexpectedly become one of the most successful and talked-about marketing drives in the airline's history.

More than 1.3 million people have visited Cathay's Meet the Team website since March, when the second phase of the campaign was launched - and staff who posed for pictures, receiving only a set of framed prints as payment, have found themselves transformed into unlikely celebrities.

'I was actually overwhelmed when I began seeing my picture everywhere,' said 27-year-old flight attendant Alice Wong. 'It felt weird to see myself. I would be on the bus and I'd see a billboard and I would think 'Oh, that's me'.

'At first my friends were so excited and happy. I think they were proud of me. They took pictures of the billboards and tagged me on Facebook. Then after a while they started saying: 'I'm so sick of you. I don't want to see you any more'.'

Perhaps the most recognisable face of the campaign is Nancy Hui, a 30-year-old flight attendant who has featured in previous Cathay Pacific advertising campaigns but who has been almost omnipresent in the current campaign.

Even Hui has been taken aback by the scale of the promotion and the response to it.

'All of a sudden I saw myself everywhere and I realised 'Oh my God this is huge',' she said. 'It wasn't just on TV. It was at the bus stop and on the train - it was everywhere. I was astonished and very shocked at the beginning.

'My friends were saying 'Wow Nancy, you are here, you are there, I saw you in Paris, I saw you in a magazine. It was overwhelming.'

At times, she admitted, the attention could be a little unsettling. 'I was sitting by myself on the Airport Express after work one day and all of a sudden there was a Chinese man standing there staring at me,' she said.

'I thought I might have a problem with a passenger on my previous flight because he kept staring at me. I thought he was going to yell at me for something I had done wrong. All of a sudden he sat next to me and said 'Aren't you the one who was on the advertisement?'

'He said 'Why are you involved in that? Why did you volunteer to do the job? Many people in Hong Kong will see you and look at you and know your face.' I guess traditional Chinese people think we should be more low profile and more subtle.

'I told him I work as a member of the cabin crew and I am used to dealing with 300 passengers on a plane. What is the difference if I am on a poster that thousands of people see? I'm happy to be doing it.'

It isn't the only time that the use of flight attendants in the campaign has brushed up against Hong Kong's conservative attitudes. Alice recalled the reaction of an airport shuttle bus driver who saw her face on a poster and remarked: 'I feel so bad for your boyfriend. He must be very worried thinking everyone is looking at you.'

Doris Wong says her mother used to be disapproving of her earlier work as a model before she joined Cathay Pacific. 'When she saw my pictures in the campaign, she didn't say anything because she is quite traditional Chinese but I could feel she was really proud of me,' she said.

The runaway success of the campaign could hold hidden dangers, of course, if passenger expectations are raised to the degree where they might find the actual flying experience a let-down. After all, not every flight attendant has the charm and allure of Nancy, Alice or Doris.

However, Dr Henry Fock, an assistant professor in the department of marketing at Hong Kong Baptist University, believes the campaign has succeeded because it created a human connection without raising passenger expectations to an unrealistic level.

'Of course, if you give people unrealistic expectations through your marketing, it is very dangerous,' he said. 'But in the Cathay campaign, the stories are all from practical life experience. They are all real.

'What is refreshing is that they do not only feature cabin crew with nice figures and sexy clothes. They also feature cabin crew who are not exactly old but middle-aged in the campaign. Some of the people - the pilots - are even old men. So I don't believe they are overselling themselves.

'If you look at the TV commercials of other service companies like McDonald's, you always see cashiers and frontline service people who are young, bright and cheerful. And yet when you walk into aMcDonald's outlet the person who serves you will probably be an elderly woman who doesn't smile. It is quite a disappointing experience if you believe the adverts are true.

'But what I think Cathay has presented is real employees and a real experience. They are not trying to give you a false impression that all the cabin crew are Miss Universe or Miss World. They are just ordinary people.'

Fock said the campaign was also a useful 'internal marketing' strategy - it was having a positive effect on staff as well as customers. 'This is something Cathay Pacific has seemed to try to emphasise in its marketing recent years,' he said.

'If you observe what Cathay has done in the past five to seven years they are saying that all their employees must serve with the heart. That is how they differentiate their service from other airlines.

'They treat the employee as a customer and persuade them to serve better, and to do that they need role models. This campaign gives them those role models. Employees will see these other wonderful people sharing their experiences.

'They will take them as a reference and internalise it and try to give service in the same way as the people featured in the campaign.'

Gerald Gorn, chair professor of marketing at the University of Hong Kong's school of business, agreed, saying the campaign was part of a trend by multinational companies to try to personalise their services by using employees in marketing campaigns.

'It is a great strategy primarily because it personalises the company for the people who deliver the service - the employees. They come to feel closer to the company and then the customers come to feel closer to the employees and the brand.

'Pictures of people make an audience feel like they know the subjects and the company. More and more research is coming out showing the importance of feelings - feelings of warmth, trust and assurance - in inducing purchases and in bringing sellers and buyers together.

'What can do that better than pictures of real people, including pictures of them dressed not just in company uniforms but in normal clothes as well? It humanises them both to the customer and to fellow employees.'

For flight attendants like Hui, however, the lasting impression of the Cathay Pacific campaign is not the effect it has had on the airline's image or its bottom line but rather the memorable encounters with customers it has provoked.

'I met one passenger at a Rugby Sevens event and he said 'I know you from the campaign',' she said. 'He knew everything. He said 'You studied translation and then you worked in Hong Kong in different industries'.

'It was amazing to me that he knew so much about me. He was just a stranger to me and I was just a stranger to him. I was really quite moved after hearing what he said.'