WestJet Christmas Miracle stunt ad won’t make people buy their flights: profs

Above: Some weary travellers got an early Christmas surprise this year thanks to the enterprising work of one of Canada’s airlines. Francis Silvaggio explains how the marketing stunt is warming hearts.

TORONTO – ‘Twas the month of December, when all through Facebook, the WestJet Christmas Miracle ad was making people look…

A new ad by WestJet airlines features a virtual Santa taking gift requests from kids and parents equally intrigued that Santa knows their names at Toronto’s Pearson and Hamilton’s John C. Munro international airports.

At the end—the big reveal that Calgary-based airline WestJet partnered with retailers to deliver the gifts to teary-eyed families—turning the often-cursed baggage dispenser into a conveyor belt of Christmas cheer.

Watch the full ad below: WestJet Christmas Miracle climbed to more than one million views in less than 48 hours

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It’s “gone viral” with impressive speed and has earned overwhelmingly positive reactions, according to Queen’s School of Business assistant professor Tandy Thomas.

“What the video has done is it creates this emotional experience with the viewer, which helps create an emotional bond with WestJet, which is one of the strongest ways to help build up a strong brand,” said Thomas.

But is it enough to make consumers switch to WestJet?

Thomas doesn’t think so; nor does her colleague, John-Kurt Pliniussen, associate professor of marketing and innovation.

“Typically we shop, when we travel, on price – as opposed to brand,” said Pliniussen. “What they’re trying to do is say, ‘Look, if you travel, also consider the brand. Go to the WestJet site.’”

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Pliniussen notes that one goal of marketing is to embed the brand into the lives of consumers; he mentions the Coca Cola polar bears as a holiday example.

“You see [the bears], and you smile. And as soon as you smile, then marketing has done its job,” he explained.

“So the purpose of the ad may not be to sell more tickets, it might be just to say, ‘You know what—WestJet, we’re a feel-good company.’”

Both marketing professors think choosing between airlines is a pricing game, with loyalty programs also playing a part. It takes only minutes to check airfares on different websites to get the best price, and this five-minute video likely won’t factor into your decision, they suggest.

The ad is an example of a recent trend, sometimes called viral, stunt or guerrilla marketing, whereby companies use an under-the-radar-gimmick that surprises people, causing them to “share” the ad on social networks.

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Another example is the Cineplex ads that show surprised customers being given free movie tickets just as they take out their wallet to pay at theatre counters.

“Traditional television commercials just aren’t getting the same level of viewership as they were before, so companies are trying to come up with other ways to bypass that traditional system,” said Thomas, noting people use Netflix or their DVR to skip through commercials.

Pliniussen added that “everybody’s trying to figure out social media” and how chatter, “likes,” or mentions—which are easily tracked and measured—translates into sales, if at all.

“Some marketers will say [viral marketing] is a waste of money because there’s no evidence that if you’re trying to do that and also move sales that there’s a direct correlation,” though you also can’t disprove the correlation, he said.
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For cynics who call such marketing tactics a mere publicity stunt, Thomas suggests researching a company’s actions: if their “stunt” is an actual representation of corporate values and how they treat customers and employees, the ad will become a reflection of that.

If the company had a terrible reputation and internal culture, she suggests consumers will label the stunt inauthentic, and no one would purchase the product.

So while it’s unlikely ads like WestJet’s Christmas Miracle will translate directly into increased sales, there could be a trickle-down effect from building up a strong brand image that will make it worth their while, said Thomas.

“There might be cynics, there might be people who say it’s a publicity stunt, but…very rarely is it a bad thing for a company to do nice things for people.”

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