What Challenger Brands can steal from Travel

Neil McKenna

August is traditionally a downtime period for lots of companies as employees go on annual leave. With planes, trains and automobiles the flavour of the month, we decided to have a look at the latest news from the travel industry and explore the business side to see if there were any broader learnings or insights that could help marketing managers everywhere plan their next moves (after they get back from the beaches obviously.) Here is what we discovered... 

Boeing recently announced it had partnered with SparkCognition to use artificial intelligence and blockchain technologies to revolutionise the world of travel. (Their words.)

Nontraditional or Unusual Marketing Partnerships

"The world's number one aviation leader partnering with the world's most innovative industrial AI company means that unparalleled experience in safety, innovation, scale, and reliability will be brought to bear to address this monumental opportunity," said Amir Husain, founder and CEO of SparkCognition.

Steve Nordlund, VP of Boeing HorizonX, had this comment on the thinking behind the strategy -

“By taking a holistic approach that combines Boeing's strength in technological innovation with new business models and nontraditional partnerships, we are laying the foundation for the future commercial mobility ecosystem.”

‘Nontraditional partnerships’ were the two words that jumped out of Steve’s mouth that caught my interest and made me dig deeper. Strategic partnerships like this make perfect sense; AI tech joining forces with the world’s leading aircraft manufacturer. However being an advertiser, I was more curious to see if they had ever ventured into any nontraditional or unusual marketing partnerships.

Hello Kitty Planes

Sure enough I discovered that Boeing had indeed explored this road less travelled. In 2005, they were involved in an unlikely threesome when Taiwanese airline EVA Air unveiled its Hello Kitty-themed Boeing 777. 


The offspring plane is quite a sight to behold.

It’s an immersive experience right down to the Hello Kitty-branded cutlery, napkins and wipes. I’m not sure how I’d react if I checked in and discovered that was waiting for me on the runway. If the copy on the website booking engine describing the Boeing 777 'Joyful Dream' is anything to go by, I’d run for the hills -

“A plane carries the passengers' excitement for the trip ahead as well as the anticipation for returning home. Let the lovable members of Sanrio (Hello Kitty, Kiki Lala, Pompompurin and friends) accompany you during this part of your voyage, sailing across the vast blue sky towards your destination.”

Despite my own reservations (of flying in giant looking toys) the partnership has proven to be a great success. Passenger bookings are around 3 percent higher than regular EVA Air planes and inflight duty-free sales of exclusive Hello Kitty merchandise is worth over $3 million a year.

Shared Values in Partnerships

While the partnership might seem unusual on the surface, with each brand having wildly different customer bases, it worked because of their shared values in prioritising the customer experience. Partnerships appears to be a strategy Hello Kitty are particularly drawn to. Indeed the $7 billion valued brand - that started off as a purse design - appear hellbent on taking over the world, one product at a time.

(And in case you’re wondering, yes there is a Hello Kitty-themed maternity hospital in Taiwan.)

Room with a View

Getting back to the theme of travel, the KLM and AirBnB partnership proved you can find unique places to stay with your flight with this charming letting, the Airplane Apartment.


“Airbnb and KLM both connect people around the world and our product portfolios are complimentary: no long flight without accommodation. And since both companies share a passion in offering their customers an inspiring travel experience, it made perfect sense to join forces,” said Martijn van der Zee, SVP E-Commerce Air France KLM

While a flight and accommodation double act is a bit of a no-brainer, AirBnB’s partnership with the Art Institute of Chicago with the recreation of Van Gogh’s ‘Bedroom in Arles’ was more out of left field. It might be a bit trippy, but who wouldn’t want to step into that famous picture? Or rent it for that matter for just $10 a night in Chicago's River North neighbourhood? (Think of the selfies.)


Not all partnerships work out of course, and some never get off the ground. We loved Burger King’s olive branch to McDonalds, urging the rivals to call it quits on the burger wars, group hug and serve up the McWhopper. Alas, McDonalds poured cold carbonated water on that idea and it never took off.

What about nontraditional marketing or unusual co-brand partnerships or campaigns closer to home in Ireland?

Innovation through Collaboration

Unilever's partnership with Dogpatch labs (a knowledge share community for startups) in Dublin’s CHQ might not be travel related, but it’s a good example of an unexpected meeting of brand minds. The Unilever Foundry is a platform for startups and innovators to engage, collaborate and explore business ideas.

‘Innovation through collaboration,’ they call it.

“Technology is massively changing how consumers interact with brands,” said Nick Johnson, MD of Unilever, Ireland. “If we can leverage and harness this [technology] we can continue to delight our consumers and attract future ones faster and better than anybody else,” he added.

Wrapping up now

There is nothing new to brands partnering with complimentary brands to extend their reach and audience. It’s been done, and done well, down through the years and in every industry. However if it’s something that you are considering, it might be worth taking a step back and partnering with a less obvious choice.

When it comes to unusual partnerships, here are a few parting thoughts:

  • It takes a visionary to even see such the opportunity. Apparently Hello Kitty originally approached EVA Air just to sell their merchandise inflight. It was actually EVA Air Chairman, KW Chang, who saw the bigger picture, and pulled the trigger on the more immersive co-brand.
  • Think outside the box, the Boeing, the burger, the bedroom, the blockchain, or any number of cats. Think different and think big.
  • Brand partnerships can come from out of the blue but there should always be a mutual sense of belonging.
  • Shared values play a major part.
  • Always put the customer experience first.


For more tips on unconventional marketing partnerships, click the image below to download the ‘Brand Love’ tipsheet.

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