What Inflight Magazines Can Teach Us About Marketing

January 31, 2018

Inflight Magazine

Author's Note: In the last quarter of 2017, I took 20 flights and flew more than 24,700 miles. Most trips were short hops up and down the California coast. Others were long, grueling hauls. Like, sit and write a blog post long. What you’re about to read is a product of the latter.

I’m a sucker for possibilities. A slave to “what ifs,” if you will.

That’s why I love airports so much. Just standing at a departures board allows a peek into the prospects of modern life: jet setting to Dubai for a holiday; boarding a double decker plane bound for a business meeting in Shanghai; or perhaps flying home to see family and friends in Atlanta.

Simply put, when we’re equipped with a boarding pass, our possibilities are endless. Or at least that's what the airlines want us to believe.

Making flying great again

With all of its shortcomings (and there are many), the airline industry are masters of messaging. Aviation marketers make the idea of being trapped in a pressurized metal tube no more than a pinky’s length away from a total stranger not only seem tolerable, but appealing.

What a herculean task.

So how do they do it? How do they lead us to believe that braving the recycled cabin air, the tubular shaped ice served in plastic cups and the screaming baby in 16F will all be worth it once we reach our destination?                                                   

They employ a tactic I’m beginning to call “possibility marketing.” Here’s how it works.

As marketers, unlocking possibility is what we do best. It’s our job to take even the most intangible, obscure topics and turn them into something that our customers can see themselves doing. Or succeeding with. Or loving.

And it’s something that airlines do beautifully.

One of the simplest ways the airline industry opens the minds of its customers is through inflight magazines. A seatback staple since the 1960s (and a welcome companion when the inflight Wi-Fi is on the fritz), these publications are filled with beautiful photography, lively editorial content and diverse perspectives into a world once inaccessible to the common man. And each is a big, juicy piece of content marketing.

By offering a glimpse into what could be, the inflight magazine likely helps sell as many tickets as a travel agency.

Plus the issues, no matter the era, airline or language, follow what should be a cardinal rule of branding:

Focus on the destination, not how you’re getting there

Picture this: An airline adds a destination to its route network. Let’s say a Thai resort town like Phuket. Will that airline’s marketing team write a 1500-word piece on exactly what time its flight will leave? Or the classes of service offered? How about the ticket prices for the route in question?

Absolutely not.

Instead, the airline’s editorial team will share stories about everything but. They’ll interview chefs and hoteliers, adding sweeping panoramas of beaches, coral reefs and picture-perfect sunsets to the glossy pages of their inflight pub.

And after we’ve read an engaging piece about, say, Thailand’s full moon parties, we’ll surely come across its subtle, yet impactful, call to action:


“[Our airline] flies 3x weekly to Phuket. Tickets start at $465.”

Boom. Without hitting me over the head with a sales pitch, I know everything that I need to inform a purchase: What I could do in Phuket, how great my trip could be and how I could get there.

The beauty of this tactic is that only once did they mention the airline. But the piece still did its job. Because it fixated on the possibility of a great trip rather than the nuts and bolts enabling one, it’s likely that consumers received the message positively. Heck, many probably didn’t even know they were being marketed to. 

Helping your marketing soar

Although the lot of us probably don’t work for airlines, travel agents or tour providers, we can apply their practices to our own marketing efforts no matter the industry. Whether you’re tasked with marketing software, luxury goods, higher education or even farm equipment, enlightening your customers to the doors that a product or service can open for them is easy to do.

First, identify what defines “nirvana” for your customer. Is it a great conversion rate? More leads? A better quality of life?

Once you arrive at an answer, your team should charge full speed ahead to craft a content strategy that speaks to these aspirational goals. Finally, it’s up to you to illustrate, via blog posts, videos, social fodder, etc. how your offerings can help customers achieve them.

On the way, you’ll find that focusing on the destination allows other people, places and things to tell your story. It also forces us to avoid marketing’s Achilles heel: self-absorption. Nobody wants to sit next to the person at a party (or on a plane) who only talks about themselves.

So the next time you’re bored on a flight, read your inflight magazine from cover to cover. Soak up every word, image and route map. Or like me, you could learn to sing the lyrics of your preferred airline’s safety video. You could even become the high score to beat for in-seat Pac-Man. (I can proudly claim all three of these accolades).

Turns out, you might learn a lot more than you bargained for, about your job or otherwise, with some undisturbed hours in the sky. 

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