How well did the top airline brands build relationships with consumers and awareness of their message?

Did these icons support their iconography? Or were logos, liveries, cabins, and services, no more than fly-by costume changes?

Brand Finance released its report of the Top 30 airline brands for 2015 in February of this year, as a sub-set of its report on the most powerful brands in the world. While the market numbers behind these rankings are sound, we wanted to see how well these elite airlines improved their connections with consumers over the year.

Valuations vs. Values

Brand value can be measured in corporate assets and market share, as Brand Finance has done. Image can be moulded and improved through product upgrades and ad campaigns. But the brand’s promise–its ethos–is better measured by its positive relationships with consumers.

Some of the most cherished airline brands in history ultimately lost their battles against negative market pressures. But their legacies endure. They built strong positive associations in the minds of consumers which, if anything, have intensified over the years and become icons of the legend that is the Golden Age of aviation.

There is currency in brand that does not find its way neatly into the balance sheets. We wanted to pin it down.

The Airline Brand Skift Rating 

We reviewed Brand Finance’s 2015 Top 30 airline brands, and measured these airlines’ performance on social and traditional media, to gauge their relationship building and the resonance of their message.

By combining Brand Finance’s own rankings with each airline’s rank based on followers on Twitter, likes on Facebook, followers on Instagram, subscribers YouTube, and Klout score, we came up with a net Skift rating.

The Skift rating reveals which airline ranked higher than another, and by how much. This  reveals the close competition for brand fans in the sector.

How they Fared

In our results, we included details from Brand Finances’ valuation (including the percentage of improvement or devaluation from 2014) and their Brand Rating.

By comparing these figures to the airline’s performance Tier and Skift rating (embedded below), it’s clear that some airlines are punching well above their market weight, using the power of digital campaigns and their social channels to raise global brand awareness.

We found that, by Skift rating, a number of airlines changed positions, when compared to Brand Finance’s rankings.

Many airlines were tied, reducing Brand Finance’s list of 30 to 17 Skift performance Tiers, grouped by Skift rating.

Top-Tier Airlines

Two airline brands stood out among their peers for 2015, both making it to Tier 1 rankings: Emirates and Turkish Airlines.

Emirates was first place in Brand Finance’s rankings in 2014 and 2015. However, Turkish Airlines, by Brand Finance’s rankings, was in the 14th spot. Its shift up demonstrates how dramatically creative social campaigns can grow an airline’s brand fan base.

EMIRATES

Brand Finance reports that Emirates improved its 2014 brand value by 21% to US$6.6 billion in 2015.

The airline has had plenty of press coverage this year, not all of it good. Bad press is predominately related to the ongoing Open Skies battle between the Big 3 Gulf and Big 3 U.S airlines.

But Emirates has managed to stay one step ahead of the politics, fought back on questions raised about its finances and competitor’s accusations of unfair subsidies, and has risen above the more scatological and incendiary rhetoric employed in the dispute.

The airline’s CEO, Sir Tim Clark, has come across as a strong leader.

On the campaign side, Emirates continued its strong sports franchise support, and supported the decision of Paris Saint Germain to replace the Emirates logo team jerseys with the message ‘Je Suis Paris’ following the Paris attacks.

Emirates also launched a travel lifestyle campaign through its #BeThere campaign. Its ‘Globalista’ ambassadors each represent a particular travel interest: sports, adventure, food, culture, music, and fashion.

The airline also booked Jennifer Aniston as its new celebrity brand ambassador this year, but the ‘onboard nightmare’ (No shower!) debut video, earned some backlash in the U.S. where the ad (and Aniston) came across as elitist.

Emirates rocketed the internet to a frenzy with its #HelloJetman stunt during the Dubai Airshow this year. Since November, this video has already had over 18 million views.

There have been rumors that Emirates would debut a new cabin image for a while now, but nothing has materialized. While Emirates’ onboard product is very good, it is getting a bit dated. However, the airline upgraded its in-flight entertainment (IFE) late this year. Emirates expanded the content offered on its ICE entertainment platform, and introduced the largest screens in class to its Economy cabin and First Class cabins. (Screens in Business Class, the airline said, are already among the largest in the market.)

On Social Media, Emirates has performed well. The airline has 608,000 followers on Twitter; 5,232,700 Facebook Likes; 903,000 Followers on Instagram; and over 79,200 Subscribers on YouTube.

TURKISH AIRLINES

Brand Finance valued Turkish Airlines’ at USD$M 1,922 for 2015, which was a 15% improvement over 2014. Despite being about one-third the size of Emirates, the airline has excelled at alternative campaigns and made the most of its strengths which earned it a place in the top Tier.

In a one-on-one interview with our Dan Peltier this year, Turkish Airlines’ CEO, Temel Kotil, described competition with Gulf carriers as a close race, despite its relative size.

“We are growing 17% a year for the last 10 years and this is much more than the Gulf carriers. They may be bigger than us today, but tomorrow, who knows. We’re growing much faster than them,” he said.

The airline has had a number of YouTube ads go viral over the past three years. With over 8.9 million views, at the time of this report, Turkish Airlines’ most popular video of 2015, ‘Turkish Airlines Fly Africa!’, lags behind its ‘Kobe vs. Messi: The Selfie Shootout’ viral hit of 2013 (143 million views).

But it was still popular enough to earn the Turkish Airlines the 5th spot on YouTube’s Most Viewed Travel Videos of 2015. Its ‘How Do You Make a Didier?’ video had over 6.2 Million views. A destination-marketing video: ‘Istanbul: Flow Through the City of Tales’ has already earned over 5.5 Million views since its premiere in November.

Turkish Airlines also proved it is willing to experiment with new platforms. This year, it became the first airline ever to live-broadcast a flight.

The airline has also launched an aspirational lifestyle campaign, #DelightfulStories, which aims to inspire people to travel and expand their horizons with stories of the journeys which some ordinary people have taken to fulfill their dreams.

On Social Media, Turkish Airlines has 1,099,000 followers on Twitter; over 7,483,770 Facebook Likes; 463,000 Followers on Instagram; and 105,690 Subscribers on YouTube—the most YouTube subscribers of any airline on our list by a wide margin.

Runner-Up

AMERICAN AIRLINES

As the world’s largest carrier, and having completed a relatively smooth merger transition with U.S. Airways, American Airlines, has earned its Tier 2 spot (missing our Tier 1 by only one Skift rating point).

Sound leadership from Doug Parker has made the most of the cost-benefits of low fuel and merger synergies. The airline has managed brand transition at a pace which allowed consumers to adjust and has kept customers informed of changes.

To help customers understand its new frequent flyer account features, for example, American posted an illustrated video guide on YouTube.

The airline could be performing better on digital media campaigns, when compared to our two leaders and even some airlines just below in the rankings.

But American has exceptional customer social media customer support on Twitter, and is highly engaged with followers on the platform. This responsiveness pays off. American has the highest airline Klout score (93).

Among the U.S. Big Three, American has defended its market, without descending to the lowest of Open Skies arguments.

The airline has also announced that it will be the first U.S. carrier to introduce a Premium Economy cabin. American created an on-line virtual tour of the new cabin class.

American Airlines has over 1,228,000 Twitter Follows, over 1,959,000 Facebook Fans, over 250,000 followers on Instagram, and over 35,000 subscribers on YouTube.

Honorable Mentions

AIR FRANCE/KLM

These two partners, independently and together, continue to perform well on social channels and have brought some novel campaigns to market this year.

KLM leads the pack on Twitter follows, at nearly 2 million, and comes in second only to the #1 airline, Qatar Airways, on Facebook (9.8 million vs 10.3 million).

KLM had a number of campaigns and improvements this year, including the launch of its new Dreamliner aircraft.

While the safety video genre continues to tip from the sublime to the ridiculous, KLM took a more subtle approach with a traditional safety video illustrated by more than one thousand hand-painted Delft blue tiles, focusing on the core safety message, while embellishing with a destination and national brand theme.

With just over 450,000 views of the short version ‘making-of’, this video is no where close to Delta’s top-spot grabbing MEME-a-palooza: ’The Internetest Safety Video on the Internet’; which had 9.3 million views.

But we suspect that very soon, if not already, the shark will have been jumped. Perhaps safety basics with a tasteful twist is the way forward for 2016.

By far one of the most elegant destination marketing and rebranding campaigns of this year (and many years prior) has been Air France’s ‘France is in the Air’ campaign.

As campaigns go, Air France is at the vanguard. ‘France is in the Air’ is the airline’s artistic representation of France’s culture, joie de vivre, and élan, which is consistently presented on both digital and traditional media.

Its surreal dreamscape video, with the much-too-catchy tune, earned Air France a staggering 87.9 million views. This put the airline at the #1 spot in travel on YouTube; far more views than the respectable 16.7 million views that the most powerful brand in the world, LEGO, received for its FUNel Vision ‘Legoland Hotel Grand Opening in Florida + Dragon Scare Cam!’

Air France also debuted a safety-focused safety video, which complemented the stylish aesthetic of ‘France is in the Air.’

Air France also launched its new cabin interiors, revealed in 2014, which reflect the timeless elegance of French couture.

The airline has suffered embarrassing labor issues and national tragedy, but it is powering through turbulence and dark clouds. We hope it finds clearer skies ahead.

SOUTHWEST

Tied with Air France/KLM in our third Tier is Southwest Airlines.

The once little-airline-that-could has matured to a powerful iconic brand. It continues to please both budget-savvy passengers and investors. The airline has established a solid brand ethos around its ‘LUV’ hub, and has stayed true to its beloved corporate values, even as it evolves with the times.

From the beginning, strong leadership has been Southwest’s secret of success. Its iconoclast charismatic leader Herb Kelleher created a nurturing team environment where every employee is empowered to drive change.

Gary Kelly has stayed true to Herb Kelleher’s original playbook. He has a clear vision of how Southwest should keep its customers happy, and ward-off competition.

But Southwest can always do better. It has recently settled with the FAA to pay $2.8 million in fines over work performed by contractors. The airline has maintained an excellent safety record, but marks against it by regulators can be damaging to an otherwise sparkling image.

Speaking of sparkling, Southwest’s clever, clear-as-crystal, Transfarency campaign connects with U.S. air travellers by acknowledging common complaints and calling-out competitors for their hate-selling (upselling) strategies.

The associated #FeesDontFly hashtag is getting good traction on Twitter. The airline also engages its audience well and holds a Klout score of 89.3, second only to American Airlines.

QATAR AND DELTA

With a Skift ranking of 92, Qatar Airways is soaring above its size, engaging consumers well enough to match the overall brand performance of its much larger U.S. Big 3 rival Delta Airlines.

EVERYBODY ELSE

The following chart shows the performance of all 30 airlines reviewed, revealing some surprises on airlines which on a rapid ascent and others which might want to adjust for headwinds.

Top BrandsAirlineRank
Tier 1Emirates
Brand ValuationUSD$M 6,6401
Change from 201421%
Brand RatingAAA1
Klout 7915
Twitter Follows60810
Facebook Fans5,232,7013
Instagram9031
YouTube79.2272
Skift Rating95
Tier 1Turkish Airlines
Brand ValuationUSD$M 2,21914
Change from 201415%
Brand RatingAA14
Klout 866
Twitter Follows1,099,0005
Facebook Fans7,483,7732
Instagram4633
YouTube105.691
Skift Rating95
Tier 2American Airlines
Brand ValuationUSD$M 3,6495
Change from 201439%
Brand RatingAA5
Klout 931
Twitter Follows1,228,1655
Facebook Fans1,959,3399
Instagram2517
YouTube35.038
Skift Rating94
Tier 3Air France
Brand ValuationUSD$M 2,59712
Change from 20142%
Brand RatingAA12
Klout 874
Twitter Follows7458
Facebook Fans5,404,1312
Instagram2219
YouTube38.3617
Skift Rating93
Tier 3KLM
Brand ValuationUSD$M 1,39420
Change from 20143%
Brand RatingAA20
Klout 84.69
Twitter Follows1,994,7511
Facebook Fans9,881,4142
Instagram2576
YouTube64.9613
Skift Rating93
Tier 3Southwest Airlines
Brand ValuationUSD$M 3,4666
Change from 201452%
Brand RatingAAA-7
Klout 89.32
Twitter Follows1,931,1963
Facebook Fans4,480,0303
Instagram16913
YouTube16.88616
Skift Rating93
Tier 4Delta
Brand ValuationUSD$M 6,3362
Change from 201434%
Brand RatingAAA-2
Klout 82.113
Twitter Follows1,074,5726
Facebook Fans1,507,60612
Instagram20510
YouTube46.4475
Skift Rating92
Tier 4Qatar Airways
Brand ValuationUSD$M 2,77411
Change from 201454%
Brand RatingAA+11
Klout 8213
Twitter Follows67610
Facebook Fans10,382,1141
Instagram6342
YouTube24.5412
Skift Rating92
Tier 5British Airways
Brand ValuationUSD$M 3,6457
Change from 201441%
Brand RatingAA+6
Klout 48.631
Twitter Follows792,00012
Facebook Fans2,137,7767
Instagram2624
YouTube55.1044
Skift Rating89
Tier 5Lufthansa
Brand ValuationUSD$M 4,0994
Change from 2014-2%
Brand RatingAA+4
Klout 78.516
Twitter Follows38817
Facebook Fans1,914,56111
Instagram2478
YouTube24.23513
Skift Rating89
Tier 6Etihad Airways
Brand ValuationUSD$M 1,43919
Change from 201441%
Brand RatingAA19
Klout 7222
Twitter Follows37813
Facebook Fans1,747,25111
Instagram3094
YouTube27.5879
Skift Rating87
Tier 6Cathay Pacific
Brand ValuationUSD$M 2,35813
Change from 201412%
Brand RatingAA+13
Klout 85.57
Twitter Follows274.82416
Facebook Fans1,188,36214
Instagram13517
YouTube27.57310
Skift Rating87
Tier 6Singapore Airlines
Brand ValuationUSD$M 2,9369
Change from 2014-10%
Brand RatingAAA9
Klout 7123
Twitter Follows349.33414
Facebook Fans2,126,7767
Instagram18111
YouTube17.45415
Skift Rating87
Tier 7TAM
Brand ValuationUSD$M 81430
Change from 2014-36%
Brand RatingAA+30
Klout 75.721
Twitter Follows956,8147
Facebook Fans3,151,5005
Instagram14216
YouTube41.5036
Skift Rating86
Tier 8JetBlue
Brand ValuationUSD$M 88629
Change from 20140
Brand RatingAAA-29
Klout 81.914
Twitter Follows1,976,2622
Facebook Fans1,085,63416
Instagram10918
YouTube11.34519
Skift Rating84
Tier 8United Airlines
Brand ValuationUSD$M 4,8613
Change from 201427%
Brand RatingAA+3
Klout 58.229
Twitter Follows150.6319
Facebook Fans846.30718
Instagram17013
YouTube13.52817
Skift Rating84
Tier 9Qantas
Brand ValuationUSD$M 1,33121
Change from 20142%
Brand RatingAA+21
Klout 8115
Twitter Follows64.3727
Facebook Fans769.71520
Instagram17612
YouTube26.23211
Skift Rating82
Tier 10EasyJet
Brand ValuationUSD$M 1,28122
Change from 20148%
Brand RatingAA+22
Klout 86.44
Twitter Follows340.62615
Facebook Fans409.70328
Instagram37.921
YouTube3.63626
Skift Rating81
Tier 10Alaska Airlines
Brand ValuationUSD$M 1,11923
Change from 20140
Brand RatingAA23
Klout 86.25
Twitter Follows166.37518
Facebook Fans625.66824
Instagram49.820
YouTube3.35427
Skift Rating81
Tier 11Virgin Atlantic
Brand ValuationUSD$M 95127
Change from 20140
Brand RatingAA+28
Klout 86.06
Twitter Follows448.11511
Facebook Fans449.43726
Instagram1.32430
YouTube10.97920
Skift Rating80
Tier 11Iberia
Brand ValuationUSD$M 95127
Change from 2014-23%
Brand RatingAA27
Klout 7521
Twitter Follows449.411
Facebook Fans1,406,08012
Instagram29.625
YouTube9.16124
Skift Rating80
Tier 12Japan Airlines
Brand ValuationUSD$M 1,71817
Change from 2014-29%
Brand RatingAA+17
Klout n/a31
Twitter Follows24025
Facebook Fans1,271,79313
Instagram34.722
YouTube12.56618
Skift Rating79
Tier 13Thai Airways
Brand ValuationUSD$M 99326
Change from 2014-19%
Brand RatingAA-26
Klout 5730
Twitter Follows62.828
Facebook Fans1,220,34613
Instagram15115
YouTube10.96122
Skift Rating78
Tier 13ANA All Nippon Airways
Brand ValuationUSD$M 2,20315
Change from 2014-3%
Brand RatingAA15
Klout n/a31
Twitter Follows25.229
Facebook Fans796.52419
Instagram23.827
YouTube22.92214
Skift Rating78
Tier 14Ryanair
Brand ValuationUSD$M 1,08324
Change from 20140
Brand RatingAA+24
Klout 7422
Twitter Follows19817
Facebook Fans559.82325
Instagram33.123
YouTube7.44125
Skift Rating77
Tier 15China Southern Airlines
Brand ValuationUSD$M 1,99316
Change from 2014-29%
Brand RatingAA+16
Klout 86.06
Twitter Follows331
Facebook Fans2631
Instagram828
YouTube12531
Skift Rating76
Tier 15Korean Air
Brand ValuationUSD$M 1,51318
Change from 2014-11%
Brand RatingAA18
Klout 63.326
Twitter Follows86.37926
Facebook Fans298.82130
Instagram27.726
YouTube1021
Skift Rating76
Tier 16Aeroflot
Brand ValuationUSD$M 1,00325
Change from 2014-35%
Brand RatingAA25
Klout 6326
Twitter Follows10325
Facebook Fans29.96831
Instagram10619
YouTube9.46323
Skift Rating75
Tier 17Air China
Brand ValuationUSD$M 2,9538
Change from 201411%
Brand RatingAA8
Klout 5431
Twitter Follows7.41231
Facebook Fans254.54731
Instagram1.72229
YouTube298 (Inactive)31
Skift Rating73
Tier 17China Eastern Airlines
Brand ValuationUSD$M 2,91410
Change from 20140%
Brand RatingAA10
Klout n/a31
Twitter Follows2.02531
Facebook Fans106.49731
Instagram34031
YouTube7931
Skift Rating73