Editor’s Note: Following our previous CEO interview series in online travelhospitality, and destinations, Skift has launched a new series, this time focused on Chief Marketing Officers.

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To better understand the big marketing challenges facing travel brands in an age when consumers are in control, Skift’s What Keeps CMOs Up at Night will talk with the leading voices in global marketing from across all the industry’s sectors.

These interviews with leaders of hotels, airlines, tourism boards, digital players, agents, tour operators and more will explore both shared and unique challenges they are facing, where they get insights, and how they best leverage digital insights to make smarter decisions.

This is the latest interview in the series.

Etihad Airways has focused its brand on the concept of flying “Reimagined,” which has been the campaign slogan for its revolutionary cabin interiors products, and it is the platform on which the airline focuses its service and competitive strategy.

The Abu Dhabi-based airline has effectively turned newness to its advantage, building up a powerful organization and network through careful market positioning and an insistence on doing things others have not dared to try before.

We spoke with the airline’s CMO Shane O’Hare about the challenges and advantages of developing a strong global brand for a relatively new airline, and about the importance of embracing the digital age.

Skift: You’ve built a strong brand at Etihad, but what are the areas you’ve identified for improvement—what accomplishments are you most proud of and what strategic evolutions are you planning going forward?

O’Hare: Etihad is 12 years old and its the fastest growing airline in the history of aviation. It’s done what most competitors would normally take 20-30 years to achieve.

Call it new and fresh — experimental. We have taken the mantra to build the brand around airline product and service. On the hard side, you have the A380 and 787 aircraft launched at the end of 2014. We believe in positioning the airline very smartly through these product groups, and innovations like the new First class offering, even all the way through to the new Economy class. It’s stylish, but beyond the seats the entire environmental experience is quite extraordinary. More importantly, we’re building out a hospitality service/DNA. What we have now can provide us with competitive advantage for the next four to five years, I think. But we’re already thinking of the next phase.

Skift: On today’s digital platforms, what works best for Etihad? How appropriate are digital platforms and social media to your brand?

O’Hare: Digital is very much a growing area in the media space. The digital platforms are very robust, and a robust social media presence is very important. It also enables us to build live targeting and track it and measure it with traditional media. What we’re focused on now at Etihad, like a lot of competitors, is around the digital guest experience.

We just launched a program where we’re starting to build platforms across the entire airline. Following the guest journey at every touch point: from pre-flight to the airport, tying in the frequent flyer program in the airport, being able to communicate with our customers inside the airport environment, addressing delays, providing way-finding, automating lounge access, baggage drop, and into the aircraft itself. With technology our crews can identify the guest through the airline interface, and provide them specialized services.

Also being able to provide, and generate more revenue from, ancillary services throughout the guest journey. We’re working with Cognizant on the technology side, and Razorfish on the creative side to build this platform.

This is one of the more exciting programs that Eithad has. One of the great opportunities for Etihad will be the opening of the new mid-field terminal here in Abu Dhabi, which will open towards the end of 2017. That will be the biggest single airline terminal in the world, when it opens, with a capacity of 30 million guests and an exclusive Etihad environment. It will be a key launch platform for the digital innovation program. It’s going to be very state-of-the-art terminal building, like nothing has ever been before.

We’re very excited about branching out the brand giving customers both a digital product and a guest experience. We’re also bringing in the digital guest innovations program that can complement the product offering.

The first benefit that we have is very few legacy systems. We don’t have layers and layers of cobwebs at our airline. We’re able to be very progressive and very innovative on a lot of these programs.

Also, all of our aircraft have Wi-Fi, which enables us to provide superior products and services to our guests and to use these platforms to interact seamlessly with our guests across the fleet.

Skift: You developed a VIP Twitter account and, at the time, there were questions over whether that really made sense, whether VIP customers wanted their questions answered expressly through a log-in Twitter account. How did it work for you?

O’Hare: It works around the whole digital platform, for the Twitter premium Gold and Platinum guest. The idea was to ensure they had a channel for service and inspiration online. It worked very well because we are able to ensure that our priority passengers feel prioritised. It made them feel more part of the brand. It’s a very active channel.

It’s very much a developmental process, but we’re very happy with the result.

Skift: How effective is Facebook for you? Are there other platforms you’re looking at which are hot for your core customers and what are your plans to implement those?

O’Hare: Facebook is is still valuable, both in terms in sharing content organically and as a core advertising platform with other platforms. It has good targeting capabilities. It’s very creative.

It’s part of Etihad’s always-on strategy. Facebook enables us to put relevant content in front of the right people at the right time. Of course we have other platforms: YouTube Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest. In China, we’re using local platforms available like Sina Weibo, WeChat.

We use all of these in different ways for different services. We have a very sophisticated social media group in house which has grown to 35 staff 24/7 who work with this media. We’re very progressive and very innovative. On the business side, it’s highly advantageous.

Skift: Let’s talk advertising strategy. You’ve had the brand ambassador commercial with Nicole Kidman, but the campaign has not itself been reimagined much since. Is that because you’re finding earned media works far better to spread your message, or are you working on alternative ads?

O’Hare: We love Nicole and we think Nicole loves us. We are continuing the relationship with Nicole Kidman. The brand campaign we launched last year has been our most successful brand campaign ever.

The positioning of Nicole with ‘the Residence’ was exactly what the guest experience is onboard the aircraft. We’re very product of the campaign. It shot up brand awareness, and it showed Etihad’s positioning as innovative — with the A380 — and as best airline in the world with leading edge product. We’re taking it to the next stage now.

During the year we will launch a new campaign. We can’t say what it is, but we can say we’ll be using innovative media to launch the campaign. The last campaign was mainly traditional media. We felt it was important, as a younger brand, to target a wider audience. This year will be more digital platform, and we’re going to take that quite a long way forward.

This series is presented by Boxever. The Skift content team maintains complete editorial control over these interviews and the selection of subjects.

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