Qatar Airways’ Salam Al Shawa: ‘Why we do not need Hollywood stars’

Salam

“I would have picked George Clooney. Daniel Craig too. The others went with females, I would have gone with a male, but that would have been just copying.”

Qatar Airways’ Salam Al Shawa is of course talking about those ads. You know, the ones with the famous actresses, swanning through the business classes of the Middle East region’s two biggest carriers. Whether you liked them or not, they were memorable enough to mention without neither needing to be named. Such is the power of Hollywood glamour.

Having been flown out by Qatar Airways to its Doha headquarters, the obvious question for Al Shawa, the senior vice president for marketing and corporate communications, was naturally why the carrier did not go down the same path, especially given the success of their rivals’ campaigns?

“I thought [the ads] were very nice,” she says. “Nicole Kidman was really nice for Etihad and Emirates did a good jobs with Jennifer Aniston as well by answering the US complaints and showcasing the products as well. We see our competition all the time, but we have a different strategy. We don’t like to copy anyone else. You have to be different, you have to have your own style. One of the concepts the agency [J. Walter Thompson London] presented us was George Clooney, X and Y, and that’s why I rejected them. Basically we didn’t want to copy Emirates or Etihad. We wanted it to be very down to earth and about the passengers – a normal person like me or you.”

From this strategy emerged the airways’ latest campaign ‘Going places together’, featuring apparently us everyday folk journeying from New York to China, with a couple of carefully-chosen stop-offs. One unsurprisingly is Doha. The other is Barcelona, or specifically, the FC Barcelona stadium where Qatar Airways has literally ‘taken over’, much to the apparent chagrin of its players. “The club are very upset with us because we’ve taken over – it’s all Qatar Airways,” Al Shawa laughs. “We insist on using their players for public relations functions with our top VIP clients. And our celebrities are Messi and Neymar, who we use [in the television commercial and new safety video].”

Messi and Neymar are indeed mega-stars with millions of followers from across the world, but not everybody is a football fan. Perhaps given that, it is not surprising JWT was so insistent on featuring somebody as universally well known as George Clooney. However, disputes over celebrities were only part of the client-agency tug-of-war in this instance, with Qatar Airways’ dissatisfaction with the initial commercial leading them to approach 180 Amsterdam to execute the final nugget. “We’ve done amazing videos in the past and for me the video is a very powerful, emotional tool,” Al Shawa says. “You either get it, you get the goosebumps, or you don’t get it, and [JWT] kept presenting concepts in which I loved the tagline but I was not convinced with the TVC, so I went to another agency. Sometimes life is difficult and doesn’t give everything on a gold plate. I would have loved JWT to have presented the right concept, but they presented so many things that were not right for the brand.

QatarAirways

She adds: “We are perfectionists; I don’t accept anything else. It has to exceed expectations so unfortunately we made our life a bit difficult by having to deal with a couple of agencies, but that’s what it is.”

Al Shawa’s perfectionism was present throughout the entire process, with her personally choosing the destinations depicted in the commercial and changing a model’s dress over fears it was a little on the short side. Given this is only one tiny part of commanding her ‘army’, it is hardly surprising Al Shawa only sleeps six hours a night.

But during discussion of the finished product her face immediately lights up; it is clear all the back-and-forth hassle, the re-shoots and sleep deprivation have ultimately paid off. “I love it,” she says. “We fell in love with ‘going places together’. And now the brand campaign has got two million views on YouTube, the safety video has got 12 million views, so the results speak for themselves. I did not imagine it would pass 10 million in less than two weeks.”

Unlike the creative side and the media planning and buying – which is overseen by a number of agencies – Qatar Airways’ social media strategy is all carried out by an in-house team of 10 – a factor which Al Shawa describes as the ‘secret’ of the brand’s online success.

“Every day they get the heat from us,” she says. “We incorporate all our PR activities and all our advertising into social media, so they are embedded and everyone contributes. It’s a PR machine; we are like an army. So we work 18 hours a day and that’s how we make it all work.”

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