As a brand in one of the hardest COVID-hit sectors, Japan Airlines (JAL) has remained steadfast during this ongoing turbulence. Akira Mitsumasu, VP - Global Marketing of JAL, speaks to WARC’s Gabey Goh for the Marketer’s Toolkit 2022 about how the airline is focused on its mission of helping people fly again and telling stories of rising above challenges.

Toolkit 2022

This interview is part of WARC's Marketer's Toolkit 2022. Read more.

Key insights

  • JAL could not celebrate the Olympics as humankind's victory over a global pandemic, so it focused on two themes: communicating the message of hope and celebrating resilience.
  • The airline prefers to communicate rather than advertise its sustainability efforts, and its position is there is no dichotomy between travel or caring for the environment.
  • Improving customer experience and reducing hassle from the travel process will be key to getting more people to travel again.
How is the marketing team at JAL adjusting to this start/stop economy, rolling lockdowns and continuing restrictions on travel?

Well, it hasn't been easy at all. You can imagine with borders opening and closing, restrictions easing and tightening again. Even if you are wrestling with the latest of the latest, there is still so much uncertainty that it really requires courage to decide what to do. It is very tempting to put on this “trade on” mindset. Should I scale down my operation to conserve cash, or should I always be risk ready, but then risk suffering. So, we decided to go with an “and” strategy rather than an “or” strategy.

We did sensibly cut back on the number of flights to match the weak travel demands, but we've also retained all our flight crews so that we can restart any time. We did that by dispatching temporarily with route work for companies in various industries, and then recalling them back when preparation resumes. We also continue with all the necessary crew training and aircraft maintenance, and so far, we've been able to maintain a good balance, downsizing our daily operations but yet maintaining our scale of operation, but obviously it's still a constant challenge, and we are coping with the evolving situation best we can.

Akira Mitsumasu, CMO and VP Global Marketing, JAL

How does this “and” strategy translate to the marketing function in all your plans?

It does in various ways because we get stories, amazing stories of how our cabin crew, for example, now work in a totally different interest sector, and contributing to that company. But at the same time, the person is also gaining new knowledge that she could then use in her work. So, we have been interviewing and getting these stories, but it's a tricky balance to not overdo these stories because we realised that many companies had no choice but to furlough the staff or lay off some of them, so it's not something that we would like to say hey, we are doing it differently, but it's something I think it's worth sharing that it's one way of coping with the situation, while in a neutral way convey some of the lessons that we have learned as we go along.

How has COVID changed consumer perceptions and sensitivities around advertising and how has JAL adapted its communications tone and style to cater to the shift?

There are several noticeable changes. We are all spending more time on the digital space and so we may, at first glance, try to skip all the irrelevant ads that spam us. Partly because of the COVID-19 fatigue, we do create new things with fresh experiences, and hence salient messages do stand out to catch our attention, which I think is quite natural. We speak of the new normal and trying to seek or make sense of what we see as new, it could be a new “new” in the form of products or services, or things that we discover anew, things that we have come to take more notice, to be more conscious of such as our habitat, and our well-being, things we have previously taken for granted, such as travel.

Is there a particular campaign or piece of work which illustrates this that you're quite proud of?

Yes, obviously we do showcase a lot of our new products that we have, a new user interface, a lot of touchless contactless solutions, a lot of emphasis around healthy hygiene. We have branded our health safety programme called JAL FlySafe. It's information that people need when they plan their trips, but it's also more around the kind of sentiments we have been picking up from social listening, how people are making sense of the time they're spending now, how they crave these new things in this new normal, something that they can look forward to, like the light at the end of the tunnel.

We have been conveying a mixture of messages depending on the conversations we have been having, like yes, let's collectively create some positive social norms because these are the values that we all hold as a society, and sometimes it's things like re-imagining travel; let's start discovering some hidden gems in Japan, places that people have not travelled to before, but are actually worth paying a visit to because these were not previously popular tourist destinations but now, when you're trying to avoid crowds, these may be the perfect place for your next trip.

It's really a mixture of all these messages but the underlying concept is really to think of this new-ness that we all crave for as we live through this pandemic.

Could you talk us through how the brand activated its partnership with the Tokyo Olympics, and navigated all the ups and downs?

We planned many things, from advertising to showcasing and hospitality events but we had to change all that when the pandemic hit us. But still, in the early months of the pandemic, like many other brands and sponsors in Japan, we hoped that we could celebrate the games as humankind's victory over a global pandemic. But that was not going to happen, so we focused instead on two related themes. First, we've worked on lifting people's spirits by communicating the message of hope because it was really pretty gloomy. The Olympics is basically a great message that we can use to lift people's spirits, so we ran ads on telly and we had special themed delivery on our aircraft showcasing the Olympics.

Our second theme, as you may have guessed, was resilience. All the heroes in the health service and, of course, all athletes who have trained so hard for the games, and under very difficult circumstances, you can't go to your gym to train, you have to train at home, you can’t train as a team. This was also special to us because we had athletes competing for the games, such as Koki Kano, who won a gold in épée fencing.

What are the key metrics that you use to judge campaign effectiveness and has this changed in the last year or two?

The key metrics we use depend on the problems we are solving. So typically, they will be things like aided/unaided awareness, brand situation, conversion rates, ROS, market share, brand engagement, advocacy, brand equity and so forth. But because things have changed in the past year, with much less people traveling and for people who still do travel, there's now a greater emphasis on hygiene and safety.

We had to repurpose ourselves to meet those needs so naturally one key metric is customer satisfaction. We’ve launched our touchless kiosks and biometric contactless solutions, so with face recognition, our passengers can just walk through security and board without having to produce the passport or tickets.

One example would be planning for travel recovery across markets in different regions with different recovery trajectories, they are so different around world. Over the past year it has been less about sales campaigns and more on improving customer experience, and reducing hassle, which many people say is the main reason for not traveling. We want to remove that so that we can bring confidence back to travel. That's very much one of the key metrics we're using now because without that, however much marketing you do, people will not get back on the flights.

Does JAL currently use modelling like market mix modelling to evaluate your ROI across media channels or what systems or frameworks do you use to measure all this?

Modelling depends on the relationship between variables and, of course, the relationship has changed so much. A lot of models we've had built may not work in the way we want it to work. We've tried using and testing AI algorithms for predictive modelling, optimisation and automation in several areas, and this is still very much an ongoing process that we need to improve to have a good fit with our data.

We originally planned to do AI-driven market mix modelling but unfortunately, because of the sharp budget cut in May last year, we have not been able to proceed. But this is certainly something I will continue as soon as we get our budget back. I mentioned at the beginning that the relationship between the variables has shifted and continues to shift so we need to be very careful as to whether we get fresh data and monitor it three months from now.

What were the key areas from a sustainability standpoint that JAL was focusing on and how have you mapped out your progress in the last two years, given everything that's happened?

You're right that we have been focusing on sustainability for quite some time now, but I think the pandemic has alerted us ever more, not just the airline industry but globally, about the importance of saving our environment.

Aviation produced around 2% of all human-induced CO2 emissions in 2019 and even though the pandemic has halted economic activities and contributed to a 7-8% reduction in CO2 emissions, it has not stopped the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration measured ppm, parts per million, from increasing. So yes, we indeed have responsibility. In our recently published medium-term management plan for 2021-2025, we’ve added a third strategic pillar, in addition to our business strategy and climate strategy, that is our ESG strategy.

This plan includes a detailed roadmap to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 through several positions, such as replacing our fleet with more fuel-efficient aircraft and switching over to using more sustainable aviation fuel.

In addition, we also have checkpoints in our daily activities which we call green flights, very small steps like cleaning the aircraft body and engines to make it more fuel-efficient, to have less air resistance, closing all the shades inside the cabin when we park the aircraft and when we do pick up a landing, there are ways we can manoeuvre the aircraft so that it would burn less fuel.

For other sustainable mobility measures like reducing single-use plastic, reduce food waste and switching over to using materials that are more environmentally friendly, helping revitalisation of local economies, there are many, many other things we have put in place and we do have a concrete roadmap for each of these initiatives.

We have been planning these all along, but the pandemic has created globally a stronger commitment to make these things happen.

How is JAL communicating its sustainability efforts as a company without falling into that trap of greenwashing?

While it's not in our Japanese culture to boast about what we do, maybe we should. I wouldn't say advertise more but definitely communicate more. Sustainability has become a criterion and consumer choice, more importantly because there shouldn't be this dichotomy of either travel or care for the environment. Travel allows economic activity to flourish and people to foster mutual relationships and understanding, it's so much an important part of our lives that for travel to be enjoyed by all, it needs to be sustainable. So, we communicate our initiatives, both through disclosure at corporate level and plans that we have target KPIs for. We also post on our social media on our initiatives, about the small steps and bigger ones because I feel this important that we are conscious of our environmental footprint whilst we enjoy the many benefits that travel brings.

There are many things in the pipeline that we are currently considering so in addition for example to what we do as a company, we also try to encourage travellers to understand their environmental footprint, so one way would be to visually show for example, that amount of carbon emissions that you will produce when you take a trip from Singapore to New York. And maybe also offer an option for people to offset some of the carbon footprint so that we become more conscious. It's a bit like when you go to a restaurant and you see the level of calories on the menu, it helps change your mindset.

What are you anticipating in terms of the opportunities and challenges for next year?

Conserving cash is still a high priority so the challenge to me and my team is to do more with less. But I think this can be seen also as an opportunity to rethink and re-evaluate our priorities, and to discover new ways of doing things better. In fact, we have brought several activities in-house that previously have been outsourced to our agencies. It's a good opportunity for the team to learn the tricks of the trade, to have hands-on experience for how all these different things that we do or ask agencies to do actually come together.

Looking at the year ahead, what are going to be your priorities?

Much of that would depend on where and how the travel market is going to recover but one common key area of focus is what I mentioned earlier, about gaining confidence as travellers. So, we will continue to focus on communicating our enhanced health measures and providing updates on travel information.

For example, we are also working on applying the latest technologies, such as using verifiable credentials and decentralised identifiers on blockchain for creating digital health passes that travellers can use for crossing borders. This would eliminate a lot of unnecessary waiting time at airports, and borders. It also gives travellers confidence that they have all they need before they go to the airport and they can cross borders without any hassle.

We are focusing very much on the customer experience and that is the trigger that we need to kickstart travel, to really remove all the hassles – the multiple layers on health and safety such as getting COVID-19 PCR test results and vaccination certificates.

What do you think will be the single biggest challenge or issue that marketers will need to grapple with in 2022?

I think we would all agree that the world has changed and perhaps the change is still ongoing. It may even take years for us to realise what those changes are and the implications, values may have changed, and success may be defined not as a career achievement but as having a satisfying life.

Certainly, some temporary changes may revert to their former state while some lasting changes could really redefine what matters to our customers. So instead of just waiting for the dust to settle, it may be a golden opportunity now for us all.

This, I think, will be the biggest challenge as far as opportunity for all marketers to think out of the box and show consumers this new thing that they have always wanted, but didn’t know what that is. We are all re-evaluating, we are all rethinking and shifting, thinking of what truly matters to us, and I think because of this huge shift, it brings along a lot of opportunities for brands to reposition themselves to create offerings and to create new purpose as a company or as a brand.

That will be a huge challenge, but this is something that's happening globally, concurrently, and it's for us to see how we can make use of this opportunity to position ourselves in a better way than we were before the pandemic.