American Airlines Moves To Magic Johnson’s Ad Agency

After first picking the ad agency co-founded by Magic Johnson, Walton Isaacson, for its diversity, equity and inclusion branding back in December American Airlines has selected the firm as their agency of record.

The agency’s earlier work focused on an effort to “better connect with Black travelers,” after the airline was referred to them by its Community Council “[i]n the wake of George Floyd’s murder and ensuing social justice protests in 2020.”

Dana Lawrence, American’s managing director of global brand marketing, admits that much of the brand’s advertising prior to 2021 “underindexed” Black passengers. It didn’t do much to include them or the airline’s Black employees in the company’s messaging.

..“We look at our brand equity and brand health, and where we have the biggest opportunity is with Black travelers,” Lawrence said. “It wasn’t that we weren’t reaching them with our general market campaigns, but we needed to do it in a more authentic way that’s going to resonate with them more strongly.”

I wonder if this challenge has more to do with actual incidents and the NAACP’s 2017 travel warning against traveling on American that the faces displayed in its ads (of which there haven’t been many, anyway).

Some of you – probably the same folks who don’t like diversity casting in the new Lord of the Rings – aren’t going to like this, but whether it mattered for American’s bottom line or not I’d point out that the first safety video under legacy US Airways management was a lot more ‘white’ than the more diverse one it replaced of course most passengers don’t see safety videos any longer on American with the removal of seat back entertainment screens from most domestic narrowbody aircraft.

I’d even point out that the airline’s commercials – while not always – do have a long history of showing diverse faces.

Two things struck me from the news of the new agency, however:

  • The story is sourced to chief customer officer Alison Taylor, though ironically she no longer oversees marketing (she’s been sidelined from most of her portfolio)

  • American only spent $33.3 million on media last year – $23.3 million of which was online.

Walton Isaacson replaces Crispin Porter + Bogusky which hasn’t done much notable for the airline in recent years (likely the result of low spend) but brought us the embarrassing “greatest flyers” campaign which messaged that bad flights are the fault of the passenger, not the airline – just bring noise cancelling headphones, suck it up and leave the window shades down!

More than a new agency, first American Airlines needs to articulate a clear mission or brand purpose in order to have something to message and for its spending to be effective.

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