How to make people watch an airline safety film by the architect of Air New Zealand's viral videos

Behind the scenes of the viral inflight videos

Lilit Marcus
Tuesday 18 July 2017 09:41
Katie Holmes and Cuba Gooding Jr feature in Air New Zealand safety video

A new film starring Katie Holmes and Cuba Gooding Jr debuted on YouTube last week. It’s been viewed over 16 million times in six days, started trending on New Zealand social networks and its Instagram story got 187,000 views. Haven’t heard of it? That may be because it’s an inflight safety video for Air New Zealand.

Over the last few years, the Kiwi national carrier has turned the dull mandatory safety briefing from something you ignore into something you can't miss thanks to clever campaigns starring everyone from Bear Grylls and Betty White to cast members from The Hobbit. And while there aren't any stats about whether passengers are more likely to pay attention to a fun safety video, ANZ has plenty of anecdotal evidence that they do – customers regularly mention them when giving airline feedback.

And while other airlines rely on boring animations or models dressed as flight attendants, Air New Zealand’s videos walk – and sometimes dance – a line between giving legally mandated safety information (something which ANZ has been criticised for) while setting the tone for the flight.

But how do you turn something normally about as interesting as reading the telephone book into a viral phenomenon that people watch on YouTube for fun? We asked the brain behind many of these successful campaigns, Jodi Williams. Air New Zealand’s Global Brand & Content Marketing GM, she’s an Auckland native who has been with the company since 2007. Here are her secrets.

Choose the right talent

While it's not unusual to see A-list faces appear in ANZ's videos, Williams and her team choose their stars carefully, and anyone with a local connection gets bonus points – their 2014 video was a tie-in with The Hobbit (which of course was filmed in New Zealand) - and the video's debut coincided with the movie's theatrical release. That's not saying that stars necessarily have to be Kiwis – or even have been down under before. “It's always great if they have been to New Zealand [already], because they can talk passionately about it,” Williams says – but if they haven’t, they don’t get a trip there.

Her favourite celeb shoot was with the All Blacks, doing a Men in Black spoof. The athletes played with borrowed movie props, and some even volunteered to sing a MiB-inspired song about the airline. “It was the right environment and they had a lot of fun and that makes a difference,” Williams recalls. “It shows in the work.”

All Blacks captain Richie McCaw channels Men in Black for Air New Zealand safety video

Serve multiple purposes

At the end of the day, a safety video is still a safety video – the trick is coming up with a clever way to get even the most jaded fliers to pay attention to the information they've heard a thousand times before. Each video takes up to eight months from conception to release, and video number 14 is already in the works (Williams is tight-lipped about the concept).

The team begins by brainstorming – no concept is too wacky or impossible. Once an idea starts to emerge, team members try to coordinate either with a second company (like Sony for the Men in Black-inspired shoot) or sign the perfect celebrity in order to expand their reach.

“The Hobbit one wasn't just a safety video,” Williams explains – the video worked as a marketing tool for both the airline and the film. And because Elijah Wood and director Peter Jackson appeared in the clip, the video got pickup on entertainment websites that would normally never cover aviation news. Considering that ANZ is a national airline for a small country that's hard to get to from most parts of the world, investing in a safety video is also a form of investing in brand awareness – hence why they've gone from being a fun lark to being a serious round-the-clock project.

Air New Zealand's Hobbit safety video

Think beyond the plane

These days, more people watch ANZ safety videos online than on a plane (16 million watched the Hobbit one on YouTube, for example). They act as a powerful branding tool. In fact, the very first edgy ANZ safety video – featuring real life airline staff in full body paint in 2009 – originally came out of an ad idea.

“[The videos] gave us the ability to take our brand globally,” Williams says. “Now, it gets global attention that showcases our country and our airline. It goes beyond the safety video into a marketing campaign.” For the latest video, Williams' team partnered with Snapchat to tease the latest video, proving that any visual medium is fair game when it comes to promotion.

Don't rest on your laurels

Having airline safety videos so successful that people eagerly await the next reveal is a great feeling, but Williams and her team keep pushing themselves to come up with better and better ideas for the future. This is even more true as multiple social platforms launch and provide partnership opportunities, and as other airlines try to steal ANZ's thunder with their own clever videos, like Virgin America's riff on “The Safety Dance” and Delta's recent offering packed full of memes and viral video stars like the “Double Rainbow” guy.

For Williams, though, raising the bar is just part of what it means to be a New Zealander. “That's in our DNA. Our spirit is innovative and we always challenge ourselves. We always look at unique and quirky ways of doing things. With an airline, there are some things you don't touch, but this is one of the things you can have fun with while making your objectives.”

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