From a grumpy koala to a locked down children’s choir: The marketing campaigns of Qantas

As Qantas marks its centenary, Steve Jones looks at the key campaigns that have shaped the airline's marketing over the decades.

There can’t be many ad campaigns where a brand ambassador – if a disgruntled koala can be described as such – expresses loathing for the product.

Yet the Qantas Koala made a career out of it.

For the best part of two decades, he showed nothing but disdain for the airline he was representing.

Created by ad agency Cunningham & Walsh in the late 60s – American adman Fred Manley is credited with the idea – the brassed off bear spent each commercial bemoaning Qantas for having the temerity to fly tourists to Australia, shattering his peaceful existence.

Given today’s environmental sensitivities and concerns of over tourism, the Qantas Koala was ahead of his time. But that’s for another day.

Such was his desire for solitude that in one ad he spoke of a need to “get away from it all” and attempted, unsuccessfully, to swim from Australia.

“I hate Qantas”, was his parting shot. In every ad.

It took 20 years before he displayed positivity, and that was because Qantas launched non-stop flights to New Zealand, bypassing his homeland.

“Finally, something to smile about”, he observed in a series of print ads.

The Koala campaign, one of the longest to run in the US, is among the most enduring, and endearing marketing campaigns in the 100-year history of Qantas, a milestone it reaches this year.

In an era of lockdowns, closed borders and general glumness, an occasion deserving of celebrations has never felt so muted.

As least the Koala still manages to put a smile on faces, if not his own.

As with all iconic, home-grown brands, the public is never slow to share their opinion when new Qantas marketing ideas hits the media.

And while the Qantas Koala is fondly remembered, subsequent campaigns – certainly more recent ones – have not always been so warmly received.

I still Call Australia Home

As the Qantas Koala was slowly retired – the original live koala used in early ads, Teddy, had actually died in 1976 – another long running campaign was beginning to tug on Australia’s heartstrings: I Still Call Australia Home.

Over the best part of 35 years, Peter Allen’s 1980 balled has been integral to Qantas’s marketing, if not its very backbone. The song may be rested for periods, but you can always bank on its return.

The association with the song began in the mid-1980s when Australia-based Mojo-MDA – Mojo and MDA, the agency behind the Spirit of Australia slogan, had merged in 1986 – acquired Allen & Dorward, Qantas’s agency of record in North America.

Allen & Dorward’s Bob Hoffman was among those who brought the song and the creative together. It has remained a celebrated part of the marketing mix since then.

“What the Lord’s Prayer is to the Christian church, I Still Call Australia Home is for Qantas,” marketing consultant Andrew Woodward told Mumbrella. “It’s become part of the brand.”

The mid 1990s saw the song take a twist. Then under the creative guidance of John Singleton Advertising, the story goes that Qantas marketing director and future CEO Geoff Dixon was so taken by a choir he heard singing Christmas carols that, on Christmas Day, he telephoned John Singleton. The choir version of Peter Allen’s home-loving song was born.

Various iterations followed, with big money launches at the Super Bowl, Olympics and Commonwealth Games.

It captured the imagination, and played on the public’s emotional ties with Australia that had rarely been seen in advertising before, one ad executive said.

McCann Erickson executive creative director Mike Thomas, who worked on the campaign, described it as a “great emotional hook and a fabulous branding commercial”.

“It does remind you of the great things the world has to offer, the innocence of youth, and the fact that Qantas can take you to these places,” he said. “You don’t normally buy products that you don’t feel good about – this commercial makes people feel great.”

To illustrate the enduring nature of the campaign, Qantas’s most recent ad has seen yet another production, a locked down version of I Still Call Australia Home featuring the Gondwana National Choir.

Feels Like Home

In 2014 the airline launched a new brand push, ‘Feels Like Home’ after a period which had seen little major brand activity since a largely unsuccessful campaign, You’re the Reason we Fly.

The marketing of Feels Like Home was designed to “reconnect and re-engage” with passengers and strengthen the bond with the public through real stories of Australians returning home.

Qantas selected Lawrence Creative Strategy to produce the high profile work, rather than Droga5 which had been handed creative duties in 2012. Like much of its local efforts, Droga5’s work for Qantas had been tepid and it was quietly sidelined.

One Droga5 campaign for Qantas Frequent Flyer in 2013, which featured a replica of NASA’s Mars rover ‘Curiosity’, was dubbed “soulless” by one creative, who did not want to be named, said.

“There was not a single person in the curiosity campaign,” he said. “It looked like a bomb disposal advert. You are talking about Qantas, the Spirit of Australia. Where was the soul? Where was the humanness.”

The Feels Like Home campaign for which Droga5 had been overlooked was the brainchild of the late Neil Lawrence. At the time, Lawrence said another revamped version of I Still Call Australia Home had been considered, but ultimately rejected.

“Creatively it was hard to reinvent,” he said, adding that retaining the “home” messaging had been important.

“When we started looking at this project we had to make sure were going to evolve it, we didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, the baby being the emotion and sense of home. It’s an evolution of that campaign,” he said.

Lawrence added that Visibility, the firm commissioned to conduct research during the early stages of the project, said it had never experienced such emotion and fondness towards a brand.

“It’s well documented in advertising that a lot of decisions you make have a rational explanation but a true emotional driver. The research firm has never seen a reaction to any other brand like it so it would have been foolish not to exploit that,” Lawrence said at the time.

A second phase of Feels Like Home was launched in late 2015, just months after Lawrence’s death, with a third iteration following in 2017 which promoted the UK-Australia Kangaroo Route.

Olivia Wirth, then-Qantas group executive for brand, marketing and corporate affairs, said it wanted to capture the memories and emotions that Australians associate with the Kangaroo Route, and to look ahead to a “new era” of non-stop Perth-London flights.

“We think it does a beautiful job of exploring the significance of linking Australians directly to the UK for the first time, focusing on real people and experiences,” she said.

The ads were a far cry from an ad in 1970 promoting the route featuring British comedian Warren Mitchell, aka Alf Garnett, who expressed surprise the pilot hadn’t “got lost”.

“They’re not all convicts are they, Aussies,” he says.

While Feels Like Home was generally well received, not everyone was impressed.

Writing in The Conversation, a trio of marketing and business lecturers at Macquarie University picked the campaign apart, arguing it failed on pretty much every level.

“The approach does not differentiate Qantas from competitors. The key problem of the new campaign is that there is no convincing marketing message. If you reside in Australia and book a ticket to return to Australia, then any airline will take you home.”

Another critic, Constantine Frantzeskos, the founder and CEO of Penso, was withering in his assessment of Qantas’s advertising.

“Qantas ads have been truly awful for a long time,” he told Mumbrella at the time. “From the baffling work of Droga5 to the more recent blandness peddled by the late Neil Lawrence/Monkeys in the Feels Like Home campaign,” he observed.

“I’d suggest travel advertisements that inspire people to travel in a big, branded energetic way work better than ads that are dull, unbranded and draw imagery from observing people arriving safely into a dark and empty airport terminal.”

However, it is not a view shared by Woodward.

“It’s hard to think of a bad campaign that Qantas has done, and that says something,” he said. “I think they are the best marketers in Australia. They have always had this knack of coming up with great campaigns, of creating an emotional bond.”

“They are up there with the Australian flag in terms of a people feeling an affinity and affection with a brand.

“One of their core deliverables is bringing people together and when people think of good times and coming together, Qantas is part of that.”

You’re the Reason We Fly

The trilogy of Feels Like Home ads followed a 2012 campaign led by Mojo, You’re the Reason we Fly.

This had been an attempt to restore faith in the airline after a torrid 12 months which saw Chief Executive Alan Joyce ground the entire fleet amid acrimonious battles with unions.

It sought, unashamedly, to put the focus on Australians, with the Spirit of Australia branding on aircraft changed to Spirit of Australians. People could also enter a competition to have their name painted on a Qantas plane.

With a soundtrack created by Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns, it launched amid much fanfare with then-marketing boss Lewis Pullen describing it as “the most multi-channel, multi-dimensional campaigns ever launched in Australia”.

However, it did not resonate as well as hoped, making the list of Mumbrella’s biggest turkeys of 2012.

“This gloomy Olympic-themed ad, which features athletes gawping up at the dawn sky as a plane flies overhead, is not saved by a soundtrack by Silverchair’s Daniel Johns,” we wrote. “A mournful, uninspiring farewell brand campaign from Publicis Mojo, who were booted off the lead role in July.”

Pullen left the airline in May 2013 and the campaign quietly faded.

Other, more targeted campaigns promoted the arrival of the much-heralded A380 superjumbo in 2008 while in 2017 an ill-judged ad – featuring Sydneyporeans – attempted to showcase Qantas’s return to Singapore.

For Woodward, it is the consistency of message that has made Qantas stand out.

“A good campaign starts with a good brief, and that starts in-house,” he said. “Qantas had some of the best marketers in the country going through its doors.

“And that’s also been the positive thing with the agencies. Some agencies come in and say this is crap, that’s crap, we are going to do it in a different way. When that happens the brand and agency head off in different directions.

“The core direction of Qantas marketing has not changed over the years and the agencies they have worked with have just tweaked it to suit the times.”



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