Airline Adieu

Tattoos and Chocolates: How PR Failed to Avert Air Berlin's Crash Landing

One for the road. Source: DPA

It’s what German passengers will miss the most about Air Berlin – shuttle service to Mallorca and those cute chocolate hearts.

Offered up in a basket during the deboarding of every flight, the heart-shaped sweets were meant to be more than just a straightforward goodwill gesture from Germany’s second-largest airline. Stewardesses didn’t even scold for helping yourself to more than one.

It’s a tradition that started with British Airways’ former German subsidiary, DBA, which in the 1990s aimed to establish itself as a friendlier alternative to flag carrier Lufthansa. The chocolates were produced with the longstanding Berlin confectionery Rausch. When Air Berlin took over DBA in 2006, the hearts went along with it – although from then on the sweets were foiled in the airline’s signature red with an expanded production run of 13 million chocolates a year.

It wasn’t long after in January 2008 that the chocolates began to sport Air Berlin’s new company logo, done up in all lower case letters and a contemporary font. The shiny treats became symbolic of a new corporate design and an effort to position the brand as warm and approachable, in clear differentiation from the much more mature, straight-laced Lufthansa.

That was the same year that Air Berlin recorded the first of what would be an unbroken record of net losses up until its current filing for insolvency. In April 2015, the company announced it was changing from Berlin chocolatier Rausch to the much bigger factory of Switzerland’s Lindt, presumably to cut costs. The amount of real cacao in the candies sunk from 35 to about 30 percent, and recently they were pared back even further, only offered to business class customers on a long-haul flight.

With debt funding running out, Air Berlin went for a marketing Hail Mary in the hopes of impressing Etihad Airways, which had just become its largest shareholder. With the help of Hamburg-based creative agency Track, the company moved to connect with a demographic of wanderlust-loving, social media-savvy young Germans. The attempt was to go from being the nice next door neighbor to the cool kid on the block.

The image revamp saw posters of an 18-year-old tattoo model in a red flight attendant’s cap plastered all around the German capital Berlin. Social media videos showed her unwrapping chocolate hearts with the new logo and its accompanying hashtag, “air berlin: not established since 1978”.

“Air Berlin is like Berlin: constantly in motion – an original that doesn’t fit,” said CEO Stefan Pichler, who parachuted away from the company and its problems in January this year. “We are a young company with a team with heart. The Air Berlin brand is emotional, progressive and edgy. We also want to make this clear with our external representation under the motto: ‘Be confident, be different, be surprising.’”

So in the summer of 2015, Air Berlin moved to trendset in a way the serious-minded airline industry had never seen before. The attitude adjustment started off with promoting the world’s first airplane hitchhiking experience. Berliners waited at public transport stops around the city for the chance to be picked up by German YouTube stars on an Air Berlin bus and taken to the airport for spontaneous round-trip flights to Copenhagen, Rome, Vienna, Abu Dhabi and New York.

Another social media contest offered an around the world ticket – in exchange for the winner tattooing Air Berlin’s new logo onto their body. Of course, the campaign coincided with the launch of a new inflight magazine called Ink.

“We want to attract young and young at heart customers,” spokeswoman Melanie Schyja told German newspaper Berliner Zeitung at the time. “We want to show we are just as cool and interesting as they are, but of course also be partners for businesses and travelers.”

However the campaign abruptly disappeared afterwards. The tattoo winner does not look to have been posted on social media. Handelsblatt Global contacted Air Berlin for more information about what became of the contest, to which the company replied it was no longer in touch with the winner and did not respond to further email requests.

Air Berlin had probably shifted the money elsewhere to fight against its rapid descent. Net losses for 2015 grew 16 percent from the year before to 447 million euros, amid fuel hedging losses and costly restructuring. At that point the carrier secured fresh debt funding from Etihad, but tough local competition and piled up debt from past takeovers and bookings would ultimately be its undoing.

“Customers do not really decide on taking an airline because of its cool image, it’s more about service quality which was no longer guaranteed with Air Berlin,” Dr. Sascha Raithel, a marketing professor at the Free University of Berlin’s School of Business and Economics, told Handelsblatt Global.

People are putting the candies up as "collector items" for as much as €500 a piece on e-commerce site eBay.

While Air Berlin first lifted off into popularity as a low-cost airline, ticket prices raised significantly as the company struggled to break even. Ground handling problems and delays caused by restructuring efforts only served to further alienate passengers.

“If you look at the campaigns, they were geared towards young people who like to travel a lot and usually these people are looking for cheap prices,” explained Dr. Raithel. “Air Berlin’s prices were not competitive and could not beat the service quality offered by Lufthansa.”

The “not established since 1978” campaign, also flubbed in being launched primarily in German and in Berlin, as opposed to selling Parisiennes or Londoners on a trip to the hipstery capital, he added.

While Air Berlin’s marketing campaigns will fade into the depths of Internet searches, it seems the chocolate hearts might still find new life being sold directly from Lindt. People are already trying to part ways with them online, putting the candies up as “collector items” for as much as €500 a piece on e-commerce site eBay.

Barbara Woolsey writes for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. Handelsblatt’s Christoph Kapalschinski also contributed to this article. To contact the author:

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