Marketing Aviation to the Public: Change the Game or Risk Extinction

3:30 PM

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

I recently had a lengthy conference call with a couple of #avgeeks I know who have been following the story of my Oshbash event at this past EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. They have been supporters of my GA Power Collective Panel Discussion I organized this year at Oshbash, and asked me what the "next step" action items will be.
  
You might have read here that the "Collective" idea was to get the conversation started that might lead to the major aviation associations joining their financial and intellectual resources together to grow the pilot population to 1,000,000 certificated pilots. At Oshbash, we did in fact succeed in at least starting the conversation, but I made it clear that as one aviator, I did not have the answer to the aviation industry's growth dilemma.
  
But as this conference call continued, I did explain what I think needs to happen if the number of certificated pilots is to reach that elusive seven figure mark. I did not go into detail about this at Oshbash because I wanted the time to be filled with commentary from the Panelists. They were the stars of the event, and we did hear plenty of great ideas.
  
So it has become clear to me that I need to lay it all out there, my idea for turning this growth situation around. Yes, everyone has an idea for growing aviation, and this is mine.
  
We need to find the aviation version of "Uncle Phil."
That would be "Phil" Knight, a native of Oregon and the co-founder and chairman of Nike, Inc. In 2014, Forbes named Knight the 43rd richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of US$18.7 billion. A native Oregonian, he ran track under coach Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon (UO), who co-founded Nike with Knight. Here in my hometown, it is hard to ignore the massive financial impact Knight and his money has had on UO, mostly in athletics but also in numerous other areas as well.

Here are just a few highlights of Knight's philanthropic generosity at UO, courtesy of Wikipedia:
• In 2000, Knight was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame for his Special Contribution to Sports in Oregon. At the time of his induction, he had contributed approximately $230 million to UO, the majority of which was for athletics.
    

• In August 2007, Knight announced that he and his wife would be donating $100 million to found the UO Athletics Legacy Fund to help support all athletic programs at the university.
    

• Knight was responsible for financing the UO's $68 million 145,000 square-foot gridiron football facility that was officially opened in late July 2013.
    

• The 2010 construction of the UO basketball team's facility, Matthew Knight Arena, was the result of a partnership between Knight and former Oregon Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny. Named after Knight's deceased son, the venue cost over $200 million and was achieved with the direct financial support of both Knight and Kilkenny.• Along with mega-donations to UO athletics, Knight has also given large financial support to OHSU's Knight Cancer Institute and the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.

Of course, I am NOT saying we need to tap into the seemingly overflowing Knight fountain of money. But the aviation industry does need to find someone with this sort of high net worth to ride in on preferably a white stallion and save the day. Stay with me, now:

Out there somewhere is one very, very rich person who has the same sort of passion for aviation that Knight has for UO athletics. This is the kind of person who can write a check for $100 million and it won't dent their bank account. Knight does this all the time for UO, and I can assure you he still has sufficient bank left to make it through life. Once this person steps forward with that bankroll, we - the aviation industry - need to start thinking bigger...MUCH bigger. Because of you want to sell flying to the public, you need to do it like Nike sells shoes. You need to launch and maintain a massive advertising campaign. And before you think that I have sort of agenda here because I am in the advertising profession, trust me when I tell you that anything I do here is not, repeat not, an obvious ploy to generate a job. Sure, if someday this idea I am describing comes together and the ensuing RFP hit my desk, I would be honored to submit my best shot at getting the gig. But that remote possibility is not what drives me in my quest to get the industry's attention about a growth problem I believe grows more serious by the day.

Since magazines and television has been around, Madison Avenue has been successfully selling America and the world every product imaginable, from cigarettes to Chevys to Courvoisier. Companies spend millions to pepper your subconscious with their brand's logo and sales message, and when enough money is thrown at a campaign, people buy stuff.
  
Advertising is tricky to get right, but the recipe is always the same. Craft the right message, determine the best demographics to target, and then show them the message over and over, in every medium they visit...with enough frequency to implant your message in their craw. That way, when they want to buy what you are selling, they think of your brand. Not. Rocket. Science.
  
The aviation industry needs to market flying exactly the same way. Of course, this would take millions, literally. But the only way we will get the pilot population to seriously grow is to target adventure sports enthusiasts, young families, boomers and retirees, and flog them with a slick campaign that sends this one message loud and VERY CLEAR:

You ask anyone at the mall how much it costs to earn a pilot's license and they will tell you "$10,000 to $15,000" if they even know at all. I have done this, and the vast majority of the public has zero clue that you can get into flying for much less, earning a Sport Pilot ticket for $5,000 or less. To an adventure sports enthusiast or serious bicyclist, that's about the same as their last kayak or bike. Many people spend five grand on a ski or golf vacation, and a decent bass boat costs far more that that.  

My point is that if these people knew that they could achieve their long-held dream to earn their pilot's license for this much lower buy-in, they would jump at the chance. But for the industry and the associations to keep it a secret to the non-flying public is deplorable. When these adventure sports demos have it top of the mind that flying GA airplanes is cool and affordable, soon they will HAVE to hit the local flight school to start lessons...because everyone else will be doing it.
  
We need to make flying a fad, like Zumba, or the Ice Bucket Challenge, or yes, even bacon. Light off a big glitzy print campaign, run edgy spots with smiling young faces on cable channels that these demos watch, and enlist every trick in the book to saturate social media with the message that if you want to hang with the cool kids, you had better be a pilot because all the adventurous hip people are out at the airport. And NOT the big airline airport.
  
When it becomes hip for the general public to kick it at the small municipal airport at the edge of town with their pals, when everyone is blasting out grinning selfies of themselves in GA airplanes, and when aviation advertising has the same look and feel of any ad you see in Surfing Magazine...this is when we get to 1,000,000 certificated pilots.
  
Continuing to market aviation to those already IN aviation - from several different silos with different but slightly related messages - now that's just crazy talk there, man. The status quo marketing attitude of the aviation industry will kill GA someday, unless everyone involved agrees to pull together and change the game.

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