Olivia Parker
Jun 13, 2019

Cathay CMO knew this ad would "stir hornet's nest"

Speaking exclusively at CampaignComms yesterday, Ed Bell revealed what really happened when the ban of the airline's ad featuring a gay couple sparked controversy in Hong Kong and around the world.

Cathay CMO knew this ad would

A Cathay Pacific ad featuring two men walking along a beach hand-in-hand, which was the subject of global controversy some three weeks ago when it was discovered the MTR Corporation and Airport Authority in Hong Kong had rejected it as “immoral”, came to public consciousness earlier than it was supposed to, according to the airline’s CMO, Edward Bell.

The ad, part of Cathay’s wider “Move Beyond” campaign, was originally part of the company’s internal rebrand and was meant to go public later on, but employees sharing pictures of it on display at company headquarters meant that the South China Morning Post picked up on the ad’s absence from billboards around the city, where the other images in the campaign were being shown, and revealed the authorities had not accepted it. The story of the ad’s ban—poorly timed following Taiwan’s historic legalisation of same-sex marriage the week before—quickly went viral.

“It got soft launched, if you like, or hard launched as it turned out,” said Bell, in an onstage interview with Campaign managing editor Matthew Miller at the CampaignComms conference in Hong Kong yesterday. It was ironic that the ad’s subject caused such a big “hoohah”, Bell continued, given that the contents are hardly controversial by western standards. “We can't run it in China because...we can't run it on advertising because it's too scary in China, but in the West, it’s like 'this is already done'”.

Ed Bell and Campaign's Matthew Miller onstage at Campaign Comms.

After a public outcry (including a Campaign Asia-Pacific op-ed), the MTR and Airport Authority overturned the decision and Cathay extended the ad to billboards around the city. When asked whether he had influenced this reversal, Bell responded, with a smile: “I wish I had that kind of power.”

He said he was “still not sure” who, between the MTR and Airport media-placement teams and JCDecaux, the concession holder for the MTR and the airport, made the call that the ad shouldn’t be shown. Whoever it was, Bell said, “Those people misread the mood of Hong Kong, and they were out of step with what people were thinking and feeling.”

He claims, by contrast, that Cathay Pacific “got it right” by daring to create the ad in the first place. It was definitely a “new neck of the woods” for a very conservative brand, he said. “Our culture is to not do anything we haven’t thought through.”

Bell also explained Cathay’s decision, seen by some as controversial, not to publicly defend its own ad and petition the authorities for its display before the decision was overturned. The brand didn’t want to “hype up” the discussion and use the moment as an opportunity for grandstanding, he said. “You don't need to be destructive, you just need to provide productive pressure, and sooner or later the right thing will happen.” Cathay was in fact “a bit embarrassed” that the ad had received so much attention, he claimed.

"The old ad man in me said ‘I don't think we have enough money to get everywhere, so I’d quite like it if we could ride on the wave of a little bit of social discussion’” — Edward Bell, CMO, Cathay Pacific

“Unlike Virgin, or Emirates, or companies who want to be in the limelight, we just want to signal something which we think is meaningful for us to say," Bell continued. "And so this one is perhaps a bit of an awkward thing for us to say, given the fact we are a conservative company in a conservative society, but we just felt it was true to say.”

Bell did confess that he knew there was some risk the campaign would “stir up the hornet’s nest”. He even built this into the marketing plan. “The old ad man in me said ‘I don't think we have enough money to get everywhere, so I’d quite like it if we could ride on the wave of a little bit of social discussion’”, he said. “That worked out just fine!”

While Cathay didn’t intend to use the ad to advocate for gay marriage, something Bell feels it is not the airline’s place to do, the company did want to use it to externalise its internal values of openness towards people of all different sexualities, he said, strongly rejecting a suggestion from an audience member that the ad represented a “tokenistic” effort to embrace equality. The airline offers gay couples the same employee benefits as heterosexual couples and is a sponsor of the Hong Kong Gay Games 2022, he added.

“We talk about it internally, and now we’re talking about it externally. I think that’s about as much as an airline probably should do,” he claimed. “This is just a really mainstream value that perhaps, people say it quietly in HK society or companies put it in their internal email, but who speaks it out? I think it takes a leader to speak it out.”

Bell also discussed some of the thinking behind the rebrand and the new slogan, “Move Beyond”, the result of around a year’s worth of research. It replaces the old “Life Well Travelled”. While being a “charming idea”, this was also a “selling idea”, Bell said. “What we wanted was an idea to represent who we are as a company, a mindset of how we operate, and we hope that that's a shared mindset with our customers, a way of being.”

Could “Move Beyond” be read by some as the airline’s wish for people to forget its massive data breach of 2018, in which the personal details of 9.4 million passengers were compromised, Miller asked? “I think there's always a risk people think it’s maybe us being defensive,” accepted Bell. “But the reason why it’s there is because, maybe it’s what we’re talking about now but in two years time are people going to be still talking about it? I don't think so.”

“[Move Beyond] is more like a way for us to galvanise ourselves and a way for us to have a conversation with our customers and say ‘this is a way that we can be, this is an attitude to life.’ Make it like a values-based strategy—do we think the same way, is this what you want, is this how you live? These are our values. And then if that's the case, we can work together.”

Cathay was in need of the redress that the new slogan ushers in following a period of decline, including a two-year run of losses before 2019. Huge competition from government-funded Chinese and Gulf carriers, combined with the re-engineering of virtually every process associated with flying a plane these days, has meant the airline has “taken a knock” in recent times, he said. Formerly foolproof strategies, such as being the first to implement new perks like bigger seats, don’t work anymore.

“A couple of years ago, we decided that what got us here won’t get us there,” he said. “We needed a different strategy for the future.” A “package” of different enticements including product and service innovations—to include updates to Cathay’s much-critiqued inflight food—will start to roll out from July, he revealed.

Campaign Asia

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