Johnson spoke with Campaign Asia-Pacific in a café across the street from the brand's new bus shelter ad, where the airline offers passersby a chance to win free flights (one happy winner is pictured below). The goal is to educate the public about HK Express as a low-cost airline. Johnson said no other airline has done as creative of a campaign before. The first winner (pictured below) took home a ticket to Fukuoka—a new route the airline will launch on 10 April. If queues so far are any indication, the company could give out about 450 air tickets during April, Johnson said.
The brand is focusing on digital and social media, where it's had some success; it built a 100,000-strong Facebook fan base within six months.
Johnson and his team face the challenge of getting the public to recognize and distinguish HK Express from not only its competitors but also its related companies. The airline has been around for 10 years, but started as a helicopter company. It became Hong Kong's first low-cost carrier on 27 October 2013. Its major investor, HNA Group, the parent of Hainan Airlines, is also the main investor in Hong Kong Airlines, a long-haul, full-service airline.
Many people naturally confuse HK Express with Hong Kong Airlines, Johnson noted. “The HK Express brand previously looked very similar to Hong Kong Airlines, hence the objective of the new rebranding campaign is to enhance the brand personality.”
For Johnson, marketing a new airline from scratch is not new. He joined the company in May 2003, after a long-term career in the industry, including a stint setting up Osaka's Peach Airlines, which he claims was the first low-cost carrier to take to the skies in Japan. He also worked at Virgin Atlantic in Australia and the Middle East.
Southeast Asia has been quick to embrace the low-cost-carrier model, and it is starting to spread to North Asia. Johnson said there are already 16 low-cost carriers flying to Hong Kong, including Air Asia (from Malaysia), Jetstar, Tiger, SilkAir, Scoot Airlines (all from Singapore), Cebu Pacific Air (from the Philippines) and Peach (from Japan).
One of the biggest misconceptions Johnson says he needs to combat is the idea that low-cost carriers suffer from abnormal amounts of delay. However, according to Flightstats.com, HK Express is the top airline in Hong Kong for on-time performance, with 91 per cent of flights pushing back from the gate on time and departing within 15 minutes, Johnson said.
The airline stays away from Beijing and Shanghai, which have significant delay issues; its only mainland destination is Kunming.
Another point on the marketing checklist is to educate Hong Kong people about how low-cost carriers work, including making them aware that baggage and meals are not included in fares or that smelly foods like Durian are not welcome on the planes.
One advantage in appealing to local audiences will be the airline's Cantonese-speaking crew. To promote this local attachment, the brand named each of its planes for a famous dim sum dishes—after a competition that asked the public for suggestions about what naming system it should adopt.
Commenting on the Malaysian Airlines tragedy, Johnson said of course the cause remains a mystery and added that any belief that budget airlines skimp on safety is completely unfounded. The company's planes are on average only two years old, he said, explaining that no airline could survive if safety wasn't the top priority.
Asked for his views on Jetstar wanting to be based in Hong Kong, Johnson said "I am all for competition and consumers could benefit from more choices. But at the Hong Kong International Airport, 98 per cent of capacity of landing and takeoff slots are fully used. Even as a local airline we can’t get enough slots ourselves. How can you let foreign airline take the available slots from us?”
Johnson also commented on his experience with Secret Tour HK, the small independent agency running the current campaign. Smaller agencies work harder for you, it is easier to form a relationship and there is less paperwork, he said. “You get more original ideas," he added. "I struggle working with international agencies, as they don’t have enough local knowledge.”