Turkish Airlines vs. Kobe Bryant: The Right Kind of “Engagement?”

As ABC zoomed in on Kobe Bryant’s scowl heading into a commercial break during the Los Angeles Lakers’ surprise loss to New Orleans on Sunday, the last thing I expected was to see Kobe smiling at me 10 seconds later. Due to various image incidents throughout his career, the world’s best basketball player today–and formerly it’s most marketable–hasn’t quite had the off-the-court stage he once did. Marketing “risk,” maybe?

Apparently, Turkish Airlines doesn’t care.

Sure enough, just as I was about to flip to the hockey game, there he was. Kobe Bryant, sitting in TK’s business class, exchanging quips with the chef/flight attendant, as TK plugged its new non-stop Istanbul-LAX service.

While they have had a tw0-year endorsement deal in place with Kobe since December, it has been mostly local in LA, with a commercial, some online ads and billboards. Being based in Washington, DC, Sunday’s commercial was the first I’d seen of it. And it begged me to wonder, can any major celebrity endorsement like this come even close to giving the airline a positive ROI? Kobe may have taken an endorsement hit in recent years, but with a basketball salary alone that approaches USD$25 million annually, Kobe surely doesn’t come cheap.

While every shred of marketing knowledge in me wants to say no, in this case, I actually think there may be some credence to it. The great irony is that it may have been completely accidental, controversial, and a borderline PR nightmare.

Open your history books for a moment, and you can see that Ottoman Turkey killed nearly 1.5 million Armenians in the early 20th century, a travesty which Armenians hold fresh in their collective mind. California has between 600,000 and 700,000 Armenian residents, the majority of whom are concentrated in Laker-loving Southern California. And now, those hundreds of thousands of people are pissed off.

Bad for Kobe? Possibly. Then again, by this point, he has already proven to be a master of attracting and subsequently mitigating PR disasters. Bad for Turkish, though? Maybe not.

While the Armenian community may not ever try TK’s LAX service, there are some 22 million other SoCal residents who may. In this community, as of the moment, Turkish Airlines is a relative unknown, having just launched. It is also a (far) Eastern European carrier in a region that as a strong international focus on the Pacific Rim. Because of the life cycle position of TK’s LAX service, just now shifting from introduction into growth (see below), combined with the general lack of Turkish “focus” in the region, TK’s primary brand marketing job at this stage should be education.

Life Cycle position of Turkish Airlines' new LAX Service

What better way to get the word out that you’re flying from LAX to Istanbul than to have other people do it for you, for free? Because of the controversy that surrounded Kobe inking a deal with Turkish, and the stir it caused in the vocal Armenian SoCal community, every news outlet in the region picked up the story. And everyone who caught wind of the story now knows, at the very least, that Turkish is a) an airline, b) flying from Istanbul to Los Angeles, and c) not afraid to stir the controversy pot a bit.

Screen shot from FOX News LA

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Customer Engagement Strategy for the Airline Industry