The aerospace giant's strategy marks a notable extension of the growing trend to B2B2C marketing, wherein companies seek to help influence their customers' customers, points out Michael Megalli, partner in Group 1066, a marketing and branding consultancy.
"We're already surrounded by instances of B2B2C marketing in consumer electronics, financial services and health care, but Boeing is the first major manufacturer to enter this arena," Megalli says.
"In an era of branding by association, the 'ingredient' brand is becoming king. The model used to be that the reseller--in this case, the airline--added value via its services. Now, increasingly, it's the product originator that's adding the value, with the reseller reaping the benefits of enhanced appeal to the consumer."
The July 8 Dreamliner event (scheduled on that date to play off the 787 brand) had more in common with a Hollywood premiere than with the largely B2B-focused marketing efforts normally associated with engineering-driven product launches.
Held at Boeing's Everett, Wash. final assembly factory, it was hosted by Tom Brokaw, attended by 15,000 cheering employees and customers, and broadcast around the globe.
More than 30,000 business-related viewers participated from locations in the U.S., Japan and Italy via two-way satellite TV, and customers, employees and partners at 90 other locations worldwide downloaded the event live on the Internet or watched a recording during their own viewing events.
However, consumers made up the bulk of the audience. Final numbers are not available yet, but Boeing projected potential reach of 100 million, which would certainly make this one of the largest corporate broadcasts in history.
Consumer participation was heightened with efforts close to the event, including the debut of a marketing campaign, "How Will You Travel Through Life?," at the Paris Air Show last month.
But much of the groundwork had already been laid. Boeing began involving the public back in May 2003, when it partnered with AOL Time Warner on several online and offline initiatives designed to engage consumers in the development of the plane. AOL members were given exclusive online access to a 360-degree animated tour of the plane for 30 days before the tour was made generally available online. This was tied to a "100 Years of Flight" retrospective photo gallery on AOL and to a "Name Your Plane" sweepstakes.
Consumers around the world were encouraged to vote for one of four possible names through AOL, timeforkids.com, or a consumer-oriented Boeing site (newairplane.com) dedicated to news about the plane. In addition to entering the sweepstakes (the grand prize was a two-hour simulated flight in a Boeing 737), name voters could opt to join the "World Design Team." As part of that virtual team, consumers have been participating in surveys about the plane's design elements and receiving sneak-peeks of the evolving exterior and interior.
In other words, the team serves as an important marketing research resource, as well as a channel for building expectation and demand for the new plane. "It's very unusual for a product with such a long development cycle to build up to a release this way, informing consumers all along the way," notes Megalli.
Boeing has made no secret of its strategy. "You can expect to see a whole new approach to how we tell the world about the airplane and encourage participation and feedback in the work we are doing," said Rob Pollack, vice president/branding for Boeing commercial airplanes marketing, in announcing the AOL partnership. "We are looking at our new airplane as an opportunity to change the way we do business."
The plane-naming sweepstakes generated over 65 million Web hits and 280,000 votes from people in more than 140 countries, and the winning name was announced at the 2003 Paris Air Show.
And this month's premiere confirmed that consumers' input--both through the virtual design team and formal studies of what makes for a more comfortable physical and mental experience when flying--has indeed been critical in helping to shape it. The plane boasts wider seats and aisles, the largest windows on any commercial plane (passengers can view the horizon from any seat), high ceilings, controllable environmental lighting and dimmable windows, cleaner and more humid cabin air, cabin altitude controlled at maximum comfort level, and features that minimize the impact of turbulence and engine noise.
"Given that virtually everything that's happened to the flying experience since 9/11 has been negative, the airline industry, in particular, is in dire need of this new model of addressing the end consumer," observes Megalli. "Boeing is helping its airline customers to appeal to their customers in a meaningful way. They recognized that in the world of B2B2C, product innovation has as much to do with marketing as it does with breakthrough engineering."
Consumer outreach will continue through the plane's test-flight program, leading up to the first passenger service, scheduled for next May.
For the airlines, the plane represents a breakthrough in efficiency: Use of composite materials enables the mid-sized 787s to deliver route ranges and operating economies of big jets, cut fuel consumption by 20%, produce fewer carbon emissions and have quieter take-offs and landings.
Boeing's marketing support through the innovative consumer engagement campaign can't be hurting. To date, 47 customers worldwide have ordered 677 airplanes worth more than $110 billion, making the Dreamliner the most successful commercial airplane launch in history.