Emirates, the once little-known Middle Eastern airline, is on its way to becoming a major player in the global aviation industry. But unlike its rivals it does not have an exorbitant advertising budget, instead choosing to build its brand almost entirely through sponsorship.
The company is thought to be the frontrunner to replace Vodafone as the sponsor of the Epsom Derby (MW last week) and has just signed up as the official airline of the Rugby World Cup. It also has a £100m deal with Arsenal Football Club that gives it stadium naming rights for 15 years and shirt sponsorship for eight years.
In the space of 22 years, Emirates has grown from flying two leased aircraft to running a fleet of more than 100 planes. It now carries more than 14.5 million passengers to 87 destinations in 59 countries and makes up more than 50% of flight movements in and out of Dubai International Airport. By 2010 it plans to increase this by another 20%.
Eli Abeles, an aviation consultant at The ABS Consultancy, says: “In the last five years, Emirates’ growth has been incredible. It has fantastic new planes and excellent customer service. It’s almost a global airline and is expanding at a very fast rate. It is turning Dubai into a real hub.”
The airline, which is wholly owned by the Government of Dubai, has made little secret of its ambitions to become a major global force. It runs more flights from Dubai to the UK than any other airline and flies from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and soon Newcastle.
“It really is a force to be reckoned with,” says Keith Betton, a travel industry consultant and former head of corporate affairs at ABTA. And I think it’s quite a brave move to do Newcastle. People in the industry were quite surprised because it’s not an obvious move. But Emirates must have done its research and seen a demand there, or it is planning to create demand. The airline is still quite small on a global scale but its expansion plans are very clear.”
However, until it signed the deal with Arsenal, few people had ever heard of Emirates.
Sports sponsorship has played a huge part in raising brand awareness and Jamie Wynne-Morgan, a director at M&C Saatchi Sponsorship, says: “It has pretty much launched an airline through sponsorship. All the deals it takes on are pretty big and it always seems to have the right property at the right time.”
Charlie McEwen, head of sponsorship at Accelerate, believes Emirates needs to look beyond building brand awareness and start talking about its product. He says: “It has achieved big things with its branding – now it needs to move on with a few product messages. But it will have to work much harder on this.”
Emirates is facing competition from Bahrain-based Gulf and Etihad in Abu Dhabi, which can match Emirates for ambition, according to Betton.
McEwen adds: “Dubai is a leading force in the Middle East but Abu Dhabi is the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. Etihad is learning from Emirates but is forming a strategy where they will market the product and not just the brand.”
Emirates may only hold 1% of the global aviation market at present but its ambition knows no bounds.