On verdict watch for United Airlines’ account shift

ORLANDO, WHERE THE exceedingly-hyped Casey Anthony case has gone to the jury for deliberation, isn’t the only town on high-profile verdict watch these days.  Chicago has a couple of major agency reviews in progress that are sure to generate plenty of ink too when a decision is finally reached.

We refer, of course, to the S.C. Johnson review, where a verdict should come first. DraftFCB/Chicago is the incumbent on that account, but the agency is viewed as a long shot to retain the business with upwards of $1 billion in billings.

But a second review in progress for the United Airlines advertising account should generate almost as much interest because it involves what is now the world’s largest commercial airline — a new airline that continues to be headquartered in Chicago. 

The review did not come as a total surprise, arising as it did several months after United Airlines and Continental Airlines announced last fall they were merging as equals to form the new world’s largest carrier.

What was most troubling to us about the United ad agency review, when it was announced several months ago, was that we knew almost instinctively it would mean the end of a creatively-fruitful marketing partnership between Minneapolis-based ad agency Barrie D’Rozario Murphy and the Chicago-based United Airlines that had opted to merge with Continental, which had long worked with the Kaplan Thaler Group in New York.

If nothing else, BDM will be remembered for producing some of the most elegant, eye-catching, distinctive advertising ever done for a commercial airline.  BDM’s advertising — the vast majority of it illustration-based and much of it story-driven — gave United a brand image like no other airline, and helped exquisitely elevate the carrier’s profile at a time when it was desperately struggling to restore top-of-class customer service after a difficult bankruptcy.

But sure enough, confirming our worst fears, BDM opted not to participate in the United agency review now underway, and the agency has kept mum about its decision.  Continental’s incumbent, Kaplan Thaler, it turns out, is out of the running now as well. Only three finalists appear to have a chance at landing the United account and they are TBWA/Chiat/Day, McGarryBowen and Arnold.

Finalists have not made their important final pitches yet

There was talk a couple of months ago that the United review would be completed by midsummer. But that timeline is no longer accurate.  United sources now say the date for completing the review is more likely to be late summer — at the end of the busy seasonal vacation period and the start of the fall travel period, when carriers typically have to work harder to fill seats.

A United spokesman said late last week that the three finalists have not even reached the point of making their all-important final pitches for the business, so the deadline for making a decision has, understandably, been pushed back, forcing all of us interested in the outcome to remain on verdict watch quite a few more weeks.

The buzz on the United review at the moment has TBWA the frontrunner. But given that final pitches are still to come, that has to be viewed as possibly subject to change.

Current TV work uses United’s signature Rhapsody in Blue 

Meanwhile, the merged United Airlines has not been entirely absent on the advertising front while it navigates toward a new ad agency of record. The world’s largest carrier has been an advertising presence on several sports telecasts in recent weeks, including Chicago Cubs baseball and PGA golf tournaments.  

United is the official carrier for the Cubs and a sponsor of PGA golf, so those placements make sense.

Interestingly, the TV work we’ve seen lately — believed to be the handiwork of Kaplan Thaler — uses what has been for many years United’s signature piece of music, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. That suggests to us the familiar, catchy tune may very well stick around in some fashion when the new agency is selected.

Otherwise, United’s recent TV commercials have been fairly basic, as has most of the print work on view during this interim period.  The TV spots we’ve seen include a brief shot or two of a newly-repainted United aircraft with the new livery that includes a revamped United logo and the stylized globe image on the aircraft tail.

The spots also play up the point that United is now a much bigger airline flying to many more destinations.  They make that point, but not in a hugely creative fashion.  Down-to-earth has sort of been the style of all the United work while we are on verdict watch.

Contact Lewis Lazare at:  LewisL3@aol.com