Air Canada prepares to ‘Fly the Flag’ in Beijing

Martine Boulerice, Air Canada’s senior brand marketing and sponsorship manager, has now been directly involved with two…let’s call them turbulent, Olympic sponsorship activations. And barely a year apart.

Both have, of course, taken place during Covid—throwing carefully conceived marketing programs into disarray and adding an extra degree of uncertainty to the whole program. All that aside, the Olympics “absolutely” remain one of this year’s tentpole marketing events for Air Canada, and Boulerice didn’t mind the extra degree of difficulty that comes with landing a massive sponsorship program like this.

“A challenge is always fun,” she said. “It’s not business as usual, but that being said, we do have a lot of robust and very compelling activations.”

The official airline of Team Canada this week announced its marketing program for Beijing, presented under the banner “Fly the Flag.” It is a blend of old(ish) TV creative, new livery for one of its aircraft, and the usual assortment of Olympic-themed activations—including an exclusive behind the Games feature for Aeroplan members, and other content series built around Team Canada athletes.

While many Olympic sponsors had plans for the Tokyo Olympics disrupted by their postponement from 2020 until 2021, Boulerice said it’s been clear to sponsors for some time that the Beijing Olympics would go ahead on schedule, though they were unlikely to play out like a pre-pandemic Games. That meant, for example, that Air Canada’s planning for this year’s Games took circumstances like having no fans in the stands into account.

“To be honest we really focused in on our activations and building on some of the success we had in Tokyo and… those virtual events,” said Boulerice.

Air Canada unveiled its first Olympic-related activation on Wednesday, when flight AC2201, the first of three chartered flights on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner bearing new “Fly the Flag” livery, took off from Vancouver on a direct flight to Beijing. Air Canada will ultimately carry more than 400 Canadian athletes and coaches to China for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The airline also introduced its five-person team of athlete ambassadors: Freestyle skiers Cassie Sharpe and Mikaël Kingsbury; bobsledder Cynthia Appiah; speed skater Gilmore Junio; and hockey player Marie-Philip Poulin. Paralympic ambassadors will be announced prior to the Paralympic Winter Games’ March 4 kick-off.

And while the Olympics usually represent an opportunity for brands to introduce new creative supporting their (costly) sponsorship, Air Canada plans to bring back the “Rise Higher” spot it introduced for last year’s Games. Boulerice said the message it conveys— being optimistic about the future and celebrating special moments, no matter how small—still resonates just six months after its debut.

“We were thinking about what would be our spot for this year, and we kept coming back to the same message,” she said. “We’re not quite out of the woods with the pandemic right now, so it’s still very important to celebrate and embrace both the small and big moments in our lives. That’s what this spot is all about.”

According to post-campaign research from Ipsos, Canadian consumers regarded “Rise Higher” as “very enjoyable to watch,” as well being as “unique and different.” The research also indicated that it successfully reinforced consideration and strengthened viewers’ evaluation of the airline’s performance.

The spot will have an “extensive” broadcast presence during both the Olympics and Paralaympics, augmented by paid social, said Boulerice. “It’s not worn-out at all.”

The TV spot is being supported by a full complement of online activations, including an exclusive event for Aeroplan members called “Behind the Games” that consists of two separate 40-minute discussions, in English and French, with former Olympians.

The first event is with ice dancer Scott Moir and freestyle skier Alexandra Bilodeau moderated by diver Alexandra Despatie. The second, timed to coincide with the women’s hockey gold medal game, is dedicated to women’s excellence in the Games. It features a panel comprised of Olympic soccer player Stephanie Labbé, hockey player Caroline Ouellette, and American hockey player Julie Chu, moderated by Canadian TV personality Christine Simpson.

Air Canada has also partnered with CBC/Radio-Canada on a program called the “Air Canada Social Stadium,” inviting Canadians to talk live with its five team ambassadors in Beijing during the Games telecast.

CBC/Radio-Canada is also creating a content series called “Team Canada Takes Off with Air Canada,” which is following Kingsbury and speedskater Kim Boutin in the days leading up to their flight to Games, showing what they’re packing, how they’re preparing for the flight and the competition.

“I couldn’t be happier with the programming we’re offering,” said Boulerice of the airline’s Olympic package. “And I couldn’t be prouder of what we will offer to Canadian fans and Aeroplan members, giving them really unique access to the athletes and the Games. I think they’re very solid activations.”

And there’s still a chance that Boulerice might be involved in a typical Olympics at some point. “Let’s hope,” she said. “There’s definitely going to be a new normal.” The Paris Games, by the way, are scheduled to get underway in just 910 days.

Chris Powell