ABU DHABI // When choosing the first brand ambassador for the emirate’s national airline, Etihad bosses not only wanted an A-list star but a credible spokesperson with a shared vision.
Nicole Kidman was a fit from the start, said Peter Baumgartner, chief commercial officer for Etihad Airways.
“We thought it was time to work with a really prominent celebrity,” he said. “It had to be someone who really shares the same values as the brand or that the brand is portraying and Nicole Kidman was an ideal candidate.
“Her reputation, the sophisticated personality she has, the style that she has, and her popularity of course.”
The fact she was already a frequent flyer with Etihad made her a credible source and spokesperson, he said.
“Also, for an actor with a reputation like Nicole, she could not afford to be associated with a brand she does not believe in,” said Mr Baumgartner. “So it is not just a question whether you pay a fee but whether there is a brand fit.”
And the Oscar winner was the perfect fit for Etihad in its ambition to become the best airline in the world, he said.
“Just looking at her body of work; she is always someone looking for the extraordinary, to push the boundaries.”
It is that idea of pushing the boundaries that is in line with what Etihad wanted to achieve with the commercial which would showcase the $20,000 Residence suite on Etihad Airways’s first Airbus A380 superjumbo, featuring three rooms and a dedicated butler.
Like British Airways (BA) had — with its introduction of Club Class seats in 1978 — Etihad wanted to create a breakthrough that was a first in air travel.
Creating a new passenger experience in an already congested airline market was not an easy task.
Etihad chiefs brought together a select group of consumers — some seasoned travellers, some of whom had never travelled with Etihad — in a ‘Big Brother’ style house where, under the 24/7 watchful eye of industry specialists, they tossed ideas back and forth about what improvements they would like to see.
It spawned a number of small but integral improvements.
Etihad chiefs wanted something more and began a discussion of what to do with the nose of the new A380 airplane.
The shape and size brought constraints. Suggestions discussed were dismissed as too gimmicky. Another cliché was not what the airline market needed, said Mr Baumgartner.
Finally they arrived at The Residences. An on-board penthouse-type cabin serving the most elite end of the market.
It was perfect, said Mr Baumgartner.
Given that it was a space for lying down it could accommodate two passengers rather than one. It is similar to a hotel room, in that one price is charged, but allows for double occupancy.
In using the space so efficiently it was a commercially clever brainwave and so different to what any other airline had done that, like BA had before, Etihad created an industry breakthrough.
It was just part of the airline’s vision to become the best commercial carrier.
As Mr Baumgartner explains, without a world class airline, how can Abu Dhabi compete as a world class destination?
“We are the first point of entry. If the flight carrier of this destination is not vying for seven star then it is impossible the destination will be perceived to be great at as well.”
He pauses. “So no pressure.”
Thinking of the idea was just the start.
There was no rule book on how to create such a living space in the sky, explains Mr Baumgartner.
“So first we had to create the rule book,” he said. “I am so glad innovation comes with blood, sweat and tears. I am so glad that it is almost impossible to do what we have done.
“Because if innovation was easy then you would not be the first one to do it. Somebody else would be quicker. It has to be difficult.
“And that is where Etihad persists.”
The Residences is just one of a number of recent innovations by the airline.
The Boeing Dreamliner 787, the cabin crew uniform revamp were other dreams realised and unveiled in 2014 and were the culmination of years of brainstorming and hard work to make the young airline become an industry changer.
It was a journey Etihad management wanted to mark and a story they wanted to tell.
What better than a new global TV commercial with a Hollywood heavyweight?
“We have 30 seconds in which to bring that commitment, that super brand, that superiority across. Nicole was the star in which to do that.”
And so what next for the airline which has changed the way to fly?
There are ideas in the pipeline, said Mr Baumgartner.
“You want to be the best airline in the world you need to constantly think about the future,” he said. “You always need to think about eight years ahead. How easy would it be to get distracted? But we never lose sight of what is to come.”