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El-Al’s Reverse Branding

Dec 01, 20042 mins
CSO and CISOIT Leadership

For years, El-Al didn’t even mention security in its marketing messages. There was no need to: The airline’s attitude toward security was legendary, and if you were flying El-Al, you knew all you needed to about its meticulous approach. Most airlines, for example, surely would have missed the pregnant Irish woman in 1986 who was attempting to board a flight from London to Tel Aviv. Several pounds of explosives had been secretly sewed into her handbag (unbeknownst to her) by her Jordanian boyfriend, and were rigged to explode when the flight was airborne. But El-Al noticed.

So its branding revolved around other messages. “El-Al in English means ‘taking off,’ or ‘going up,’ and for years the airline relied on a Hebrew tagline that translates roughly as ‘The heart taking off,’ says Shahar Silbershatz, an Israeli citizen who is managing director of London-based brand consultancy Karakter, and who in the past has worked on the El-Al account, advising the airline on brand issues and marketing. Another brand message aimed to position the airline as the “loyal” way to arrive in Israel, he explains, employing a tagline that translates as “Coming home.”

Post-9/11, with the airline being readied for privatizationinvolving, among other things, a stricter approach to profitabilitythe marketing message changed. In the summer of 2002, explains Silbershatz, El-Al rolled out its new tagline, which translates as “Not just because of security.” It’s a message that tries to deflect the downside of having a strong reputation for security: While there was no doubt about the airline’s commitment to safety, there was doubt in consumers’ minds about its commitment to other aspects of the in-flight experience.

“For better or worse, El-Al shares a lot of the characteristics of the Israeli national identity: Safety and security are paramount,” Silbershatz says.

That means things like in-flight service and catering are of secondary importance. But according to Silbershatz, experienced passengers (including Silbershatz himself, thanks to regular business trips back to Tel Aviv) don’t mind too much. The service may be a little rough at times, he says, but the welcome is warmer than it first appears. “El-Al is a little like Israel’s famous cactuslike sabra fruit,” he says. “The people are prickly on the outside, but a lot friendlier once you get to know them.”