"Designing an Identity to Make a Brand Fly
By MOTOKO RICH
Published: November 6, 2003
-LEATHER seats. Extra legroom. Live satellite television at your seat. Minimalist, whimsical flourishes on the sides of the planes, and oh yeah, low fares.
If you are thinking that sounds like JetBlue, the three-year-old upstart airline, who could blame you? But Song, the new low-fare service Delta Air Lines rolled out in April, is also trying to capture a youthful market by selling style as much as service.
Officials at Song insist, of course, that their airline is not simply a JetBlue knockoff. They have added an extra inch of legroom and will offer amenities like video games, MP3 playlists and pay-per-view movies. In an effort at one-upmanship, they will sell entrees like "rock and roll veggie sushi" and "shaved turkey on focaccia," for about $8.
So, aside from the traditional billboards and print ads, how to communicate the message? Taking a page from Prada and Apple Computer, the airline is opening a store in SoHo for six weeks starting tomorrow.
Featuring sleek electronics and installation art, Song, whose biggest market is New York, with 35 daily flights, is clearly courting what they hope will be a glamorous following. "We want people to say, `An airline is doing that? I thought it was a clothing store' or `I thought it was a gallery,' " said Stacy Geagan, Song's communications director.
The airline is giving an invitation-only party at the store tonight, where, publicists promised, Grace Jones would serve as D.J. and Moby, Drew Barrymore and her boyfriend, Fabrizio Moretti of the Strokes, would drop by.
Those not lucky enough to make it tonight can stop in Thursdays through Sundays (98 Prince Street, between Mercer and Greene; 646-613-0203). The store will display airline seats, X-Box game systems, a Microsoft 2004 flight simulator and airplane windows stocked with retail items from Kate Spade (who is designing uniforms for the flight attendants) and Flight 001, a boutique travel store. Customers can also make flight reservations at the store.
Michael Rock, a partner at 2x4, a firm that helped design the Prada store in SoHo, said Song was just following the current trend of using retail space to sell an image. "You don't really change the function of the thing itself," Mr. Rock said, "but you change the perception of the function of the thing and you differentiate the surface of it."
He added that by placing the store within a block of the Prada and Apple stores, the airline is "equating the value of Song with these other things nearby and the kind of people you expect to find in SoHo."
The store has a cafe that offers a sampling of the nouveau airline food, created by Michel Nischan, a consultant who is the author of "Taste Pure and Simple: Irresistible Recipes for Good Food and Good Health."
Alex Calderwood, a creative director at Neverstop, which designed the store, said, "You are serving airline food in SoHo. That communicates a sense of confidence and spirit."
Julie Lasky, the editor in chief of I.D. magazine, said that Song was trying to evoke a range of emotions, rather than simply selling its product. "It's taking people out of the notion of an airplane and linking them to a sense of adventure, comfort and things that have become a general experience," she said. Design features like the Kate Spade uniforms, she said, would help Song to establish itself as "simple and minimal and modern."
In an attempt to associate itself with the SoHo art scene, the airline commissioned Howard Goldkrand, an electronic-media artist, to produce streaming video of skies running continuously past a panel that looks like the side of a plane.
And in what is perhaps a rather odd choice for an airline, the store's designers had Ed Tannenbaum, an artist, develop an interactive display in which visitors see their likenesses projected onto a stack of video screens with watery imagery. If you wave your arm, for example, the screens ripple and bubble.
While that might bring to mind emergency water landings, Mr. Calderwood said it is meant to represent something more metaphorical. "It reflects the purity of flying," he said.
Fundamentally, the store is about using stylish design and entertainment to introduce the airline to people who might not have heard of it.
"You don't have to know about Song, you can happen upon Song," Ms. Geagan said.
Officials at JetBlue said they question whether people would go out of their way to investigate a new brand. With Apple's store, for example, "people already have a fondness for Apple," said Gareth Edmondson-Jones, a spokesman for JetBlue. "It was such an icon of its time. I don't know that Song is a) known enough or b) desirable enough to attract people. I think it's just putting the cart before the horse."
JetBlue's success may be part of the reason Song is so eager to copy the airline. JetBlue recently reported third-quarter earnings that were double the year-earlier period's.
Masamichi Udagawa, a principal of Antenna Design, a Manhattan-based firm that created check-in kiosks for JetBlue, said he preferred JetBlue's recent plan to build a modern terminal behind the historic Eero Saarinen Trans World Airlines terminal at Kennedy Airport, in which it will install electronic kiosks. He said the move showed JetBlue "merging the brand with that established image of glorious air travel of the past," which would add more heft to JetBlue's design consciousness than would a store in SoHo.
The Song store, Mr. Udagawa said, is unlikely to conceal the fact that the airline is less original than it might like people to think. "In general, it's great that companies are more design-conscious," he said. "But copying other people's design is an absolute no-no," he said.
"I know it's a competitive business," he added, "but the strength of design is to come up with an original idea, not just copy someone else's good idea."