TORONTO - While WestJet insists its holiday gift-giving stunt that spawned a viral video wasn't intended to be a commercial in disguise, marketing experts say the Canadian airline's brand is getting an invaluable boost as the YouTube hit count continues to surge.
In the video, which surpassed 15 million views on Thursday, the airline hatches an elaborate holiday surprise for more than 250 travellers heading to Calgary on flights from Toronto and Hamilton.
WestJet customers are seen stumbling upon a video kiosk that connects them with a blue-suited Santa Claus, who asks what they'd like for Christmas. A family asks for a big TV, a boy wants a tablet, and one man asks for socks and underwear — which he'll come to regret.
WestJet staff then scramble to buy the gifts to fill those requests, which are wrapped and delivered via a luggage carousel in Calgary. The shocked reaction of the passengers as they realize what WestJet has done is a feel-good tearjerker.
"It was a really, really well thought out, well executed experiential campaign that they did a very good job of documenting so they could share the results with whoever wanted to see it," says Mitch Joel, president of the digital marketing agency Twist Image.
"They pulled it off in stunning fashion."
In a blog post, WestJet said it hoped the video would generate 200,000 views, at which point it would donate free flights to a needy family. A year earlier, another holiday video — based around a song-and-dance flash mob that stunned tired travellers waiting for a red-eye flight out of Calgary — racked up 500,000 views, which the company considered a great success.
So you can imagine the marketing team's excitement when this year's holiday video hit one million views on its second day online. And the video's popularity is still surging with no sign of slowing down yet.
"'Tis the season, right? When you do something like that where there's surprise and delight it gets amplified and magnified," says Joel.
While the conventional wisdom of online video suggests viewers lose interest after a minute or two, WestJet's campaign runs over five minutes long, which is a very long time for consumers to be exposed to the brand.
"The whole win of this is people are willingly spending five to six minutes with WestJet," says Joel.
"And they're actively looking at it because someone told them to check it out. And that is a high level of advertising that most brands could only hope to achieve around the holiday season."
Marketing professor David Soberman says it's also a great campaign because it reinforces the image WestJet has tried to portray without being overly obvious about it.
"It makes WestJet stand out as a company that goes outside of the norm to take care of its customers," says Soberman, the Canadian National Chair of Strategic Marketing with the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management
"It's saying to people in an indirect way, 'We're still the WestJet you've always known. We care about you, we're getting bigger, but we're not changing the way we treat our customers.' So in that way it's a very clever manoeuvre."
Joel agrees the campaign seems like it might have been created to drive home the company's brand.
"My guess is you've got (Toronto-based) Porter in a certain brand space, you've got Air Canada doing a whole lot more in this space, and you've got WestJet, which to a certain degree has been in the middle of those two brands. And perhaps their whole thing was ... a revival of the true brand sentiment of what WestJet is in a world where Porter has very much taken on a friendly 'we're here for you' type of brand as well," he says.
"Whatever this cost, they did a great job of bringing more awareness to the WestJet brand in a very crowded marketplace in Canada."
Watch the "WestJet Christmas Miracle: real-time giving" video: http://bit.ly/1kDCmRo