When British Air's Concorde jets met their much-noted demise last October, rival Virgin Atlantic Airways saw an opportunity to trumpet its own Upper Class service. Its newly hired agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, created clever full-page newspaper ads bidding the Concorde farewell—and welcoming its refugees. But the ads were only the beginning: CP+B is doing its heaviest lifting in the airplane cabin itself.
The agency is helping Virgin rethink a dozen aspects of its Upper Class experience. It's hiring big-name designers to rework everything from pajamas to barf bags and trumpeting the service with an onboard storybook about its fab, pampered passengers. At one point, CP+B even suggested that Virgin fly 500 feet above the average cruising altitude so that it could brag, "We fly higher." (Virgin respectfully passed.)
The product as medium. It's one compelling answer to the advertising industry's greatest challenge today: media fragmentation. In a world of 100-plus cable channels, TiVo, and affordable broadband, it's increasingly tough to get your pitch to the person who should see it. Here's CP+B's zig-zaggy thinking: Instead of delivering different messages to disparate audiences, focus first on the one vehicle you can be sure will reach your customer—the product.
"People have forgotten that the best tool for selling a product is the product itself," says CP+B president Jeff Hicks. By his thinking, the experience is the message: The most intimate, most efficient conversation you can have with your customer happens when that person is buying or using your wares.
CP+B, a boutique firm in Miami, has thrived with head-turning media work for IKEA, BMW's Mini, and the "truth" antismoking campaign. But while its creative work oozes industrial- grade hipness, it's the focus on product that gets some clients' attention. "This is not the typical approach agencies take with clients," says Virgin Atlantic's Chris Rossi, vice president for North American sales and marketing.
CP+B applied the approach two years ago with Molson U.S.A. The beer maker, trying to reinvigorate American sales, faced a common dilemma. As Steve Breen, its vice president of marketing, now asks, "Where are the 21-to-29-year-old men? They're playing video games; they're in bars. They're not sitting in front of the TV." CP+B agreed—and made the radical suggestion that Molson hold off on TV. Instead, it recommended spending the money to dress beer bottles in CP+B-designed back labels, novelties meant for frisky barflies to use as icebreakers. "I'm with the band," says one. "Of course they're real," reads another.
That caught Breen's attention. He explains, "CP+B starts with the belief that the consumer is out there—we just have to go get him. Everyone else starts with mediums." On the strength of the label campaign (Who could resist "I'm a hottie magnet"?), Molson says U.S. sales are up more than 40% in the past year. How much will Breen spend on TV next year? Nothing.
Which isn't to say that CP+B eschews media altogether: The agency has grown from billings of $165 million in 2001 to roughly $250 million in 2003, and much of that derives from traditional advertising. Virgin, for one, plans a TV splash this year—but not until it revamps enough cabins to make good on its word. If the product isn't right first, the advertising just won't fly.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.