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How to hide an airplane

Alaska Airlines’ head of marketing tells us how she kept the Star Wars plane a secret before its May 4th debut.

How to hide an airplane
[Photo: courtesy of Alaska Airlines]

This morning, just in time for ‘May the 4th,’ a.k.a. Star Wars Day, Alaska Airlines launched its seventh collaboration with Disneyland Resort—a Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge themed fuselage emblazoned with the Millennium Falcon and TIE fighters, and featuring cute little porgs on its winglets.

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Check out Fast Company‘s first look at the aircraft here.

Somehow, despite the Star Wars franchise’s avid fanbase, news of the launch remained tightly under wraps until just before 10 a.m.—but…how? I wanted to know how the team at Alaska Airlines hid an entire Boeing 737 in plain view, while it was painted at a commercial airport over the course of 27 days.

Here’s what Natalie Bowman, managing director of marketing and advertising for Alaska Airlines, told Fast Company.

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How did you and your team approach building a marketing strategy around the Star Wars collaboration?

We start talking with Disneyland usually years in advance—we do multiple liveries with them every year. There’s a lot that goes into the conversation that this is even going to be a Star Wars aircraft. Once we knew, we partnered with Yellow Shoes and their designers come up with different ideas.

One of the things we knew we wanted to do was really think about the core fans of Star Wars, and get them excited and engaged. That audience, in particular, seems to respond very well to secrecy and wanting to find things out in their own way, so that lent itself really nicely to keeping the livery undercover and keeping things a little bit secretive. We usually always try to keep things secretive, but this one felt like it was next-level for us.

Do you have any advice on when to keep a project completely under wraps versus when breadcrumbing or early seeding of a launch is a better strategy?

If someone is going to take the initiative to get a picture of a livery before it’s launched, they’d have to do a lot—they’d have to go somewhere pretty remote, they’d have to look for hours. We’d almost want to reward that type of behavior—and we like it when there’s a little bit of it. But what we see in all our livery designs is, typically, sharing stays within the aviation community—people who care about liveries, who care about airplanes. It doesn’t necessarily expand to our broader customer base. From a marketing perspective, I’m a little less worried about it.

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Now, Star Wars, though, is a different beast because it’s being painted at a commercial airport, whereas we used to be out in the desert. So the risk of it being seen is much higher this time than any livery we’ve ever done before. And then you add the layer that it’s launching on May 4—it’s not hard for people to figure out it could potentially be a Star Wars livery.

Were there any extraordinary things ​​your team needed to do to ensure the launch stayed under wraps?

We didn’t give the plane a tail number that had meaning because a tail number is something that is more public. In the past, we’ve used tail numbers to tell a message—for example, when our CEO, Brad Tilden, retired, we named a tail number with his initials, BT. That’s something we didn’t do for this one.

Having [the plane] taped up is a very common way [to keep it a secret]. And we moved it at night. We don’t plan photoshoots in advance—our photographer typically gets there first thing in the morning so they can take the picture of it right before it flies where it needs to go. And then we turn that photography into all our communications super-fast. That helps us to be nimble.

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How does a short runway to launch affect marketing strategies in the long run?

When you have more time to plan ahead, you can get the people who are the biggest fans there. We’ve done special liveries for athletes we’ve had endorsements with, and so we know in advance that it’s going to be there and we can invite their biggest fans. With this one, we can’t exactly say [ahead of time] why someone is being invited or use the Star Wars angle to compel them—and so it does make it a little bit tougher for us at launch.

But this aircraft will fly for ten years—and Star Wars will be beloved for more than that. So I feel really good about all the marketing opportunities we have in the future. There’s a lot more fun stuff that we’ll be able to do.

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About the author

Danica Lo is a Fast Company contributing editor covering marketing, branding, and communications.

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