SALT LAKE CITY — What started out as an attempt at humor has become a not so flattering episode for one of the nation's largest commercial airlines and the world's top soft drink company.
Some beverage drinkers on Delta Air Lines flights were less than enthusiastic to find the napkins they were given offered an "old school" suggestion to try and connect with an in-flight flame by getting their name and phone number on specially embossed napkins.
Supplied by Diet Coke, the white and red napkins included messages such as "Because you're on a plane full of interesting people … and hey" with an arrow pointing to the reverse side of the napkin which featured lines to put one's name and phone number. In smaller print, the napkins read, "Be old school and write down your number & give to your plane crush, you never know."
While the cheeky campaign was meant to be fun and flirtatious, the response by passengers was not what the beverage-maker had hoped for, with some travelers deeming it "creepy" on social media and others calling the effort "awful."
"Meant to be humorous (but) failed greatly," said Arizona-based brand expert Ali Craig. The fact that the idea for the campaign likely crossed "multiple people's desks" is particularly perplexing, she said, since Coke is a veteran marketing entity.
"Coke is one of those brands, that as a brander, you look to say, 'These are the people who always do it right,'" she explained. "They have their whole structure — this is ideas, this is design creation and this is the execution. They have so many steps (that are) always in place making sure that they always stay on-brand messaging and always stay esthetically within their brand imagery."
"You're kind of like, 'How did they miss this? This is Coke,'" Craig said. "This is classic Americana. This is not Pepsi, this is not Mountain Dew trying to be crazy, this is Coke and this is Delta!"
Noting that Delta is also a company that prides itself on being on top of its brand marketing strategy, protecting it fiercely and not taking going far afield as some other air carriers might do, Craig said the fail is quite a departure from its historic marketing stability.
She said both companies may have to work a bit to overcome the faux pas, but the matter could just "blow over." She said the notion of encouraging people to behave a certain way during air travel when there is possibly alcohol involved is a curious way to market.
"They're both just hoping it goes away," Craig said of the two companies. The biggest concern will be if anything crops up from this debacle, such as passengers complaining they were harassed as a result of the campaign, which could escalate the situation and potentially affect their credibility.
"Then that would show they were completely clueless about what's going on in society … and what's culturally relevant with #MeToo and all of that," she said. "(Companies) have to be careful about those kinds of things."
She added that both companies probably have gotten off pretty easy despite the possibility for strong backlash, but they can each use this as a learning moment.
"You have checks and balances for a reason," Craig explained. "So use them in your organization so that you (don't) lose touch with what the people you are serving are going through on a social level as well as an emotional level."
The Deseret News requested comment from Delta on the matter but did not receive a response.