Flexjet is targeting NetJets customers to switch

The two largest private jet operators in the world are headquartered 21 minutes from each other as the private jet flies. Judging by Flexjet’s current ad campaign, the gloves are off…

It’s 114 nautical miles as the private jet flies from John Glenn Columbus International Airport in central Ohio north to Cuyahoga County Airport in Cleveland. The former is home to Warren Buffett-owned NetJets, the largest operator of private jets in the world, and the undisputed leader in fractional ownership. The latter is the home turf of Golden Domer, Kenn Ricci, whose wide smile and neighborly demeanor belie that in his own right he has made a mark in aviation, acknowledged in 2017 with the Lifetime Aviation Entrepreneur Award at the 14th Annual Living Legends of Aviation Awards.

We wanted to poke the bear

Christopher Bero, vice president of global marketing, Flexjet
Kenn Ricci Flexjet
Direction Aviation boss Kenn Ricci is upping his battle with NetJets with larger, longer-range aircraft, and now an ad campaign taking on its in-state rival by name.

Since buying Flexjet from Bombarder in 2013, his Directional Aviation group, which includes Sentient Jet, PrivateFly, Flight Options, Constant Aviation, and Nextant Aerospace among others, has bolstered the operator into an increasingly international number two player in the Darwinian fractional ownership market. Now it looks like the gloves are off.

At least, that’s the way it seems clicking through Flexjet’s recently launched digital ad campaign. Christopher Bero, vice president of global marketing, during an interview with Private Jet Card Comparisons, says the goal is to take share from its in-state rival.

An ad campaign with headlines reading “Shift Happens – Switch to Flexjet and You’ll Never Look Back”, “More Than A Jet From The Net”, and “Happy Pilots Are Safe Pilots” by #2 fractional provider Flexjet specifically target customers of market leader NetJets to switch – Examples above and below.

“We wanted to poke the bear,” Bero says, adding 20% of Flexjet’s new customers this year are former NetJets fliers. In terms of the campaign’s timing, he says during the slower summer period, “We wanted to do something a bit different – more provoking to spur curiosity…give people a reason to do a doubletake.”

“Shift Happens”

Three attention-grabbing headlines in the digital exclusive ads read, “Shift Happens – Switch to Flexjet and You’ll Never Look Back”, “More Than A Jet From The Net”, and “Happy Pilots Are Safe Pilots.”

Bero says while the goal was to increase leads during the slower months, by using only digital media, “If it didn’t work, we could pull back.”

If you click any of the banners you’ll be treated to a series of frames touting Flexjet’s variety of designer cabin interiors, corporate culture, and claims non-union pilots smile more, all making the case Bero says that the Cleveland provider gives a more customized and relationship-driven approach.

Common marketing wisdom is when you are a distant number two, attempt to grab share from your larger rival and leave it to them to figure out ways to grow the market, typically a more expensive endeavor.

After all, to gain non-user converts, you have to convince them why your product category is even relevant. Telling current category users who already understand what you are selling why they should switch is generally easier.

The Flexjet Challenge?

Number 2s have a history of using sharp advertising to position themselves against leaders. Remember, The Pepsi Challenge, Avis championing second place with “We Try Harder,” or Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl call to rise up against the conformity of IBM?

In this case, readers who click are promised, ” “Change is in the air. Discover why more people are switching to Flexjet.”

Still, in the world of marketing to UHNWs, you don’t see Cartier directly taking on Harry Winston about mark-ups on diamond jewelry or Gucci dissing Chanel on how it makes handbags.

Flexjet compared to NetJets

Flexjet new ads claim, “Change is in the air,” and invites readers to “Discover why more people are switching to Flexjet.”

According to the copy (above), “Over the last four years alone, more NetJets owners have made the switch to Flexjet than any other provider—resulting in a 6.5% market share shift.”

Over the last four years alone, more NetJets owners have made the switch to Flexjet than any other povider – resulting in a 6.5% market share shift

– Flexjet ad campaign

It posits, “Perhaps it’s our innovative Red Label service, flight crews legitimately dedicated to a single aircraft, or possibly our stunning LXi Custom Cabin interiors.”

Flexjet’s copywriters then get their knives out next telling us the reason for the defections is, “Likely all of the above.” They then insert and twist concluding, “and none of which is available at NetJets.”

The campaign then gets into name-calling: “Fact is, we have a word for former NetJets owners who have switched to Flexjet” it reads, before disclosing that name is a six-letter word – “family.”

Non-Union Pilots Tend To Smile More

– Flexjet ad campaign

In case there was doubt this might be a drive-by attack, the limitlessness of the web means ad folks no longer have to tailor their messages to 30 seconds or a single page in a magazine.

The copy attempts to land several more blows, and it takes the fight to the cockpit. On the next screen, Flexjet offers the claim, “Non-Union pilots tend to smile more.”

Flexjet fractional ownership

The copy reads, “When Flexjet pilots opted for a direct relationship with our senior leadership team in lieu of union representation—not only did they make history—they opened the door to limitless possibilities for Flexjet Owners. This collaborative alliance is the only one of its kind in private aviation and is exclusive to Flexjet. No other provider has this unique rapport with its pilots.”

Flexjet Sues NetJets’ Pilots Union

If you are wondering about bringing unions and which type of pilots smile more into a sales pitch, as in any good rivalry, there is a back story.

In May 2018 Flexjet pilots voted to decertify their union. Leading up to the vote, Flexjet accused the union that represents NetJets pilots of trying to interfere.

Just this February, Flexjet issued a press release after a judge allowed its lawsuit accusing against that union – NJASAP – to move forward. A final pretrial hearing is set for Oct. 15.

At the time, Ricci said, “Unions such as NJASAP who were not at all involved with the recent decertification election (by Flexjet pilots) need to understand they cannot do or say anything they want without consequences. This was not campaign speech or meant to do anything other than maliciously threaten those who spoke up in favor of decertification.”

For good measure, he added, “This is just another example of how unions such as NJASAP are completely out of touch with employees and why union membership continues to decline.”

After the decertification, Flexjet launched a new ad campaign centered around its pilots. Bero says despite the anti-union bent of the current copy, the executions are not connected to the lawsuit.

He says the goal is to underscore its pilots “direct relationship with management” and, “They are our brand ambassadors.”

Selling the Flexjet Experience

Flexjet next moves to more traditional we’re better than you verbiage citing, “Fully customized, hand-crafted interiors, crews who are legitimately dedicated to a single aircraft, the industry’s most modern fleet, world-class service, and obsessive attention to detail have placed us in a private aviation league of our very own. No other fractional provider offers even a fraction of the Flexjet Owner experience.”

Flexjet Red Label
Flexjet Kenn Ricci

A subsequent headline reads “Bonds over bottom lines.” The copy continues, “Flexjet company culture is deeply rooted in relationships and our Owners agree that there is something exceptional about being a part of the Flexjet family. Something bigger than business alone. It’s personal. Being a customer-centric brand, it’s simply the nature of our culture to develop close bonds with our Owners—lasting ones.”

Moving down the computer screen the pitch continues, “One-way winds of change.” It seeks to show if you switch you will be in good company. “Long-time NetJets customers—many are among the biggest names in the business—have made the switch to Flexjet and have never looked back. Perhaps it’s time you made the switch.”

Flexjet compared to NetJets

Above a form allowing you to provide your contact details, the ad concludes, “Have the best of everything by making the switch to Flexjet.”

All, in all, despite the rivals geographical closeness, you probably concluded there won’t be any pot luck holiday get-togethers.

Flexjet growth

So what about the claims? According to Argus Traqpak, in 2018 NetJets clocked four times as many hours as Flexjet. It also held a 64% market share, although Flexjet flight hours increased by 8.4% compared to its’ rivals 0.1% gain.

Still, Directional’s Flight Options, a brand it is phasing out, saw hours decline by nearly 25%, meaning in total, the company’s fractional flying was like NetJets, essentially flat.

If you add up everyone else on the list, cumulatively the others would be a distant third place with just over 80,000 hours compared to NetJets at 365,710 and Directional’s two brands with 111,790 hours. In other words, at the top, a classic Coke vs. Pepsi type set-up, a two-horse race with all due respect to Dr. Pepper and 7-Up.

So far this year Traqpak reports fractional operators increased activity by 6.2%. That compares to a gain of just 0.3% for the overall U.S. business aviation market, so the good news for both is the category is growing.

The most recent report doesn’t break out individual operators. However, NetJets recently said privacy concerns by whole aircraft jet owners about the upcoming ADS-B mandate is spurring new interest in fractional ownership. The full airplane owners, it said, want a supplemental lift solution for trips that require privacy from flight trackers.

Seeking Kindred Spirits?

It’s unlikely Flexjet will ever pull even with NetJets when it comes to size. NetJets took delivery of 230 new private jets in the past four years and has hundreds more on order, and if you include Executive Jet Management, over 750 aircraft in its current worldwide fleet.

Still, Bero believes the campaign will strike a chord with entrepreneurial NetJets shareowners who might view the Flexjet culture as more like-minded.

If the bear felt the poke, it’s not letting on. When contacted about the Flexjet ad campaign, NetJets declined to claw back or even make a comment.

Bero says his peak period ad buys will switch back to a more traditional approach. That said, there will be an opportunity for more skirmishes when Flexjet formally announces the launch of programs for European based travelers sometime in the near future.

NetJets Europe is the market leader there as well. Wing-X reports it currently is operating 94 aircraft there while Flexjet has 26 between its Flairjet and Sirio AOCs.

Comparing Flexjet and NetJets

Read more about Flexjet’s jet card programs, its new Gulfstream G650 day-based program, as well as our detailed report about NetJets and its newest jet card offerings. Compare over 300 jet card programs from more than 50 providers here.

About the Author Doug Gollan

I am Founder and Editor of Private Jet Card Comparisons, the only independent buyer's guide to jet card membership programs, and DG Amazing Experiences, a weekly luxury travel e-newsletter for private jet owners. I am also a contributor to Forbes.com

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