What can we learn from Oscar the Grouch?

By Dirk Singer / March 03, 2023

This week two major airlines were in the news because of their sustainability campaigns, but for very different reasons.

Accused of making misleading claims, Lufthansa had an ad struck down by the UK’s ad regulator. Meanwhile United Airlines unveiled its newest employee – Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch, who became “Chief Trash Officer” (CTO).

At a time when industry accusations of ‘greenwashing’ are getting ever louder, these two campaigns together offer a lot of lessons for airlines and airports.

Lufthansa – #MakeChangeFly

Lufthansa #MakeChangeFly

Over the Summer of 2022, Lufthansa ran an ad in the UK. It had an image of an aircraft on the top and a picture of the planet at the bottom. The tagline was “Connecting the World / Protecting its Future.”

The ad then linked back to Lufthansa’s sustainability micro-site.

According to the ASA, the UK’s advertising industry regulator, this was a case of greenwashing as it​​ gave consumers a “misleading impression of its (the airline’s) environmental impact”.

Yes, the micro-site itself does have more details of what Lufthansa is doing, including the recently launched ‘green fares’.

But the actual ad featured one of those standard, broad brush aspirational slogans, that on their own don’t mean very much.

And like airlines who in the past have been in trouble for claiming that they are “going green”, or offering “guilt free flying”, this kind of old school communication doesn’t work anymore.

As SimpliFlying CEO Shashank Nigam says, “Marketing and communications teams will need to think differently about how they talk about an airline’s sustainability efforts.”

“The old mantras of keeping copywriting short and simple need to be ditched in favour of authentic storytelling. Think long-form podcasts and videos rather than six-word statements that communicate little.”

As it happens, a lot of what Lufthansa is doing in the sustainability space is pretty interesting. To take one example, the airline’s micro-site says that Lufthansa will be “flying with sunlight.”

That statement refers to Lufthansa’s collaboration with Swiss company Synhelion, which is producing so-called Solar Fuels.

“Flying with sunlight” sounds intriguing. Why not create a content programme around it, telling consumers more about it? Especially as Synhelion’s “Dawn” solar fuel facility should be operational in the next year.

United’s new “CTO”

Enter United Airlines, which on March 2nd, announced that it had a new staff member on board. Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch would now be the airline’s CTO – ‘Chief Trash Officer.’

What’s the relevance to United and sustainability? United Airlines has made a number of investments in SAF (Sustainable Aviation Fuel) companies, including in Fulcrum Bioenergy.

Fulcrum turns household waste into SAF and already has a plant up and running in Nevada. It has additionally secured UK Government funding to build another one in the UK.

So, the idea of turning trash to SAF is something that is actually happening.

To launch Oscar’s new role, United has created a micro-site. This includes videos where United staff members tell Oscar how things like the banana peel in his trash can, could be used to fuel aircraft.

The microsite also has user friendly diagrams explaining the process, and is being supported on social media.

It’s also worth noting that the site includes the small print that right now only 0.1% of United’s fuel is SAF.

So United is sensitive to greenwashing claims and makes a nod to the fact that while SAF exists right now, it will take some more time for it to be available at large volumes.

However, overall United is doing what Shashank said airlines and airports now need to do – employ authentic storytelling and not very general green sounding slogans that can and will be challenged.

United’s Oscar campaign focuses on something that is real (trash to SAF), while not making outlandish environmental claims and it presents the information in a fun and accessible way.

It also has longevity. You can imagine Oscar fronting all sorts of content for United in the coming months, as their new sustainability mascot.

Want to know more?

  • Take a look at our greenwashing report, where we emphasise the importance of storytelling.
  • Recently, we launched our green travel report wherein we track a hypothetical journey from New Zealand to California in 2028, and highlight the potential developments likely to revolutionise aviation in the next five years.
  • We also interviewed ten airline sustainability leaders to find out what they are doing. Those interviews include a number of valuable insights on aviation’s road to net zero.
  • Finally, we sometimes get the question of why aviation is being targeted, when other industries account for greenhouse gas emissions. We’ve tried to answer this in an in-depth article.
  • More aviation specific sustainability updates and analysis can be found in our weekly newsletter. Subscribe to stay on top of the latest trends.

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