Business Q & A

A conversation with Tom Aniello

Some of the best work of Tom Aniello's career was the result of one of his industry's lowest moments.

Aniello, Cessna Aircraft's vice president for marketing, was in charge of a campaign to counter negative publicity involving the use of business jets. The publicity followed the Congressional grilling of the nation's three automakers after they arrived in Washington in business jets to ask for bailout money.

"It was like flipping a switch," Aniello said of the day the automakers testified. "I literally call it a witch hunt for aviation."

As a result, business jet owners were sensitive about operating or even being seen with their aircraft, Aniello said.

In response, Cessna launched its Rise Campaign with a half-page ad in the global edition of the Wall Street Journal. More ads, a direct mail and a public relations campaign followed.

Aniello is responsible for Cessna's global marketing, advertising, branding, trade shows, market research and market strategy for all Cessna aircraft. He also contributes to new product definition and development efforts.

He holds a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Kansas. He's also working on a master's of business administration.

He is a private pilot and earned his instrument rating in October. He and his wife have three sons.

You launched into action quickly from the fallout of the negative publicity. What was going on?

"It was open season on business aviation. Even the president was critical of it.... (After that) we had reports of a number of companies parking their aircraft, hiding them.... They, all of a sudden, felt extremely exposed and ashamed of their use of business aircraft."

Your strategy changed from advertising Cessna products to a broader campaign about the use of business jets. How did you go about it?

"We had to step back to basics and give people... permission that it's OK to fly.... One way to get out of this recession is to continue doing business and doing it in a fast manner."

At one point, you felt your career might be on the line with the campaign. What happened?

"The night before we launched that ad (with the Wall Street Journal), I had a high-level senior manager try to convince me not to run that ad. When I came to work that Wednesday morning, I literally felt I might be betting my job on how it turns out."

What was the response?

"Within about two hours of people reading their Wall Street Journal, we started getting phone calls, e-mails, postings to the website.... We really hit a nerve and struck a chord.... The response was, 'Thank you Cessna for standing up and protecting our interest as business aviation operators.'... We stopped counting after 500 or so (responses) between e-mails and phone calls."

Sounds like a successful campaign.

"It's one of those campaigns, as a marketer, if you get something that's that successful in your lifetime, you're pretty lucky."

So is the climate better now?

"Certainly the rhetoric, I think, has all but gone away.... (But) there's still a lot of sensitivity out there, (especially with) government agencies, state and local governments — their use of business aircraft. At the same time, they're seeing they really can't operate without them."

Your sales force was in Wichita for your annual global sales meeting this month. What was the mood this year?

"The mood was much more positive.... It was just a dark year last year, coming off of 2009. It was a low point."

And now?

"We're not going to get back to 2006 levels for a little while.... (But) it seems like things have stabilized, and we've got a good foundation to keep growing as the global economies start to thaw out and grow. As we have new product introductions, things will start to pick up."

So what new products is Cessna working on?

"There's a couple of new products I'd love to talk with you about... but I'd lose my job."

What advice would you give to other businesses that want to develop successful marketing campaigns?

"Get out and talk to your prospective customers and understand what their needs are, and that will give you a blueprint for what you need to do."