Skybus Airlines is still mum about its routes and fares, but the startup carrier hopes consumers will do a lot of its talking.
The Columbus-based airline is selling caps, aprons and doggie T-shirts with its logo through its Skybus.com site, months ahead of the company's spring launch.
While its success in operating an airline has yet to be seen, Skybus' sale of branded merchandise puts it in the big leagues in marketing. Most major carriers sell products that they hope will enhance their brands and inspire loyalty, while making them a little money on the side.
"The strategy is to create awareness and excitement," Skybus spokesman Bob Tenenbaum said. Product sales began about the same time that two billboards for Skybus sprang up in Columbus in November.
The ads and logo were designed by Columbus agency TenUnited. Product orders are processed and filled by Cafe Press of Foster City, Calif.
Cafe Press specializes in producing "on-demand" goods bearing the logos or likenesses of everything from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to the Dilbert cartoon character.
Skybus gets a cut of the merchandise revenue, which Tenenbaum says isn't expected to be substantial anytime soon.
JetBlue Airways, which started flying at Port Columbus in October, is expanding its line of branded goods, JetBlue spokeswoman Kim Ruvulo said. Currently, JetBlue offers items such as golf balls, polo shirts and retro flight bags with the JetBlue logo.
"The merchandise is more of a brand-builder than a revenue-generator for us," said Ruvulo, the company's brand manager. "We do make money off of it, but that's not the only goal."
Other airlines including American, Continental and Southwest offer model planes, T-shirts and visors, sold from their Web sites. Goods from Ted, the regional offshoot of United, have been especially popular with men named Ted, a spokeswoman for the airline said this year.
JetBlue, like Southwest Airlines, has cultivated a stronger image than the major airlines, resulting in greater brand loyalty. In particular, JetBlue has positioned itself as catering to champagne tastes on a beer budget, offering leather seats, satellite TV and upscale snacks and toiletries.
Skybus, by contrast, has signaled that it plans to run a bare-bones operation based on the successful Irish upstart Ryanair, which keeps prices low by charging extra for virtually everything beyond a seat on the airplane. Skybus plans to have passengers walk out and board the aircraft from the ground rather than from a ramp, as a way for the airline to save time and money. It also requested that the airport not put food concessions next to its ground-level waiting room, in the hope that it will sell more food and beverages to passengers once they board.
In New York, where JetBlue is based, downtown boutiques carry vintage flight bags from carriers of the industry's golden age, Ruvulo said. "I'd love to see a JetBlue flight bag in a Soho shop someday," she said.
Skybus hopes to generate a similar buzz with its name and butterfly logo.
"Maybe it will be a cultish thing; it may have some intrigue," said Charles Riotto, president of the International Licensing Industry Merchandiser's Association.
About 68 percent of fliers report having that kind of emotional connection with Southwest, Columbus ad executive Nita Rollins said.
"It's because of the image they've created," said Rollins, who holds the title of director of thought leadership with ReSource Interactive.
"What Skybus is doing may seem a little odd, but I think they're trying to create a personality for the brand using the Web as a marketing vehicle. They want to create a sense of belonging, and sell the idea of using their brand to stay connected to a network of friends."