Turkish Airlines is in the middle of a rapid global expansion. It already flies to Chicago, Washington, and New York, and it has announced it will come to the west coast with four weekly flights between Istanbul and Los Angeles beginning March 3.
That's not a route with a ton of demand, but Turkish must be hoping that it can rely on connections. The only problem there is that Emirates already has twice daily flights to Dubai and European airlines can serve many of the same cities via connections over Europe. So it's an increasingly crowded space in a market that's not as big as you might assume. So Turkish has fallen back on its old standby: sports sponsorship.
Turkish sponsors storied soccer clubs Manchester United and FC Barcelona in Europe. It also sponsors basketball teams on the Continent. So what's it doing here? It's going for the biggest prize in LA.
Turkish has now announced that it has signed Kobe Bryant, star of the Los Angeles Lakers, to be a global brand ambassador. This seems like a much better move than its previous ambassador, Kevin Costner. (Seriously, Kevin Costner in the last couple years, not 15 years ago.)
From the Turkish perspective, this makes a lot of sense. Sign someone that the city of Los Angeles loves, and it will provide some real visibility for the brand. Only one problem. Not everyone is happy about this, and the backlash has begun.
See, Turkish Airlines is half-owned by the Turkish government, and that makes it a political lightning rod, especially in Los Angeles where there is a large and vocal Armenian population.
Around the time of World War I, what is commonly known as the Armenian Genocide took place. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were forced to relocate by the Turkish people with upwards of a million losing their lives. The Turkish stance is that the relocations were necessary because the Armenians were fighting on the other side of the war and the deaths happened from harsh conditions during the relocation. The Armenians, along with many others, believe it was genocide, an attempt to eradicate the Armenian people on a frighteningly large scale.
Kobe probably didn't even think twice about the political ramifications when Turkish decided to offer him a ton of money, but it's now coming back to bite him. There are more than 600,000 Armenians living in California, and they are all angry at Kobe for what they see as becoming a shill for an arm of the Turkish government.
This puts Kobe in a tough spot. Turkish does provide a great level of service onboard, and it's not a bad brand to be associated with by any stretch of the imagine. That must have been what Kobe thought when he signed on. But the genocide, despite having happened nearly a century ago, still is fresh in the minds of the Armenian community.
It may sound silly on the surface. It would be similar to Kobe refusing to sponsor any German companies because of the holocaust. If Kobe did that, you wouldn't see any backlash, I assume. But there's one big difference.
Germany has accepted the Holocaust and atoned for it on a national level. Turkey denies the genocide, and that's why the bitterness still exists even though nearly a century has passed.
So now, both Kobe and Turkish Airlines find themselves in a sticky spot. Kobe either gets himself involved in politics or he just continues his sponsorship and loses support from the Armenian community. Meanwhile, Turkish Airlines was hoping to create some very positive buzz around its new service but instead, it's bringing up some bad press as well.
And all this for a simple sponsorship of a new flight to Los Angeles. Sheesh. Shows how closely you need to consider your sponsorships when you're a superstar. (Which is probably why Kevin Costner didn't have to worry.)