Air New Zealand's wacky marketing strategy is designed as a cost-effective way to get noticed. But marketers are asking where that leaves this great Kiwi brand.

How does a comparatively small airline like Air New Zealand make a bang in a big market like the United States?

Chief executive Rob Fyfe notes that one 30-second ad during the Superbowl would wipe out the airline's entire marketing budget.

Space in traditional media is expensive. "We can't match United Airlines, Delta or probably even Qantas," he said.

So the airline's approach is to stand out with a mixture of online and social media.

The hope is that viral media campaigns will spread like wildfire and, like the recent duet between muppet mascot Rico and singer Snoop Dogg, get picked up by mainstream media.

The airline's online content is a mixed bag, as Fyfe admits - not everyone will like everything.

But the hope is that people who choose to view clips or other material will think they are fun, will associate that with Air New Zealand, and if they're planning a trip to New Zealand will choose the airline.

On a purely retail-focused view of "getting bums on seats", the strategy makes good sense.

But some in the marketing industry are looking askance at the state of the iconic Air New Zealand brand and wondering if it has lost its way.

One branding consultant says there are dangers in using controversy and "smash and grab" cam-paigns - retail-focused strategies designed to get cash registers ringing.

These have been popular with many companies as they try to rebuild after the global financial crisis.

In Air New Zealand's case, there are the added factors that they're using controversial products on new media and are dealing with an extraordinarily strong local brand.

Midway through the last decade, Fyfe was drawing admiration for classy, innovative approaches to traditional branding campaigns, working closely alongside its branding agency Colenso BBDO.

The "Nothing to Hide" commercials - featuring staff in body paint and G-strings and even featuring Fyfe in a cameo - marked a shift to a retail-focused campaign using Colenso's retail division, .99.

Some content in spots featuring All Blacks has touched base with the old brand values.

Yet the focus hasn't been on those traditional values but on a crude puppet specialising in double-entendres.

Last month, Rico appeared with rapper Snoop Dogg in an online clip that has been picked up by American breakfast TV, which Fyfe points out gave coverage you could not buy.

This week, 80s aerobics star Richard Simmons featured in the airline's in-flight safety video - in a duet with polarising TV star Paul Henry.

Fyfe agrees there are risks in the marketing strategy and says that the adventurous approach could become "too successful".

The danger is that offbeat ads aimed at niche online audiences are being picked up and, as Fyfe says, "leaching" into editorial coverage in mainstream media with a different market.

Toby Talbot is executive creative director at DDB advertising and, in a previous role at branding agency Colenso BBDO, worked closely with Air New Zealand.

He applauds the airline for taking risks and says it is being talked about, scoring big hits online.

But there is a danger if different ad campaigns are run in unison.

"You must stay within your brand and consistent in the way the brand talks to people. People should love the brand, not flinch," says Talbot.

Retired Colenso founder Roger MacDonnell is more direct. "My own view is that they have lost their way."

"They want to be in the new media, they want to be new and be different. Which is fine, but I don't like what they're doing." he said.

"Whether you like it or not, Air New Zealand is an iconic and much-loved New Zealand brand. I've seen one [ad] featuring Richie McCaw and Graham Henry - but it works because it connects back to the core brand."

James Bickford - the managing director for the New Zealand arm of branding specialists Interbrand - also sounded a note of warning.

"Smash and grab" promotions like those employed by Air New Zealand could erode the brand and Air New Zealand could lose the real essence of who they are.

New Zealand was a small nation that was extremely passionate about the Air New Zealand brand.

If Air New Zealand continued on its present path, consumers would be confused about what it stood for.

It was fine to have distinct approaches for different media, Bickford said, but Air New Zealand wasn't pulling together the threads.

Fyfe acknowledges there are risks in the strategy to stand out at all costs but has no concerns about the effect on the wider brand.

Richard Simmons, Snoop Dogg and Rico the rodent puppet reflect New Zealand-ness, he says.

"You come back to brand personality as a small airline and the notion of being yourself," he said - citing Prime Minister John Key as exhibiting the same traits.

"We think that is what New Zealand is about. It's a little quirky - a little bit different.

"Social media campaigns have to stand out. A lot of content we put on social media - where people actively choose to watch - we would not put on TV," he said.

Fyfe's view reflects the world of retail advertising where turnover is fast and relatively cheap. If campaigns don't work, they're quickly pulled.

Last year, Air New Zealand took the approach further. It dropped its affiliation to a single agency, invited freelancers and agencies to pitch ideas direct to clients, and ran its own creative department.

Perhaps significantly, Air New Zealand has reverted to a "lead agency" relationship with Colenso's .99.

Fyfe's background working for British broadcast company ITV Digital may be an added factor for his interest in content.

Perhaps more than any other New Zealand chief executive, Fyfe takes an intimate role in his company, which is 75 per cent owned by taxpayers.

Surprisingly - given that the CEO appears virtually naked in a TV ad and the annual report includes five photos of Fyfe - he sees himself as an introvert.

But Air New Zealand itself has a vibrant image, he says.

"I have to lead by example. Any CEO embodies the brand and personality of the company."