And on the Tail: 'Airline'

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

The latest mergers rumored in the airline industry are proof that brands in air travel have become irrelevant, only to be replaced by blank, white tails on which the word "airline" will appear.

Delta and Northwest are close to acquiring one another’s planes, gates, labor contracts and fuel costs.  United and Continental are said to be talking about the same thing. The financial news reports that all airlines are under pressure to deliver profits for shareholders, some of whom include hedge funds.

Airlines were under pressure to satisfy and keep customers.

Many millions were spent last year, just like every year before it, to brand one airline differently from another. I’ve written about some of the fantasy messaging they’ve aired, most notably the thematic, feel-good spots from United (and TED’s playing card promotion).

But reality keeps intruding: flying has more in common with the grocery business than a luxury brand, and the exigencies of pinching pennies in the face of unpredictable weather and mechanical woes means that consumers get pretty much the same experience irrespective of their airline brands of choice.

And that experience usually stinks.

So what’s left for airlines to do? On the consumer side, frequent flyer programs can establish some sort of routine — certainly not ‘loyalty’ by any measure other than terminology — and hope to chance upon reservations because there’s a route and take-off slot that fits in with a customer need. 

And, while a lot has been written about the exception of Southwest, whose khaki-shorted employees put a marvelous, smiling veneer on top of its no-service, no-perks experience, its latest business pricing and requirement of buying the same jet fuel sold to its competitors tell me that its operational competitive advantage isn’t going to always be such an advantage. Newly-merged giants will surely slash costs, which might (conceivably) make them more price-competitive.

From a consumer perspective, this means even more so now than before that there’ll be a small selection of generically-unpleasant airlines from which to choose. Price will be pretty much the only purchase decider. It won’t matter what logo is on the tail of the airplanes. 

All is not lost, though; I’m a naggingly optimistic marketer, and I see this latest round of mergers as a chance to truly change the game for airlines and branding:

  • Stop talking about costs: The absolutely worst, dumbest thing to communicate to the flying public is that the mergers will yield cost-savings. Cost-savings = worse experience, by most people’s math. Running an efficient business is worth declaring about as much as telling everyone that your employees breathe oxgen; it’s a duh
  • Come up with consumer benefits: Instead, figure out why combining Delta and Northwest will mean something good for flyers. We all know that the likelihood that anything good will emerge on this front is slim to none, as integrating technology systems, processes, employee jobs and seniority, servicing a great variety of airplanes, etc., will result in operational hell for customers…we all already know to expect this, and to expect it to make flying miserable, just as the cost-savings realized therefrom make investors happy
  • Make commitments that you will honor: What would happen if the newly-merged UnitedContinental made a promise like "you’ll always know where you stand with us" to its customers, and put into place processes to deliver customer notifications 24/7 (and especially at crowded, weather-stricken airports). Or maybe another commitment, or something related to the TBD consumer benefits cited above. The threshold for providing something good to service (and honesty)-deprived flyers is so shockingly low…you’d think coming up with some things good to say would be easy?
  • Revise employee relations: Mergers between big companies in any industry usually involve layoffs and lots of job turmoil for those who survive. This is another thing we all know…and it’s why the vast majority of mergers fail…so shouldn’t addressing employees be a, if not the, primary component of any proposed merger? Employees are probably the make-or-break variable in differentiating one airline from another (see Southwest above). Wouldn’t it be cool if one of the new behemoths actually made a difference on this topic?

So stay tuned for lots of branding nonsense when these companies merge…it’ll be a full-employment act for graphic designers, PR types, and other marketers who’ll have to busy themselves with new logos, materials, web sites, and internal documents. I bet airport lobbies will need to be repainted soon (not to mention all of the airplanes).

But unless they try to make a substantive difference by how the businesses operate, not just what they promote in branding, I suggest that the airlines save their money and just paint everything white. 

And on the tails, print "airline."

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