Beyond the Boarding Pass

Airlines Must Design a Better Brand Experience

By Published on .

Airlines are complex operations. Lifting hundreds of tons of metal into the air is a feat unto itself. But doing so while providing a satisfying customer experience is an accomplishment that continues to elude most companies. Too few carriers recognize that the key to running a successful airline isn't just meeting operational requirements, but doing it with a style, service and personality that puts the customer first.

Right or wrong, today's customer doesn't care about the degree of difficulty involved in transporting them. They demand service that's consistent with the courtesy and attention they're used to at other points along their journey. Until airlines begin to offer customers a memorably positive brand experience, the "cut-cost, squeeze-space, disappoint-customer" formula will inevitably repeat itself.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that although airlines have carried paying customers for the better part of 85 years, they've never actually been designed to do so. Companies like Apple, Target, Coca-Cola, Volkswagen and even IBM have learned to create value through purposeful design. Many have actually structured their operations to encourage design innovation. Meanwhile, the business-as-usual mentality has frozen many airlines in a perpetual time warp of mediocrity-in terms of both business and design.

For an airline to survive over the long term, it must approach the design of its brand experience with the same passion it brings to the pursuit of a precisely engineered aircraft, navigation system or flight plan. From the Internet to the airport to seat 12A, airlines must begin to transform what would otherwise be a series of random events and haphazard interactions with the customer into a memorable and meaningful experience.

BRANDS NEED Believers and Budgets

Ultimately, a branding initiative will be successful only if important people make the effort a priority. It is essential to engage upper management frequently and in a meaningful way in order to keep the initiative in tune with company goals and give leadership a chance to reaffirm the effort.

Airlines typically set aside millions annually for consumer advertising, but very few do the same to fund the design of their brand experience-their one true differentiator. Advertising messages can easily fall flat if inadequate attention is given to the details of the actual product and experience.

If a baseball team lacks in pitching, it acquires pitchers. It doesn't move the first baseman to the mound. Many large airlines, however, allow employees to move laterally through the company, from job to job, based mostly on seniority. While democratic, the system sometimes puts unqualified people in key decision-making positions. This handicaps the team and encourages individuals to make decisions based on personal taste-effectively trumping brand strategy in the process.

The selection of branding and design consultants is also critical. Firms that specialize in airline branding must be innovative enough to break free from the norm. Likewise, firms whose experience lies in other sectors must be able to adapt to the complexities of the airline business.

Beware of Bad Relationships

With so many moving parts, it's easy to understand why an airline might cling to old practices out of sheer habit, sticking with vendors and contracts that add no true value. Too often significant design decisions are unwittingly left to suppliers, vendors and staff. Common pitfalls that jeopardize the customer experience include: suppliers looking to unload surplus or off-the-shelf merchandise recommend products that fall short of the brand promise; vendors looking to justify a certain technology or process pitch systems that are unnecessary, cumbersome or inconvenient; lengthy vendor contracts that unreasonably "lock in" certain decisions lock out opportunities for change; misaligned ambitions and loyalties on the part of purchasing agents impede the improvement of services and products, despite the chance for cost savings and market differentiation; and ambitious airline staffers, in an effort to exercise creative license, undercut brand strategy and compromise design integrity.

Simply put, vendors, suppliers and everyone in between must contribute to the meaningful differentiation of the brand experience.

Keep It Simple

Knowing what to say and how much to say about it is a delicate-but necessary-balancing act. A general rule of thumb, however, especially in an industry with so many variable factors, is to err on the side of simplicity.

Being straightforward in areas of communication, collateral and product promotion leaves an airline room to over-deliver and avoids over-promising. This principle can and should be applied at all levels of the organization-from the way products are developed, named and branded, to how flight attendant announcements are written, to what kind of food is served or sold onboard.

The legacy of commercial aviation is one of rich history, beauty and romance. However, conditions in the world economy demand a fundamental shift within the industry if it is to survive and thrive. Airlines must begin thinking of themselves as consumer brands rather than transportation companies. That means offering customers more than just a seat.
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