Cruising on high brand awareness, exec turns attention to expansion

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Like any good company, Song, the low-fare subsidiary of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, does a great deal of testing and market research. The difference is, the test market and the target customer already reside in the president's office in the person of Joanne Smith.

Since taking over as Song's president in January and becoming one of the few female executives in an industry traditionally dominated by men, Ms. Smith is helping guide 2-year-old Song's expansion-both in fleet and in new West Coast routes-in the hopes it can compete, and overtake, Jet Blue, the standard by which budget airlines are measured.

To do that, Ms. Smith has identified and begun marketing to the person she believes typifies Song's customer: herself.

"I don't believe I know of any airline that has targeted women like we have," she said. "They were at the core of our product and brand strategy when we developed Song, and they continue to be at the core."

Song's research showed that 62% of its leisure travelers were women, 75% were booking the family travel plans and 90% were making the decisions on when and where to travel.

"Women," Ms. Smith said, "have become mini travel agents. They're very influential."

Hence many of Song's features and amenities were designed as such, from the healthful, organic food and beverage choices-including organic food for children and babies-to signature cocktails (the "Song Cosmo" and the "Song Appletini") to the entertainment to the stylish flight-attendant uniforms designed by Kate and Andy Spade.

"Some of the things we set out to do ended up on the cutting-room floor, but most of the things we wanted to do we've accomplished," Ms. Smith said.

Ms. Smith, 45, received a bachelor's degree in business administration from California Polytechnic State University in 1982 and has spent virtually her entire career in the airline industry. She's held senior marketing positions with Reno Air, Midway Airlines, AMR Eagle and Wings West, as well serving as the VP-marketing and planning for DHL Airways, before joining Delta.

Named in 2003 as the VP-marketing and customers and instructed to help launch the airline, Ms. Smith oversaw all marketing, brand development, sales, in-flight services and airport customer service for the fledging carrier.

While she declined to discuss Song's revenue after two years in the air, the airline appears to be doing well enough to add 36 more daily flights by Sept. 2. In fact, while parent Delta has been in cost-cutting mode, Song appears to be benefiting. It has been able to keep a lower cost structure than Delta by flying its aircraft 13 hours a day-Delta is usually just over nine hours-and by making its turnaround time an average of 50 minutes, compared to the 90 minutes by Delta.


Now the challenge is to compete with the likes of Jet Blue, which is where its myriad agencies will come into place. Song uses New York-based SS&K for its creative work, Media Kitchen for buying and planning, and Dan Klores for public relations. All three worked on the wildly successful Song signature store in Manhattan two years ago.

"The first year or two we wanted brand awareness," Ms. Smith said, adding that she expects her $5.5 million ad budget to increase next year. "As we've achieved that, now we have to get more focused on tactical advertising. We have a big expansion this year and we have to put people in the seats."

To that end, Song also added Creative Artists Agency for product placement.

"For us it's well beyond product placement," Ms. Smith said. "We're looking to bring pop culture into Song and Song into pop culture."

Just Asking

How often do you yourself fly on Song? As often as I can, but not as often as I'd like. While Song's HQ is in Atlanta, the majority of our flights operate between the Northeast to Florida and to the West Coast. Song only has one flight per week (maintenance-related) to and from Atlanta. My favorite part of my job is being on Song flights and in the airports Song serves where I can talk with our employees and customers.

What's the best seat on the plane? All of our seats offer extra legroom and comfy leather seats so I honestly think every seat is a good seat on Song. But if I had to make one choice, row nine at the entrance of the aircraft would be it because it offers me the most flexibility to get up and interact frequently with flight attendants and guests.

There are something like 1,600 songs passengers can choose from. What's on your playlist? I typically pick a song from just about every genre because I like a lot of variety. I am a big fan of Better Than Ezra. I always include a classical selection and something from the Beatles. I also love John Steven's rendition of "Come Fly With Me."

Ever get bumped? On the dance floor or at the airport? With 26 years in the airline industry I have had my share of missed flights, but I haven't been bumped in years.

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