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What Happened To The Love Of Flight? (A Marketing Question)

Published by Mike Morgan on 01/02/2011

Several weeks ago I read a tweet that said something like, "Southwest and Jet Blue are brands, all the others are just airline names."  I don't know who to credit for this, but it sparked my thought process.

When did airlines stop branding themselves, and start marketing themselves?  I realize that to some this question doesn't make any sense, so let's break it down.

A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well.
- Jeff Bezos,

What is a Brand?
Anyone who knows me knows that I love branding.  I love the concept that a company can take on an entire persona, if they choose.  Looking back to the tweet that started all of this, Southwest is a strong brand.  They are identifiable by their Canyon Blue planes, their bag cops, but mostly, their "luv".  Shoot, for years I thought that LUV was the FAA code for DAL.  They branded it so well, that the consumer believes it.

But, really, what is a brand?  I'm mostly preaching to the choir here, so I'll skip the "it's not just a logo" crap.  I am a firm believer that the brand of a company is its personality.  One thing I love about Southwest is the safety announcements.  I'm sure at corporate there is a script that the FAA foolishly believes Southwest follows.  But every time I fly Southwest I get a different take on safety.

This is a direct reflection of the personality of Southwest.  Even though they are following guidelines, they have fun.  They've got the "LUV" spirit.  Look to their website, their commercials, their people, their policies... everything points back to a fun, exciting, energetic personality.

Now, let's look at my favorite airline.  United.  I live for United.  But based on what we've already said about Southwest, does United have a "LUV" equal?  No.  In fact, look to what people are talking about when it comes to United: the merger, the union fights, and the outsourcing.  I've even seen a pin that crew are wearing that says "United Against Outsourcing."

Let's go back a bit to February 12th, 2004.  This was a good time for United as they unleashed Ted, a part of United.  The United brand was still strong, and they wanted to feed off of it.  So they created Ted, a low cost carrier that would ultimately fail.

United began spreading themselves too thin.  They became a corporation, and lost their uniqueness.  American did it, Delta did it, and many others have too.  Think back, what was the last branding campaign you can really think of outside of Southwest?

The last one that comes to my mind was in 2008 when Delta tried to create a buzz with their hot new red-headed safety spokesperson.  There was a little bit of viral marketing, and some news stories, but overall the brand wasn't changed much.

So what did happen to the love of flight?
I would have loved to been alive during the 1950's.  Flying then was a treat.  Now...

Are we trying to blow up the notion that flying is some kind of orgasmic experience rather than a glorified bus service? Yes, we are. An airplane is nothing more than a bus with wings on.
- Michael O'Leary, Ryanair

Now most people seem to think of flying as a glorified bus service.  As fees pile up, and security becomes harder to pass, people will continue to lose a passion for flight.

Think back before 9/11; bags were free, snacks were free, everything (it seemed) was a service of the airline.  Now as a patron, I am carrying the weight of the airline on my shoulders.  Jeff Smisek, who made $4,320,867.00 (according to Forbes), feels that the company needs to make even more cuts.  Outsourcing, more fees, who knows what else.  But he sure doesn't really feel the burden of air travel. 

Being a true avgeek, I know and understand that flying is expensive.  I also understand that fuel prices have gone up, and will continue to go up.  But the problem is the way that the airlines are handeling it.  I realize that I have left branding behind, but I'm just following the same path as the airlines. 

As long as airlines focus on these silly little fees, they won't ever be able to remember who they are.  Unless...

"But now," says the Once-ler,"Now that you're here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.

- From The Lorax, By Dr. Seuss

Yes, I did just quote Dr. Seuss.  This is my call to the Airlines.  It is time to remember that only the airlines can save the airline industry.  A big portion of that should be devoted to remembering who you are.  It is time to bring your brands back to life... or the Michael O'Leary's of the world will turn classic air travel into nothing more than a trip on MegaBus.

So, airlines need to shape up, or true brands like Southwest, or those yet to come, will destroy them. 

But let's see, I'm just a guy who likes to look at airplanes, so what do I know?