Note to Airlines: Don’t Follow the Cable Companies’ Lead

There’s no disputing that 2017 has gotten off to a tough start for the airlines. Consumers were already frustrated with seats that seemed inspired by medieval torture devices, proliferating fees, and yield management algorithms that manage to pack the planes to the gills, forcing tense games of seat-rest elbow chicken. Oh, yes, and there was that thing about dragging a doctor off a flight, bloody and unconscious.

Sometimes in marketing, the most powerful and useful insight to lock onto is the one that depresses you the most. Doing so gives you an opportunity take on the issue that really needs addressing, which will ultimately do the most for your business.

While at Capital One, the insights we faced up to included, “Banks generally suck and they’re pretty much all the same. Not worth the trouble to switch!” By directly taking on this painful-but-true insight, we were able to turn the tables on that perception and show our own more positive truth.

The final miss in the Airlines for America spot comes in confusing the ends with the means.

In looking at the ad, I was reminded of the cable TV business — an industry I spent some time in that has had its own share of customer service woes over the years. A strategy frequently employed to counteract the indignation over service no-shows, trampled flowers and aggravating phone systems was to remind people how much they loved the programming: “Look,” they seemed to say, “we’re the guys who bring you awesome stuff like HBO! Don’t you just love us?”

The problem is that, while consumers did indeed love their HBO, they didn’t view the cable company as the beloved enabler of that viewing joy: they were seen as the necessary and frustrating means to that happier end. Trying to mooch off of the affection consumers had for their favorite programming was a losing proposition. Likewise, I don’t believe travelers need to be reminded that the airlines stand between them and their longed-for destination; but they do need to be reassured that their needs and comfort will matter to the people who take them there.

The More Effective Way to Respond

A bolder but much more effective move for the airlines association might have been to develop a collective manifesto, a shared commitment to standards of care and service they would live up to every day as an industry. Doing so would make several important statements: they understand what’s on their customers’ minds; they have a vision for how to serve them better; and they are publicly shingling themselves with that commitment.

They might look to the most recent American Consumer Satisfaction Index study for a clue. Overall satisfaction with airlines ticked up a tiny bit vs. the prior year, but that improvement was driven primarily by pricing, and the industry still remains in the bottom third of US business sectors.

Southwest Airlines unvailing new branding Monday, Sept. 8, 2014..The two stand-outs at the top of the list are JetBlue and Southwest, both of which have clear, written, public declarations of their customer-centric culture and values, all of which deeply permeate their employee culture. It’s this kind of all-in commitment that meaningfully changes consumer perception — not chipper TV ads.

Author: Peter Horst

Marketing has never had a greater impact on the business, and at the same time it’s never been more complex and challenging. The CMO Viewwill dive into the wide-ranging issues faced by CMOs as they navigate digital transformation, connected consumers, disruptive competitors and the need to justify their marketing investment.

Peter Horst is a Fortune 500 CMO and innovation leader who has spent three decades driving growth across diverse industries, ranging from consumer packaged goods to telecom, cybersecurity to financial services.  His experience includes leadership roles at Hershey, where he was most recently CMO, Capital One, TD Ameritrade, and General Mills. Peter has been part of creating and building some of the world’s most iconic brands through breakthrough innovation and award-wining marketing campaigns.  Awards and recognition include Cannes Lion, CMO Club Marketing Innovator Award, being named a Forbes Top 50 Most Influential Global CMO, and #22 of the top 500 global CMOs by Execrank.  Peter now speaks, writes and consults on marketing, innovation and leadership, and is a frequent contributor to CMO.com and other publications. Follow Peter at @peterhorst.

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