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.

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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.

If people are comparing your airline to he people on "The Walking Dead," a TV show about a zombie apocalypse where the people are even worse than the zombies, you've made some mistakes.
One example of the reaction United received on social media after the incident.

Helping keep temperatures at a boil, social media made it so seamlessly easy to publicize every instance of crabby crew behavior, ticketing injustice, and righteous passenger indignation. Little wonder that an actual riot broke out in the Spirit Air terminal at Ft. Lauderdale’s airport after pilots expressed their displeasure with management by not showing up for work.

A Tone-Deaf Airline Industry Response

In a recent article, I argued that the soul of a brand is really the best prevention against ending up in such a tough spot — building an explicit promise and strong cultural commitment to a set of customer values. But in response to this gloomy atmosphere in their industry, Airlines for America appears to be taking a different tack.

The trade association seems to have brought back a TV ad campaign from last year. It’s an upbeat, peppy piece that stars one of those iconic, yellow-vested guys with the red flashlights and the emphatic directional gestures. With magical red flares in hand, he guides a surprised office-worker from her drab, gray cubicle to a tropical paradise, complete with the requisite flower girl, mai tai boy, and galloping horse on a beach.

The tagline is, “We connect the world”, and it emphasizes all the flights to all the destinations that airlines provide in order to help people get where they want to be.

While it’s a nice enough spot, I think it misses the mark in a few important ways. The first miss is in tone. The cheery focus on the joy of getting away from it all seems a little tin-eared in the context of the meaningful angst surrounding the topic of airline customer experience. If indeed this re-airing of the spot is an attempt to restore some good feeling, the spot risks reinforcing a perception of clueless ignorance of the present feelings of their customers. We’re emotional creatures, and the airlines’ marketing challenge is a deeply emotional one, so hitting the wrong note at this high-pitched moment seems clumsy. Effective empathy requires that marketers show they appreciate their target’s feelings.

A second miss is in the underlying insight. I passionately believe that all great marketing sits on a rigorously true, powerful insight that reveals some aspect of tension within the target’s life. In this respect, I think Airlines for America picked the wrong perch.

I’d bet my house that a core sample of the average air traveler’s brain would not reveal the most relevant insight to be, “Gosh, I just can’t wait for someone to sweep me away from all this!” A less cheerful, but more relevantly true, insight would likely be, “I’ve really come to dread getting on a plane. They just don’t seem to care about me.”