Brand Strategy Beats Price Tactics

My nose may not have been bloodied and my body dragged off a plane, but I faced my own travel crisis this week. And that experience proved that one company’s ongoing, consistent brand message — embedded deep in my psyche — was about to finally pay off.

Enterprise brand strategyMy nose may not have been bloodied and my body dragged off a plane, but I faced my own travel crisis this week. And that experience proved that one company’s ongoing, consistent brand message, embedded deep in my psyche, was about to finally pay off.

It all started at the airline check-in counter. Delta, an airline that has never done anything to endanger my loyalty, presented me with a dilemma: My one-stop flight to Ottawa was in jeopardy because the first leg of the flight was delayed, meaning I would miss my connection.

If you’ve ever tried to fly to Canada, you already know there are limited options. And despite Ottawa being Canada’s capital city, Delta only offers two daily flights from Detroit.

I HAD to be in Ottawa first thing Tuesday morning to help my son move out of his dorm, and make our afternoon flight home. The Delta agent could not have been more helpful as she tried to rebook me multiple ways to get me there. Finally, I agreed to fly to Atlanta, then onto Montreal and would rent a car to drive the 2-hours to Ottawa.

Rearranging my car rental proved to be the bigger challenge.

To be honest, I haven’t been a loyalist to any particular rental company … until now. I typically use a website like Travelocity to compare prices across all brands, then rent from the cheapest option. So, when making my original rental, Budget had won the price war.

So there I was, sitting on the floor at the packed airline gate, my flight to Atlanta about to depart, and I’m frantically trying to rearrange my car rental before my cell phone dies. I call the Budget desk in Ottawa and tell them my dilemma. They suggest I call the Budget desk at the airport in Montreal. I make that phone call but am serviced by one of the most incompetent of all customer service agents.

He speaks so quietly I can barely hear him, so I say (politely I might add) “I’m in a noisy airport and can barely hear you, would you mind speaking up?” Apparently he has no volume capabilities because I continue to strain to hear him.

After explaining (again), that I need to rent an SUV at the Montreal airport and return it to the Ottawa airport, and after he repeatedly says “You’ll return it to the Montreal airport, right?” I ask to speak to his supervisor. He puts me on hold and then — wait for it — after a few seconds I’m listening to the dial tone. Gee, what a surprise.

The gate agent begins the boarding process and now I’m in full panic mode.

I Google car rental options at the Montreal Airport and while lots of options pop up, I see that Enterprise has a 4-star rating (Budget has 1 star). And that’s when the Enterprise brand tag line (“We’ll pick you up!”) quickly translates in my brain to “We’ll do anything for you!”

And sure enough, my Enterprise experience was fabulous … from the minute I got them on the phone, explained my need, to the drop-off in Ottawa. And, they did go the extra mile since their rental desk closed at midnight, and I wasn’t landing until after midnight, they left the rental agreement and keys with at the National car rental counter which was open until 1am. WHEW!

Calm, cool and cooperative during my personal crisis, I want to shout from the rooftops, “Thank you Enterprise, for picking me up when I was down … way down.”

And the company’s long-invested marketing strategy and messaging paid off big time for this customer. Forget shopping for the cheapest option. Forget renting from the Budget folks. Enterprise will be rewarded with my ongoing loyalty.

We Accidentally (on Purpose) Sent You …

American Express (Amex) is a premium brand I’ve long admired. When they issued their first paper credit card in 1959, its annual fee was $6 — $1 higher than Diners Club (the industry leader), carefully positioning Amex as a premium product.

American Express LogoAmerican Express (Amex) is a premium brand I’ve long admired. When they issued their first paper credit card in 1959, its annual fee was $6 — $1 higher than Diners Club (the industry leader), carefully positioning itself as a premium product.

In 1980, I became a proud Amex cardholder and when they started co-branding with Delta Airlines, I quickly converted my card, collecting enough mileage points over the years to travel first class, with my entire family, to several different continents.

In early December, I called Amex to dispute a charge on my card (I should note that every phone interaction with Amex has been superior). As the call was wrapping up, the customer service rep inquired about another Amex card I carried but rarely used, and suggested that I might be more interested in a new and different product. The sales spiel included a notation that I’d get double miles for certain purchases. Now that I have kids in college with travel requirements, that was music to my ears. Sign me up!

The rep was quite clear that there was no annual fee with this new card, so I was surprised when a $95 charge appeared on my next statement. I added a call into Amex to my “to do” list, and promptly forgot about it the next day.

Yesterday, however, I received a letter from Amex apologizing for sending me the wrong card. They noted that they had already credited my account for the first year’s fee, but if I wanted to switch to the card originally promised, all I needed to do was contact them.

Of course, now I wanted to know the difference between the card I got and the card I was supposed to get, so I Googled it. And discovered that the card they sent me was even superior in mileage point collection. Instead of two-times the miles, in some instances I was getting three to four-and-a-half-times. Sorry Amex, but you won’t be able to rip this card from my fingers!

With all the automation of systems, call centers, fulfillment centers, etc. encompassing Amex operations, I started to think, “How could Amex make a mistake like this?” And, upon further reflection, perhaps it wasn’t an error, but a deliberate marketing strategy.

Sell the consumer a fee-free card, ship the wrong card, notify the consumer of the error after the fact, waive the fee and, upon feeling the benefits of those extra points building in the account, convert non-payers to payers. Is this a brilliant bait and switch move?

Thanks for the new card, Amex. And thanks for your (supposed) mistake. You’ll be enjoying my $95 next year, but in the meantime, I’ll be booking myself another (free) flight.

The Complexity of Loyalty

When United Airlines created the first frequent-flyer program in 1972, I suspect they simply told their agency (Western Direct Marketing) to figure out a way to incent consumers to ask their travel agents to book them on United when making flight arrangements—and the concept of measuring and rewarding loyalty was born. But somewhere along the line, in the case of Delta Airlines, the simplicity of this concept got completely derailed

When United Airlines created the first frequent-flyer program in 1972, I’m sure they never dreamed it would be the start of a 700 billion dollar industry.

I suspect they simply told their agency (Western Direct Marketing) to figure out a way to incent consumers to ask their travel agents to book them on United when making flight arrangements—and the concept of measuring and rewarding loyalty was born.

In the decades since, frequent-flyer programs have morphed and evolved to tie in partners from credit cards to hotels, car rentals and everything in-between. And it was simple to understand: When you used the card, stayed at a hotel or booked a rental car, you earned miles. But somewhere along the line, in the case of Delta Airlines, the simplicity of this concept got completely derailed.

As a longtime business traveler, I joined every frequent-flyer program in existence. Yes, I had my preferred airlines, but they didn’t always fly to my destination—or depart at my preferred time of day. So I collected miles every time I boarded a plane, regardless of airline (defeating the entire purpose of the concept).

Many years ago, Delta teamed up with American Express (my “go to” credit card) and the offer was too sweet to resist. Collect Delta miles for every dollar I spent? Count me in!!

Over the years, I’ve collected hundreds of thousands of Delta Skymiles and have been lucky enough to fly first class and business class overseas for next to nothing.

My regular Delta Statement email, which clearly shows my mileage balance (nice and prominent in about 30 pt. type), is of little value other than to remind me of my rapidly growing mileage balance (thanks Am Ex!).

However, an additional email arrived recently with the Subject Line: Start Tracking Your Medallion Qualification Dollars on Delta.com. Huh?

I kid you not when I tell you that this email might have been written in a language preserved for those who speak Bothese (natives of the planet Bothawui in Star Wars). Let me quote the exact text from the email:

Beginning January 1, 2014, you will earn Medallion status through a combination of Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) or Medallion Qualification Segments (MQSs) flown and your annual spending on Delta flights, which will be measured by Medallion Qualification Dollars (MQDs).

What?? MQMs? MQSs? MQDs? Are you kidding me? Even after I click through on the link, the explanation gets even muddier.

It seems that this is all about reaching Silver, Gold, Platinum or Diamond Status with their program (I’ll assume there’s some benefit to reaching these levels, but that’s not clearly evident) … but yet there are qualification thresholds which require me to spend at least $25,000 in Eligible Purchases with my Am Ex card (naturally I’d have to click on that link to see what’s eligible and what’s not) and they measure segments and distances, and my flight number has to have a “DL” in the airline code, and there are Group 1, Group 2 and Group 3 partner airlines that must be ticketed through a Delta channel (and that ticket number will begin with an “006”) and … and … and … AAACCCKKK!!

When did Delta’s loyalty reward program get so complicated??

Let’s just cut to the chase: I fly on Delta, I earn mileage. I use my Am Ex card for purchases and I earn mileage. When I reach a few hundred thousand miles, I book a trip to Europe first class for free. I get it.

My life is far too busy to think about (or figure out) how to optimize my MQMs, MQSs or MQDs. Even if it means I could fly around the world first class, for free.

If you’re going to design and run a loyalty program, keep it simple. That way I can be clear on what you want me to do, and, if I like your product or service, keep doing business with you. No ifs, ands, buts or MQMs.

P.S. If a reader has figured out Delta’s system and can explain it in layman’s terms, please send me an email. Perhaps I’m missing out on owning my own private jet …