Branding in the service industry is fascinating because there are so many consumer touch points to capitalize (or miss out) on. Airlines have it tough, as their brand is often dominated by bad experiences as opposed to the company’s brand story.

Stand out Airlines

There are some airlines with strong enough brands to defy a bad flight experience. Not only do these brands execute well across every touch point, but they stand out. As much as I dislike the word “innovative,” they are innovative. Their brand teams saw current offerings, listened to consumers, and produced something fresh. Southwest came out with its fun, bare bones and hassle free airline. Virgin brought sexy back to flying. Both of these airlines executed across every touch point to create memorable brands that have been the subject of numerous case studies.

Friendly Skies?

I’m at the airport now, about to board a United flight. I see signage everywhere for United’s “Fly the friendly skies” campaign. According to United, United launched its reinvented “Fly the Friendly Skies” brand campaign Sept. 22, 2013, based on feedback from customers that they value a travel experience that combines service, technology and product enhancements. The product changes include better routes, new aircraft, better onboard features as well as a campaign across digital, print, and TV, including the ever popular product giveaway on social media.

The signage is pretty but .. Yawn. Nothing about this campaign stands out to me. And if I wasn’t attuned to branding, I don’t think I would notice the campaign at all. Without the references to flying, the artwork could be for a bank, life insurance, a new drug… And the product upgrades don’t grab my attention as part of a standout airline brand either. It all just sounds standard.

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Song

After researching airplane brands, I came across a Delta concept that folded back into Delta in 2006, called Song. Delta created Song as a low cost carrier to compete with the likes of JetBlue. Instead of focusing on the male business traveler, Song focused on the female consumer who makes up 51% of the population and books 80% of family travel. Delta held focus groups to discover what women wanted in an airline, and crafted it’s branded touch points around them. These included a new color, lime green, to differentiate from the red, white and blue of other airlines. Song’s flight attendants wore uniforms designed by Kate Spade. They had entertainment with inflight TV, and exercise bands so women could work out while they fly. The airline even managed to get consumers buying food mid flight by offering organic options and a martini bar. Song’s former President says he still hears from consumers what a great brand Song was, six years after it left the market.

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Delta cites high costs of operating both Song and Delta as the reason for discontinuing Song 31 months after launching. Reading about Song, I can’t help but think that I too would be impressed by the uniqueness of the brand. But the folding of Song begs the question: does brand create value in a commoditized market like air travel?

Product + Advertising = Brand

I think the answer is yes – when the brand and operations reinforce each other. Southwest brands itself as fun, cheap and reliable, but also crafts operations to be so. Southwest chooses employees who are fun and trains all of them to help out during flight transitions regardless of position to keep turn times low. Southwest keeps food options to a minimum because that would harm it’s low cost model. Southwest not only advertises fun and low fares, it crafts it’s product to support the brand proposition, turning brand into business model.

I think that Song, while an innovative brand, was not prepared to address the low cost market it set out to compete in because it’s brand operations were inherently expensive.

Branding United Airlines: Product Innovation over Media Spend

Which brings me back to United. United is one of the largest airlines and carried more consumer traffic than any airline in 2012… It has clearly enjoyed much business success, and yet it’s still largely brand-less. But in the crowded airline market, where purchase decisions are made off price and availability, how does United create a reinforcing brand and product? Does it even need to?

I’ve been brainstorming unique ways for United to brand itself, even focusing on a single product benefit: free wifi on flights. All flights. They could capture the business-travel friendly brandspace before wifi becomes standard and establish United as an innovative airline in the technology sense just by providing free internet.

Brand to Business Model

Since most business flights are expensed, and the wifi would be bundled into price as opposed to a separate cost, I think business travel planners would select these flights that allow for more work to be done on the flight. Wifi on Amtrak between DC and NYC certainly makes taking the train a breeze for business travelers. And – bonus – I’m more willing to travel during work hours since I stay connected.

Free wifi would also enhance flight operations – giving United more freedom to schedule business traveler routes during work hours as opposed to flights outside 9-5. Finally, this would give travelers a reason to choose United as opposed to being stuck with it. Frequent Flyer Mile programs might create stickiness in the industry, but every airline has that. I want to be earning miles where I can internet surf at the same time.

Free wifi is certainly an investment, but it reinforces United’s business traveler brand proposition in the same way Southwest’s 2 free checked bags reinforces Southwest as easy, fun and cheap. In my opinion, it’s a much better investment in brand than the “Friendly Skies” media campaign. And if media is a must – here’s another idea. Advertise around “Internet on the plane, so you can spend more time at your destination.” Who wants to be on a United flight anyways?

Social campaign via Instagram and twitter:

Objective: show, not tell, consumers that wifi is available on United, without a big media spend

Insight: no one really wants to Instagram your product. A cool photo from an airplane I am down with sharing.

Plan: United will have an Instagram contest for coolest photos taken and uploaded from an airplane window. Tag #freewifionUnited to make the benefit clear, and enter the contest for free flights.

Thoughts, critiques?

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