Airlines: Weak Brand Identity and Poor Service Translate to No Customer Loyalty

June 9, 2011 | Branding, Business, Design Trends

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A couple of months ago I was at a networking event and I introduced myself, as I usually do, as owning a graphic design and branding firm. My new acquaintance said they didn’t completely understand branding. They specifically mentioned that someone had told them that the airlines were an example of an industry that was not using branding effectively, and she asked me to explain.

I thought it was an interesting example and a good one because I agree that none of the major US airlines is doing a good job using branding effectively. JetBlue and SouthWest are doing better than the others, but even they are lacking.

My firsthand experience with the lack of airline branding

This weekend I traveled to Chicago to meet with clients, potential clients and business partners as well as to visit with family and friends.

I recount my story to help make the point about what goes into branding, in addition to a strong graphic identity. And how the major US airlines are missing big opportunities to implement a distinctive and effective brand strategy.

Choosing my flights: No brand differentiation

I live in Portland, Maine and neither JetBlue nor SouthWest has a strong presence here. Therefore, I usually fly one of the other major airlines and I generally use a site like Orbitz or Priceline to find fares and purchase my ticket.

When I choose my flight, I start with the date I want to fly, then I sort by price and time of day. There is no thought of what airline I’ll be choosing. I scan through the list and see what flight has the most convenient time and a reasonable price.

What this shows is that I have no  brand preference. I don’t feel there are any real differences or reasons why I would choose one airline another. If you want to achieve brand loyalty, you need to give someone a reason to seek out your product or service. More flights and cheaper airfares certainly help, but if there was an airline that people sought out, they’d be willing to pay more for that brand.

As it turns out, with the services like Orbitz and Priceline you can even mix and match airlines. For example, on my return flight from Chicago I went United from ORD to LaGuardia and then US Airways from LGA to Portland. That’s pretty much the epitome of no brand differentiation. They are completely interchangeable.

The baggage game: No brand value

We all love to hate the airlines when it comes to baggage.

Flying out of Portland, Maine means I nearly always have to change planes. My normal suitcase for short visit is a roll aboard that fits the specs for a carry-on, but I often check because I don’t want to have to traipse through the airport with it.

As we all know, most airlines have started to charge you extra to check a bag. On the one hand it makes sense: they make more money, and they are essentially charging more for the weight of your bag. But the reality is that it’s just a mess: both for the logistics of boarding the plane and for the airlines’ brand appeal.

A lot of us figure “why should I pay $25 extra and risk losing my bag? I’ll just take it on board.” which means the boarding process is slowed down, and people are fighting over the overhead bins.

On my flight out, I had a tight connection and took my bag with me. However, on the way home I decided I’d pay the fee and lose the hassle of having to carry my bag through my connection. My flight to New York was nearly full and many people had the maximum sized carry on bags with them. So the flight attendants had to become bullies about the overhead compartments. The announcements started:

Save the overhead bins for the large bags. Any bag that can fit under your seat must be placed there.

They even started walking through the aisles and asking people why they had no bags at their feet. Meanwhile, they were also making announcement telling people to hurry up because people were waiting in the hot walkway.

I was thinking to myself:

I just paid extra to check my bag. I feel like I deserve my seat front area for my legs, if I want it. If everyone had bothered to check those roll aboards everyone would all have all the space they want.

I started wondering if the airlines should change their policy so that you had to pay $25 if you wanted the overhead space. For free you get the space in front of your seat or checked cargo area for you bags. That would still provide revenue for the airlines, but it would speed up the seating process as many more bags would be checked and make the boarding process much more pleasant. A more pleasant experience leads to brand loyalty.

And about that new logo

By the time they’ve got the doors closed, everyone is slightly annoyed and feeling no brand love.

Then, the screens come down and the safety video starts. But, because United recently merged with Continental, the video presentation starts with a message from the President talking about the merger.

Nearly the first thing out of his mouth is that thousands of planes have been repainted with the new logo.

I’m not going to talk about the weak, new logo, you can read about that many places. But I do want to highlight the fact that even I, the owner of a graphic design and branding company, do not want to hear about painting new logos on planes. I immediately started calculating how many baggage fees could be eliminated with the costs of painting the planes.

When a graphic designer, who designs logos and brand identities for a living, doesn’t care about your new brand identity it’s bad news. And these are the two reasons I don’t care: first the new logo is a muddied mixed up mess of the two previous logos; and secondly the other parts of the brand identity are so weak that I know it cannot be saved by a logo.

Beyond the logo, other branding visuals

I’m not going to do a critique of the logo, but I am going to mention the larger visual position of the brand. As we taxied around the runways I was reminded of how every airline has the same color palette: red, blue, white and maybe gray. Every plane is painted with a horizontal strip along it’s belly and the logo near the cockpit (is this some sort of FAA regulation??). And that ubiquitous branding is apparent throughout the airport: blue signs everywhere, no matter what the airline.

A typical airplane design with horizontal stripes and red, white and blue colors.

A typical airplane design with horizontal stripes and red, white and blue colors.

In summary

  1. After flying as an adult for the past 20 years, no individual airline has been able to distinguish themselves for me in a way that makes me seek them out when booking an flight.
  2. Once I’m at the airport there are no visual cues that separate one airline from the next as it’s all blue, blue and more blue.
  3. Nothing about the flight and the service (and especially dealing with the baggage issues) inspires loyalty.

Airlines have a chance to create a unique brand position for themselves. All the major US airlines are making the same branding mistakes: no differentiation in either the tangible (ie brand identity elements) or intangible (ie customer service, pricing, policies, etc.) brand position. There is room for someone to make a bold move, if they dare.

 

I am curious, do any of you have brand loyalty to a US-based airline?

4 comments

  1. Mike Maddaloni - @thehotiron | June 9, 2011 at 8:34 am

    First Emily, it was great seeing you on this trip, and hopefully our meeting helped offset some of the angst of your flight!

    As a Chicago resident, I am fortunate in that I can choose from 2 airports, which means I try to avoid O’Hare at all costs. As a result, my airline choices are small, but certainly not limited, and I usually fly Southwest. The only flights in the past few years that have not been on Southwest were paid for by clients or vendors.

    I can go on and gush about Southwest, but the convenience, price and increased airports they fly into make it my first choice. And to book the ticket, i have to go to southwest.com.

    As for airplane branding, I’ll present this angle I wrote about years ago, where I question why repainting an airplane at all?

    http://www.thehotiron.com/index.php/site/comments/why_repaint_an_airplane/

    mp/m

  2. Emily Brackett | June 9, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Mike, Southwest is one airline that is working on it’s brand image, both in the brand identity sense and more importantly in their policies and customer service. Wish they’d come to Portland!

    And funny how in your post you mention banks, as that’s exactly what I was thinking. Banks are all doing the same (weak) thing as one another, too afraid to stake out something different.

    Good see you in Chicago!

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