Trendwatching and Marketing, Part I
Just back from several days in Minneapolis, and I had my trend-spotting radar up. Some observations:
1. The airline industry continues to shift.
We flew ATA and Southwest, and it was illuminating to contrast them. Southwest still very much encourages the nonconformists and humorists among its staff, and continues to do very well with on-time performance, full or nearly-full planes, and other metrics. And they continue to make things nicer for their customers. For instance, online check-in is a big improvement over the cattle-herd system of the old days, and printing your boarding group right on the boarding card is much better than the old plastic passes. Maybe it was my imagination, but it seemed to me there's a bit more leg room than there used to be. And on today's flight home, they even gave us each a square of chocolate!
Lessons for other companies: give your people room to shine and they will. Fill a market niche, and you'll be profitable. Be nice to your customers, and they will return. Do all three things right and you're a rare success in a troubled industry.
ATA, by comparison, was not a pleasant experience. The seats are jammed together to the point where, even at only 5'7", I was extremely grateful to have an aisle seat so I had someplace to put my feet. (My wife flew Northwest recently, and said the legroom is even worse there.) On the way there, we discovered that the airline had never entered a change in our itinerary and had us flying the previous day. Luckily, we had a paper trail and there were still enough seats. Yet, even though I watched the ticket agent enter the correct information for our return trip, it seemed the check-in agent on the flight home had some difficulty getting the reservation to show up appropriately. And other little things--no sparkling mineral water or seltzer, only club soda (which has salt, on top of all the salt in the pretzels). And big things: ATA had over two hours to get our luggage to Southwest during our Chicago transfer; not one of our four bags made it on the plane, and neither did the bag of another passenger with the same itinerary. None of this was life-threatening, and most of it is a pretty small inconvenience--but it added up to somewhat negative experience that is likely to influence future purchase decisions. Oh yes, and the reason we were on Southwest in the first place is that ATA suddenly pulled out of our market long after we'd booked our flight. (Southwest doesn't fly to Minneapolis.)
Lesson: No matter how good your advertising, your brand is built on positive and negative customer experiences.
(Disclosure: I was a fan of Southwest long before this happened, but I should point out that the company bought 1000 copies of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, prepublication. If that colors your view of my comments, so be it.)
2. A Discounter Goes Upscale
Southwest again. The airline's Unique Selling Proposition has always been the combination of low prices, reliability, and superior service. Perhaps it's the service aspect that's helping Southwest Spirit, the inflight mag, to go after a very upscale advertiser profile. The pages are filled with ads for expensive high-rise housing, Las Vegas casinos, glitzy restaurants, expensive gizmos...and there are a lot of ads!
This could mean several things:
- High-end consumers are putting greater value on low prices
- Southwest's superior experience means non-price-conscious consumers are seeking them out because they want to get there on time and be entertained
- The airline may be experimenting with moving away from that USP, and higher prices may be on the way (though I suspect they wouldn't be quick to throw away 30 years of loyalty built in large measure by affordability)