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What’s the Airlines’ Story?

Marketing guru type Al Ries has a great article in last week’s Ad Age about the uphill battle GM is facing.  One of his points is that GM no longer has a unified story to tell.  In his words:

“Without a story, no advertising, no matter how brilliant, is going to work.  BMW’s story is “driving.” Toyota’s story is “reliability.” Mercedes’ story is “prestige.”  Marketing comes first, advertising comes second.”

Ries is spot on – automobiles could be (and have become in many cases) heavily commoditized pieces of machinery.  Some brands have figured out how to break that mold with a well crafted story..  Others (GM, for example) either have no story or a pathetic story (“now available at the rental counter”).  You can put together all the flashy advertising and marketing messages you want, but without that underlying story, it’s meaningless.

Which made me think of how this also applies to airlines.  For years and years, major US carriers have marketed themselves in a really pathetic manner (much like GM), spouting off meaningless slogans (We Know Why You Fly) and delivering a product that offers nothing to back up the story that marketing is supposedly trying to tell.  You can spout on and on about service or whatever, but when you’re on a 5-hour flight in a middle seat with no food, that hardly suggests that the story matches the experience.

This is not always the case, of course.  JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America have all done a great job matching their story (something to the effect of “cheap chic,” “honesty,” and “mass exclusivity,” respectively).  Each has matched the experience on the plane with the messaging in their marketing.  This is why people don’t assume Southwest is lying to them when there’s a delay, but people assume nearly every airline is full of crap.

The airlines will figure out the right size to shrink to, and once again in the next year fares will be at a sustainable level.  I think we’re approaching the time where airline marketers need to step back and start to think about their story – what does the airline say they offer it, and how can that actually be offered.  With continuing improvements in on-board experience (Wi-Fi, Live TV), alliance partners for global reward redemption, and the idea of a “hometown airline” there are lots of ways airlines can differentiate themselves.  But offering up a message that varies significantly from onboard experience has done nothing but make people wary of airlines.  It’s time to change that.

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