Branding Head at Burson-Marsteller wants airlines to “stop being the Greyhound of the skies”

Recently, Delta Airlines hired a new COO for the merged entity. He is the former CEO of Greyhound – the notorious bus service in the US with customer service horror stories abound on the internet. When I read this news, I couldn’t help but forward it to the lady who had animatedly mentioned to me that airlines are becoming “like the Greyhound of the skies”.

Airlines have often learnt the hard way that well managed public relations (PR) forms the backbone of successful airline marketing and branding. To learn more about what constitutes a successful PR strategy for airlines, and how it ties in with the overall branding approach, I met up with Samantha Lucas, Chair, U.S. Brand Marketing Practice at Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s largest PR agencies. She shared with me some original insights on how airlines can build brands that soar above the Greyhounds of the world.

Local PR for a global airline brand

Samantha believes that “perception of airlines differs from region to region.” Hence, PR efforts should appeal to the locals, instead of trying to impress with the same message around the world. A localized PR message will focus more on local needs and cater to local tastes, hence creating greater traction. When combined with other local messages, such PR helps foster a global airline brand that resonates with the locals too.

A good example of this is Emirates Airlines. In my earlier conversation with Gary Leopold, the CEO of ISM Boston – the agency that leads the Emirates account in the US, I was told that when launching the first routes to New York, Emirates had to build trust from scratch, since it was perceived as an unknown “Middle Eastern” airline. For this, they adopted a very local approach, creating basic awareness in the City, rather than touting product features. Moreover, I’ve myself noticed that Emirates’ local messages are omnipresent from the monorails in Sydney to the football stadiums in the UK.

Consistent PR over time helps foster trust in the brand

I asked Samantha a simple question. Which are the airlines best with PR in her opinion and what are their traits. The answer: Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, JetBlue and Qantas. Their key success factor: consistently authentic PR over time.

Samantha believes that “honesty is the best policy” when it comes to PR. If something goes wrong, admitting to the mistake will only earn respect in the long term, rather than denying the facts. An example she shared with me was that even after the string safety fiasco at Qantas recently, the airline did not deny its mistakes, took immediate action and let everyone know about that. JetBlue Airways also set an example, when its CEO David Neelman posted a video apology on his blog when passengers were stuck on the tarmac for hours during a snowstorm last year.

I personally enjoyed my conversation with Samantha and found her insights to be very enriching. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the interview too – where she shares her foresights about 2009. Here is Samantha Lucas for you.

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Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam is the CEO of SimpliFlying and a globally sought-after consultant, speaker and thought-leader on airline branding and customer engagement strategy. He is also the youngest winner of the Global Brand Leadership Award and has addressed senior aviation executives globally, from Chile to Canada and from Sydney to San Francisco. Shashank's perspectives have found their way into major media outlets, including CNN Travel, CNBC, MSNBC, Bloomberg UTV, Mashable and in leading publications like Airline Business, ATW, Aviation Week, and others. Shashank studied Information Systems Management and Business Management at Singapore Management University and Carnegie Mellon University. Hailing from India, he splits his time between Singapore and Vancouver, among other cities.
Shashank Nigam
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