Five ways to get brand value out of Airline Mergers
I wonder what it would be like to take a flight on the new Northwelta from Boston to Singapore via Detroit and Tokyo on a Boeing 747, once the US$17 billion merger between Northwest and Delta comes through. Will I get the Northwest experience or a predominantly Delta one, a mish-mash or none?
There’s been a lot of chatter around the merger, though more negative than positive (check out the one by Center for Asia Pacific Aviation for a different view). But I’ve hardly read anything about how the merger would affect the brand. Even though the new airline (largest in the US with over 70,000 employees) will be operated under the Delta name, which currently doesn’t have any 747s and also doesn’t fly to Asia Pacific, the brand experience can certainly be enhanced to make the sum greater than the parts combined.
Here are five ways how Northwelta can leverage on the merger to boost its brand (something soon-to-be-merging airlines can keep in mind too).
- Setting realistic expectations. Some of my friends have spent nights in airport transit areas as they missed their flights – not because they were late, but they were at the wrong terminal for their code-shared flight. A merged airline is likely to operate from different terminals, surely at the beginning, and it should make the extra effort to ensure that the passengers are rightly informed. Setting realistic expectations that things may just go wrong is key to building trust in the brand over time. Customers don’t lose faith in the brand when things go wrong, but when they unexpectedly go wrong.
- Ensuring a consistent experience. Nobody likes change, including airline customers. But since change is inevitable, especially when the industry is going through tough times, the airlines must ensure that customers are getting as consistent an experience as possible over time. Even when something needs to be drastically changed, information transparency should be prioritized and customers should be kept well informed ahead of time.
- Providing value first, then charging for it. Lately, many US airlines have introduced a fee for checking-in a second bag. If I’m flying a full-service airline, I don’t expect to pay an additional fee for a second bag, as this has always been a free service. It would leave me disgruntled. Putting up with a fuel tax is understandable, but in this case, I’m not being provided any additional value for the extra cost. Since a merged airline generally has greater market power, it would be inclined to over-charge for some existing services. But it is important note that to keep customers happy, it is always better to provide a value-add before charging them for it.
- Engaging the customer. One of the secret weapons used by great airline brands is deep customer engagement. One great example of this was Singapore Airlines’ campaign prior to their first A380 flight to London, which was written about in a previous article. Ensuring customer participation in times of change works especially well as they feel they have a stake in the process. During a merger, latest web technologies can be tapped to get customer feedback and incorporating it in the new plans. Everything from suggestions for the in-flight menu to their preferred mode of reservation of tickets can be captured and attributed to the person. Holding competitions is yet another simple way to keep the customer engaged with the brand.
- Keeping employees happy. This is probably the most difficult of these five branding suggestions to achieve. Employees tend to suffer the most during a merger, and keeping them happy, though difficult, can do wonders for a brand. Merging airlines should work hand in hand with the pilot unions and other airline staff representatives to ensure their interests are not overly compromised. Often, cultivating a family-like culture (think SouthWest and Virgin) among the employees can go a long way in cheering up the mood in tough times. Employees then pass on these good vibes to the customer resulting in a great brand experience. As always, Happy Employees = Happy Customers = Great brand!
The next article in this series, about how airline bankruptcies affect the brand, will be posted on Wed, April 30. Do keep a lookout for it.