What can airlines learn from the Obama marketing machine?

Barack Obama stepping out of his plane

Not only did Mr. Obama win the US general elections last week, he was also selected as Advertising Age’s Marketer of the Year by the executives attending the Association of National Advertisers’ annual conference in Orlando last month.

For a person who has come from behind, fighting tough opponents to win the elections, success can be attributed to many things. But one that cannot be ignored is his super-efficient marketing machine, which not only helped raise a record $600 million, but also brought Barack Obama and his message to the hearts of millions. So what are some lessons airlines can learn, from Mr Obama, to build a strong and long-lasting brand?

The power of simplicity

Change. It was a message that was understood everywhere, from the boardroom, to the hinterlands. There was no confusion over the meaning of this “mantra”. Effective slogans needs to be simple and grounded in reality. Only then will they drive masses of people toward a brand.

In the airline world, a good example of an airline which has a simple message is AirAsia, the Malaysia based no-frills airline led by Tony Fernandez – who is often referred to as Malaysia’s Richard Branson. AirAsia’s slogan is “Now everyone can fly!” Isn’t it simple and straight forward? It’s a message that even a villager will identify with. Something else that has made this slogan so powerful is that it has remained the same ever since AirAsia was established. This leads to the Obama campaign’s next great strength.

Consistency = trust = loyalty

Since day one, Obama stuck to the same message – Change. In a backdrop of constantly shifting stands first by Hillary Clinton, and then by John McCain, Obama appeared to be the only one who carried his message through with conviction. This fact stood out and built trust among his followers. In consumer businesses like airlines, strong trust almost always results in loyalty.

Other than AirAsia, airlines that have stuck to their “mantra” with conviction over a long time include Singapore Airlines – “Bringing back the romance in travel” and Emirates – “Keep Discovering”. And consumers are indeed very loyal to these brands. Since 1975, another icon, BMW, has used just one slogan: “The ultimate driving machine.” It is the largest imported European car in the US for a reason. Consistent branding results in trust, which leads to loyalty.

Achieving relevance through flexibility

Obama’s campaign was not only dedicated to a simple message over a long time, it also appealed to a variety of people by being relevant to them, in their context. In the image below, you’ll see the various manifestations of Obama’s “Change” campaign – each one appealing to a different user group, even Republicans! By incorporating a little flexibility, Obama managed to create a brand that people could personally relate with. That personalization appealed to micro-groups, or “tribes” as Seth Godin would call them, resulting in his victory.

Given the global nature of the airline industry, there is even more need to resonate with the target consumers by molding the brand to fit a local context. Some airlines that do this well include KLM, which has “KLM Asia” painted on its planes going to that region and British Airways, whose flights to India have Indian flight attendants, wearing traditional Indian dresses. In fact, Lufthansa has even tied up with a master Indian chef from the Taj Hotels Group to design its cuisine for its flights to India. Such measures are bound to resonate much more with customers from specific markets, than just applying a single standard across the board.

Don’t just be better, be Different.

“Better” never works in marketing. The only thing that works in marketing is “different.” Obama did not aim to be a better “maverick” than McCain, or try to appear more “experienced” than Hillary Clinton. He stood for something distinct – change – and made it clear to his opponents.

He achieved two things by doing this. Firstly, by defining himself as something different, he forced his opponents to fight the battle on his turf. Interestingly, Hillary Clinton modified her motto to “countdown to change” towards the end of her campaign. Similarly, well differentiated airlines attract copycats – just look at how many airlines in the US want to be the next Southwest! But Southwest never says that it wants to be a United or a JetBlue even.

Secondly, and more importantly, by being different, Obama was like the piped piper who drew people towards him and they followed him wherever he went. Similarly, airlines that know what they uniquely stand for, and communicate this internally as well as internally create a die-hard fan base that remains loyal. Airlines that do this well? Kulula.com in South Africa, and Virgin Atlantic in Europe.

Lessons in marketing and branding lie all around us. The Obama brand is one many industries can learn from, and here I’ve tried applying the concepts to airlines. What else do you think airlines can learn from the Obama marketing machine? Let’s hear it in the comments section.

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  • Sovonne Ukam

    Good question …
    Obama belives in eliminating the unnecessary to garner surplus. If you can do without the “frills” of it all, while still supplying your basis needs and/or replace the “frills” with hardwork and dedication to acquire gain — then that is what one should do.

    The airlines should do away with the mileage awards programs, save the money they are investing in program maintenance and go back to service – service and more service to induce and keep a faithful travel base.

    Customer service has been given a back seat in the airline industry – and if one is not platinum in a mileage program, the little service that is offered one will not receive.

    The operative word in Brand Management – must be service! One must always feel that their money – no matter the amount – has been well spent. If one is satisfied with one’s service, spending even more on the next trip will not be
    debated.

    Does anyone have an idea as to what it costs the airlines to service their programs?

  • http://PrivateScubaLessons.com Laura Parke

    What can we learn from Obama campaign? Many things especially if we had his budget we can do what he did…..more creatively is doing what he did without such a massive fiscal infusion….that is the challenge.

  • http://simpliflying.com Shashank Nigam

    @Laura, indeed, making his capital work efficiently was the key to success for Obama’s marketing campaign. And I think airlines need to focus marketing dollars just like that too, especially in this downturn. Many have resorted to doing this through technology – where they can come closer to the customer in a relatively affordable way, by building online communities. I bet you’ll enjoy reading some of my articles on the subject here: http://simpliflying.com/tag/technology-branding/

  • http://simpliflying.com Shashank Nigam

    @Sovonne: Thanks for your comment on my news article about what airlines can learn from Obama.

    I’m personally not aware of the exact costs airlines incur to maintain frequent flyer programs. What I’m sure of is that it’s the cash cow for most airlines. Good examples being Air Canada’s Aeroplan and Qantas’ FrequentFlyer programs. Airlines get are able to sell “access” to their frequent fliers to third parties like credit cards and magazines, and it doesn’t cost them a dime. So, I think doing away with frequent flier programs (FFPs) may be a radical step in the wrong direction.

    Though, I think you point will be more valid in the case of low cost carriers. They should keep very simple FFPs that cost little to administer – something like JetBlue’s program. This way, they can retain customers and make money too.

    And I couldn’t agree with you more on the fact that service is of utmost importance in airlines. Too often, executives have focused on operations, and do not realize that they’re in the service industry.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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  • http://controversial-affairs.blogspot.com/ shishir

    Well we must also consider what are the factors in Obama’s marketing campaign on Presidential inauguration.
    http://controversial-affairs.blogspot.com/2009/01/obama-presidential-inauguration-2009_19.html

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