Airlines, stop putting lipstick on a pig!

Airbus S.A.S. Flight Line (Foreground; West).Image by John Creasey via Flickr

One of my aviation junkie buddies from Singapore recently posed an intriguing question:

For airlines, does the product come first or the brand? Essentially, if an airline is losing money (as is the case with many airlines these days), does the management concentrate on revitalizing the product so that it can turn a profit in the short term, or is it better to focus on brand building, for long term sustainability?

On the surface, the answer may appear simple enough – what’s the point in thinking about long term profits, if you’re not sure of surviving another month with the current product offerings and operations?

More importantly, concentrating on just the brand without a strong product is like putting lipstick on a pig. It just doesn’t work, regardless of the quality of the lipstick. Especially so in the highly volatile, and very competitive airline industry. This concept is visible in the latest United Airlines advertisements shown during the Olympics, which show animated figures supposedly (since there it is difficult to infer) enjoying the luxury of United’s new international first class. It’s so far removed from the reality that the nickle and dimed customers probably don’t feel any connection with it. Here’s a sample of that advertisement.

If a customer feels short changed, he will never take that same airline again, unless he has no choice, and will tell his friends too – not to take that airline. The recent slash in airline product features and increase in almost every imaginable fees has left the customer feeling like a piece of cargo, especially in the US.

However, there’s always a silver lining to the cloud. There are airlines around the world that are introducing new world-class products on their planes and reaping record profits, while others sit and watch by the sidelines. How are these airlines developing new, profit-making products? What can other struggling airlines learn from those doing well?

To answer these questions, this blog will be featuring case studies this week and the next, which highlight how airlines are coming up with profit-making products, and further enhancing their brand value every step of the way.

Specifically, we’ll be studying these airlines/products:

1. JetBlue Airways – LiveTV, keeping the brand alive in a recession: 13 Aug
2. Air Canada – Productizing the airline: 22 Aug
3. Virgin – An international airline brand conglomerate: 25 Aug
4. Emirates – Size matters: 27 Aug
5. Lufthansa – How to run a legacy carrier: 29 Aug
6. Singapore Airlines – Quality matters: 3 Sep

Through these case studies, we aim to answer the question, on whether the product comes first or the brand. Products come and go, but the brand lives on. These case studies should shed some light on how airlines can create innovative and profit-making products which not only support the company, but leverage and build the brand further.

At the end of the day, products and services come and go, but it is the residual customer experience that defines the brand in the long term. It is the brand that provides these products which remains constant. The sooner the airlines realize this fact, and take it to heart, the better it is for them, and the customer.

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