Airlines Need a Brand Purpose (Not a Social Cause)

A piece in Ad Week asks, “Is it time for brands to top taking stands (unless intrinsically linked to their mission)?” No doubt there are companies plunging into political debates to take a stand and thinking that will appeal to customers, but it doesn’t help that many companies.

And it also misses the point about a brand having a purpose, so no companies should give that up. Brand purposes don’t need to be political at all, and usually shouldn’t be in order to be effective.

Steve Jobs did a great job at explaining brand purpose and being relevant to your customers. It’s important to define who you are, and tell that to your customers. It’s also important to tell that to your employees, so they know how to make decisions inside the company.

Apple can focus on creative types, empowering them to pursue their missions and dreams. Nike can celebrate great athletes. None of that requires saving the world, all of it defines who the business is and what they’re trying to do.

American’s “We Know Why You Fly” campaign more 15 years ago was a little bit creepy but I always felt missed the mark. It said ‘we understand that every traveler is a person with a very human goal for their trip’ and so therefore the airline was going to be a little bit human and treat a passenger as a person. That didn’t quite translate into the trip experience. It also was just a marketing campaign and not something that became embedded in the company culture.

One of the commercials in the series, though really resonated for its potential – a businessman reclining into his seat and crashing at the start of a long flight, the voiceover talks about what he’s done on his trip. Now he’s headed home.

The airline understands the business traveler. If it makes every decision focused on how to get the passenger where they need to go, when they need to be there, in the most comfortable way possible that’s a brand purpose. It focuses decision-making around schedule and product and it tells customers who they’re going to take care of and how.

A brand purpose isn’t Delta withdrawing conference discounts from NRA events, it’s just asking what does a brand stand for, and whom does it serve? For a brand purpose to be successful it shouldn’t start with an ad campaign, the ad campaign brings clarity to an airline’s mission.

Copyright:stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo

Unfortunately too many marketers have come to think of brand purpose as uniting a company with a social cause. That can be a brand’s purpose, but for most companies it rings hollow and falls short — and they should just start by clarifying what they’re really about, not what they think they need to be about (or what consultants tell them they need to be about to court millennials).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. This crazy notion has come about because millennials like to see others reach into their pocket for social causes instead of reaching into their own. Dig deep, millennials, and pony up for what you believe in rather than expect others to do so.

  2. You are correct–it is asinine for brands to take on a political position. Instead, in the heyday years of flight, 1960s-1970s, the airlines successfully branded themselves in the eyes of the public as:
    American-business traveler
    Today, the remaining U.S. 3 offer little differentiation in the market, but with American hellbent on self-destroying its product which certainly serves the concept of product differentiation. But, in essence, the airlines do little to brand themselves to achieve a market position in the minds of the customer.

    It would be interesting for the gurus of market positioning and branding, Ries & Trout, to opine here on the status of airline marketing, branding, product differentiation, etc.

    As well, their is much we can learn from how the privately-owned railroads energetically marketed against their competitors into the 1960s. For example, the New York Central referred to itself as “the Water Level Route–You Can Sleep” between NYC-Chicago, in its fierce competition with the Pennsylvania Railroad, implying that the Pennsylvania was a rough ride over and around the Allegheny Mountains on its route between NYC-Chicago.

    It would be to the benefit of the consumer/customer if we returned to defining our product and customer-facing service through branding.

  3. Personally, I’d like to see the CEO stand behind his/her brand and its products, followed by consistent proof that they fly as we do, in the same seats, preferably more often on main cabin (say 85% of the time to better correspond with the ratio of passengers on any given flight) and with the same experiences as their passengers do.

    To me, the best endorsement of one’s product is consistently seeing the people who sell it, including the top management, use the product themselves.

    After all, if it’s NOT good enough for them, then it’s probably not very good at all, and why should anyone else be expected to pay good money for something the CEO and other managers don’t use themselves?

    David Neeleman’s frequent appearances on JetBlue’s aircraft, often assisting flight attendants when he was at the airline he founded, is a perfect example!

  4. I think Delta has done pretty well since withdrawing NRA discounts. Companies can have an effective brand and take stands on social/political issues from time to time. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

    Never taking a”stand” on anything makes decision making easy, but these days not taking a “stand” on some important issues will be interpreted as… taking a “stand.” In fact, corporate foundations and PACs take stands on social and political issues everyday with charitable and political contributions.

    Regarding courting millennials who currently lack the purchasing power of other generations, it is admirable because it demonstrates some measure of long-term thinking rather than being purely consumed with the next quarterly report or annual incentive goals. Short-term thinking is a weakness of our economic and political system.

    In China, it is important for companies to takes strands on social and political issues in accordance with the position of the Communist Party. E.g. Hong Kong Airlines – Good. Cathay Pacific – Bad.

    The ability to take short-term pain for long-term gain is a major advantage China enjoys in the trade war versus the U.S.. Irrespective of party, our politicians can be counted on to do what they deem necessary to win the next election. In a dictatorship like China, there are no free and fair elections, public opinion matters much less, and Xi is president for life.

  5. Southwest’s brand: a bus with wings.
    Deltas Brand: we fly to or close to wherever you are going.
    United brand: Polaris club and comfortable seats for frequent travelers.
    Americans brand: lower cost fares, stellar safety record, smaller seats allows them to be more efficient and economical. IFE is overrated.

  6. I am against airlines taking political positions. I do not care about Nike taking political causes. Why?

    The airlines are part of the USA transportation system. In other words, if an individual has to travel sometimes he has to fly. In many markets, airlines have monopolistic control over their markets. Therefore, if they decide to ban or discriminate against a certain class of people due to aligning with a social cause, it could have a disparate impact on that class of peoples ability to function in society and earn a livelihood.

    On the other hand, if you are Nike, and you go all in on in social justice. Who cares. Sneakers are a fully competitive market, with numerous show options. It is easy to switch to New Balance, Adidas, or whatever.

  7. I’m thrilled to see airlines supporting social issues such as gun-control and LBGTQ rights. Thanks to the Millennials for sounding the wake-up call. Those of us in the Baby Boomer generation have been too complacent for too long.

    An airline that claims to be focused on business travel needs to remember that the vast majority of their business passengers fly in the economy section, not the business section, of the aircraft. Those business passengers who fly in first class are either top executives or folk who have used their frequent flyer miles to upgrade themselves to a better seat than their company is willing to pay for.

  8. Social causes and political stands by companies TURN ME OFF. Instead, why not focus on the product or service and how it benefits me in my business, or makes life easier, or saves me time and money, or helps me solve a problem, or represents a new or interesting aspect to an ordinary item. Then I’m interested. Social commentary and political grandstanding is a waste of valuable time & money. It detracts from the real purpose: improving the product or service and delivering it to the customer.

  9. I agree with Charlie, racists can fly airlines that don’t support charities that support organizations helping Black youth and homophobes can give to organizations that support anti gay violence. But u hypocrites won’t inconvenience yourselves. I suggest that you Gary vjust give to racistisyn or homophobic organization Perhaps Rump publishes such a list

  10. Hi Gary (love your blog!) and VFTWing.

    Re: Social causes don’t belong in the airline business. I cannot agree that such a broad statement is applicable.

    Not all social causes have a political undertone or are inappropriate for a business to express their stance on. From the business end aligning with a social cause can be a powerful association with a brand. A specific example where a social cause is a great thing for a corporation to use their resources to coordinate an effort is American Airlines and Cancer:

    American Airlines recently offered the opportunity to have a cancer patient’s or cancer survivor’s name painted on one of their planes. It can also be to honor a loved one who lost the battle with cancer. AA just asked that an extremely reasonable donation of only $25 to the Stand Up 2 Cancer (SUp2C) Foundation where the money will go towards cancer research. I can’t imagine anyone having any issue with the alignment of AA wanting to use its resources to facilitate aid to this universal and worldwide cause. Cancer affects everyone in the world, either directly (statistic is that 1 in 3 Americans will receive a cancer diagnosis I believe, and that 1 in 2 of those will die from it). It is not hard to know of someone in the family, friends circle, or yourself that is affected by cancer.

    AA using their global platform to raise awareness of this need and their business resources to pay for the painting of a plane with a GIANT multi colored logo, and then painting thousands of names within that logo, computers to put out that offer, coordinate the donation effort, etc etc is something I find hard to think that anyone would take issue with and see it as a negative or inappropriate action that does not belong in the travel industry. There is no ‘left and right side of the aisle’ to this, one of the few that politicians do not get political about.

    Many cancer patients and their families have to travel to a treatment center, and that is usually not just for 1 visit. I am an extreme example, but over the course of the last 12 years I have taken over 100 roundtrip flights (no that is not a typo) using miles I built up from my corporate travel days and signup bonuses with the assistance of travel bloggers like this site and others. Of course that is not enough to cover 200+ flights so significant cash has been given to airlines, like American, to transport me to and from cities that are beyond the reaches of a car ride. So AA declaring that their company is sensitive their cancer customers, their families, and future cancer patients is an appropriate and I feel effective way for AA to show their corporate support and aid their brand. It would be hard to imagine that anyone would think this is wrong. Just the opposite as I imagine it spawned a lot of good feelings. And to tie in the business end and mention ‘brand’ – I believe actions like this can certainly be effective in ‘courting’ certain potential travelers. To further tie into an earlier comment about a specific group, millennials, travel is a high priority for them as is social sensitivity for efforts like volunteerism, purchasing something if a certain % of profits goes toward a cause they believe in, and the like. It is no different than businesses trying to capture the Baby Boomer’s attention by being a large group with money to spend. So yes, the intermingling of business, a brand, and social and/or political stances can be very beneficial to all aspects of this alliance and should be judged individually and not as a whole.

    I hope that other airlines and other travel related businesses follow American’s example and that there is not just going to be one plane traversing the world’s skies like this. Planes can be huge bulletin boards in the sky and on the ground and I think it is a very effective and certainly innovative form of advertising to appeal to a worldwide market, a targeted audience (cancer travellers, millenials, boomers, the medical industry perhaps and more…).

    Point is that the we should be open minded to forming opinions based on the individual factors and not just as a blanket category statement – that social and/or political stances do not belong in the travel industry and should not be mixed into brands. Just like we all strive to be judged personally on our individual merits and not be labeled as a group or a class. And I give kudos to American Airlines and hope they use more of their planes this way. Choosing not to paint another plane with a giant logo of themselves (think WOW, Spirit, etc) but instead to put a giant logo of a cause they want to be identified with in my opinion is hard to argue with.

    If you havent seen the plane yet use the link below:

  11. Ok, I’ll bite.

    2 counterpoints

    many of these social issues are being done to appease employees, and has little to do with customers

    Hard to run a business if your employees lose faith in your mission
    Some of you will say “fire them”
    Good luck with that.
    Anybody who says that has never been a senior leader in a company recently

    Second: many customers do care.
    As we all say, “the customer is always right”
    What about when your customers follow a certain ideology?
    Failing to take a stand risks alienating your customers

    To those of you who say Corporations should stay out of social ideas and politics, I agree.

    But this is the natural evolution of “Corporations are people” and Citizens United ideology

  12. LOL. Allen is spewing his hate again. If these creeps get their way, freedom of speech will soon be a thing of the past. First class loser.

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