Airline Brand Strategy: A Focus On Women

John SelvaggioJune 19, 20124 min

In a recent post on airline brand differentiation I shared insight into the creation of Song Airlines, Delta’s high touch-low cost airline subsidiary, a first of its kind airline brand developed to attract primarily women to its leisure destinations.

While President and chief brand advocate, we conceptualized Song in late 2002, it began flying April 15, 2003. Song was merged back into Delta on May 31, 2006, during Delta’s bankruptcy process. Today on Branding Strategy Insider, more on the Song story and how we created a differentiated brand in a cluttered, uninspired marketplace:

Once we had gone “boldly, where no man has gone before  . . . ” and designed an airline brand for women, it was important that men not be alienated in the process. Shortly after the new brand was introduced, we did some perception testing and found that while women “got” the brand right away, men were “curious” about it. That, of course, was a good thing, since their curiosity would lead them to at least try it once! Our marketing and product development team quickly got to work. Knowing at the outset that men would focus on the onboard satellite TV, the team insured that our offerings included a few ESPN and business channels like CNBC and Bloomberg. We also decided to create an interactive trivia game using the TV monitors, and enabling customers to compete against each other, no matter where their seats were on the airplane. This turned out to be a big hit. As did the good-sized (yet healthy) organic sandwiches and wraps, and imported beer we offered with our “food for sale” program.

One of the key gender-neutral elements of the Song brand was its dedication to making flying fun again. Our Flight Attendants were chosen for their pleasant personalities, and were encouraged to personalize, in a fun way, the in-flight service. This included the pre-flight, safety and arrival announcements, and the manner in which they sold food and drink. After a few months, we decided to commission the production of “Song of the Day” safety briefings, which set the usually tedious safety announcements to a variety of musical themes ranging from the Irish Jig to Flamenco to a Barry White-like Soul rendition. Even the FAA Inspectors liked these, since they all got the customers to pay attention to the Safety briefings like they had never done before!

Throughout the brand-building process, we continuously surveyed our customers to see if we were on the right track and where we should focus our energies to make improvements. Interestingly, all of the good things we did and offered seemed to be expected by the women in our audience, who were, of course, our target. Again, they “got” the brand and expected us to meet the brand’s promise. Men, on the other hand, once they tried it, were perhaps somewhat surprised, but clearly more impressed. In fact, flight attendants occasionally reported that they sometimes had trouble getting people off the airplane.

One of the other measures that customer service organizations use to gauge their standing in the marketplace is the Customer Compliment-to-Complaint Ratio. This ratio is generally skewed toward the complaint side, since customers are much more prone to write the company about an issue they had, than they are to compliment a company about their experience. In the case of Song, the ratio went the other way. Customers wanted to let the Company know they liked their experience and wanted more of the same. Interestingly, a disproportionate number of complimentary letters came from men, many of whom were captains of industry, including the CEO of one of our nations largest railroads, the creator of an iconic British brand and airline, a world famous celebrity wrestler and quite a few Jazz and Rock musicians. But most interesting of all, the coveted Frequent Flyer base, who were not-at-all our target, voted over-whelming support for the new brand in a special Frequent Flyer survey Delta commissioned.

Was it true that “Where Women Go, Men Will Follow”, or were the gender–neutral attributes of the brand strong enough to attract the non-targeted audience? Probably, a little of each, but what became clear to us as brand builders was that alienating any potential customer was not a good business practice, but building on curiosity, choice, personality and fun would stimulate traffic in an otherwise mundane, commoditized industry.

To deliver on the brand promise every day, we needed the employees to buy-in and become completely engaged. How we went about this most important aspect is the subject of my next installment on living the brand!

— John Selvaggio is the former President of Song Airlines. In his 30+ years as an executive in the airline industry he helped airline brands discover and adopt new strategies to enhance the customer experience and drive profit in a highly competitive environment. As partner and brand strategist at The Blake Project, he helps airline brands create value through unique brand differentiation workshops that lead airline brands out of the commodity space.

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  • Sylvester Pittman

    June 20, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    Enjoying this walk down memory lane. Thanks for this. Looking forward to the next entry!

  • Darren Coleman

    June 22, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    Great post but I don’t understand this sentence: “what became clear to us as brand builders was that alienating any potential customer was not a good business practice”. I’m not sure if it’s the use of the word “alienating” but with brand it’s all about focus and making choices. Knowing who your customer is and who your customer isn’t. Otherwise you’ll be all things to all people and we know what that means….bad times.

    Can you elaborate on this a little more for me?

  • John Selvaggio

    June 27, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    Happy to elaborate Darren. The target remained clear – in this case, women travelers. While we directed all of our efforts toward attracting our target audience, we did so knowing that women make over 80% of family liesure travel decisions. Their families included men and male children, whom we did not want to “alienate”, since making a family trip pleasurable is one of the target customer’s desires in planning a trip. So we were careful not to cross the line of trying to be “all things to all people”, and created a brand that hit its target and was still able to attract customers outside of the bullseye. The Song brand was built on focus and discipline – which as you know, is critical for brands.

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