Brand Strategy: Differentiating An Airline

John SelvaggioJune 6, 20125 min

Remarkably, even though Song Airlines (Delta’s high-touch low-cost subsidiary) was folded back into Delta in Mid 2006, I still get several comments each month from former customers and employees about what a great brand it was.

As the creator of the airline, and builder of the brand, I am at once gratified by their fondness yet disappointed that the airline became a casualty of bankruptcy and the need to economize – maintaining two independent airline brands and workforces was more expensive than one, and austerity was the rule of the day.

Yet people still talk longingly about Song, even though it hasn’t flown in six years. Why is that? Isn’t the airline industry just one big commodity provider? For the most part, yes, certainly in the case of the legacy airlines it is true. Each of them has created their airline to be the “carrier of choice” for the businessman.

But as niche airlines have developed, we have seen product differentiation start to take shape. Most people still remember People Express, a true low cost carrier that appealed to the common man versus the traditional well-heeled customer, and was dedicated to the proposition that everyone should be able to fly. On the other side of the spectrum was MGM Grand Air, which provided an uber-First Class experience, but was expensive to fly, served very few markets and not enough customers to be successful.

How have some of the other non-legacy airlines differentiated themselves? Well, for Southwest, it was the peanuts and the flight attendant humor. For Spirit, it’s ultra-low cost fares, but you must be willing to pay for everything else, yes even charging for toilet use was announced then scrapped. JetBlue introduced live in-flight TV and an upscale low cost product, while Hooters Air chose to appeal to the …well, you know who you are.

So then, what was the Song brand about and how was it developed? The first differentiating element had to do with the fact that it was a “carrier within a carrier” (a very traditional carrier at that); and, no airline had ever successfully launched a “carrier within a carrier” that worked! Obviously, we were going to have to do something very different, and not be just another low fare carrier, as was Delta Express, Delta’s previous carrier within. Very different meant we would not be the “businessman’s airline”, so why not be the leisure woman’s airline? No one ever built an airline around women before, and since they represented 51% of the population, why not let the other umpteen airlines fight over the 49%? And, as we subsequently discovered via data-mining, over 80% of family vacation travel was booked by women. Wow, building a brand that would attract women would be exciting and potentially lucrative! The Red, White And Blue paint jobs of virtually everyone else might be scrapped for a color that would appeal to women. How about green – we could “own” green, because no one else did. And not just green, how about “parrot green”, as Kate Spade would call it; and why not have Kate Spade design the Flight Attendant uniforms and accessories? Then it was, why not do Women’s Focus Groups and find out what women wanted on airplanes?  Healthy Food – OK, let’s make it organic and charge for it. Charge for it?  No one ever paid for airline food, and it was in fact, the butt of many jokes. But if it was organic, that would differentiate it enough that people might pay. And they did. How about drinks – wine, beer, OK, but how about Martini’s? A Martini Bar in the Sky serving Cosmo’s, Appletini’s, Song-A-Tini’s (cranberry juice based), a total of five in all, and all hand-shaken by your well-trained, smiling Flight Attendant for just $5.00 apiece. An instant hit. Sometimes, we would sell a total of $1600 per flight  – just organic wraps and treats, and martini’s!

What else did women want? Something to keep their kids busy so they could get some free time on the flight. TV did the trick. Bigger screens and digital vs. analog gave us an advantage over jetBlue. How about exercise? Yes, we even had exercise bands for passengers to use in their seats and “work-out” while they flew. And good music for them to enjoy with their headphones on, while the kids watched TV. But, what kind of music?  When we asked, it seemed everyone had a different Song going through her head. Which one should we use? Hmmm…why not just name it “Song” and give the customer their choice. Why not make everything about choice, – the music, the TV channel, the food, the exercise, the martini – a totally differentiated airline in a commoditized industry. And what would you name an airline that let everyone march to her/his own different drummer? Yes – “Song” was born, and it was, quite literally, a “carrier of choice”, designed for the woman who appreciates the difference between being “One In a Million” instead of “One Of a Million”.

Great, but can an airline survive if it only appeals to women and children? Here’s more on that and airline brand strategy.

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. Contact us for more.

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  • Pam Findley

    June 13, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    The Song Brand was cutting edge and expert……some say a better product than the ‘mother ship’ Delta. But at what operating cost? This week’s Wall Street Journal states that the average commercial full flight profits only approx. $169….wow! The Brand has become secondary to the bottom line of profitability and survival……..

  • RossanaRocchini

    June 18, 2012 at 9:14 am

    This was a very interesting read. I never knew Song was designed around women’s needs.

  • Barbara

    June 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    With it being six years later and that much more distance between 9-11 and now, could the brand be resurrected? Is the timing better now for it to succeed? I would think the idea of this type of airline is still good; the need for it more important than before as consumers are shifting to a “what’s in it for me” mode versus indulging in luxury products.

  • John Selvaggio

    June 19, 2012 at 11:06 am

    Thanks for your comments, Pam. Many people agree with your observations and conclusions. Airline profit margins are razor-thin.

    However, creation of a great new brand is primary to the bottom line of profitability and survival. That was certainly the driver of Song’s creation. Delta, as every other airline in the post-911 time period, was quite concerned about the looming possibility of bankruptcy, and needed to expend maximum effort to turn the company around. Song had to get off the ground very quickly, and attract a substantial number of customers to its new product in record time.

    And that it did. Due to its impressive success at start-up, it quickly grew beyond its initial planned size of 25 aircraft to 48 in its second year. Although it turned out to be too little, too late, the primary objective of the brand was to improve the profitability and survival chances of the corporate enterprise – Delta Air Lines.

  • Sylvester Pittman

    June 20, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    Excellent post John! As a former Song “Star” I 100% agree with your post. Why so many airlines don’t see the need for true differentiation is beyond me. IMHO Song was one of the best things to happen to Delta. Many of the amenities, work rules, and even designer uniforms originated in the little brand that could. Six years down the road we’re still discussing Song. We obviously did something right! Too little, too late? Likely. However Song has left an indelible mark on me. Long live the spirit of Song!

  • Beckey Myers

    June 20, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    I was part of the legacy carrier but while I worked for Song I identified with the Song culture. I was behinds the sceens working with the Song flight attendants, who were the faces of Song we saw daily. It was an experience that I will never forget, to this daily I proudly identify myself as a former Song scheduler. It was like nothing the airline indusry had seen before. I get peolpe, who work at other airlines, asking how we made it work so well, they are former Song stars. I tell them that “my flight attendants” were my people and I made a point to get to know them.
    John, thank you for allowing me to be part of something great. even during hurricane season, it was still the best part of my time with Delta.

  • Joey Guarisco

    May 28, 2014 at 6:26 am

    While in the beginning i was part of the first wave of Song stars at JFK, i wondered if i made the right move leaving Delta to become part of a new family. That answer became apparent as days past. John, you gave us the opportunity to be ourselves and interact differently with our passengers. It was fun being able to play games at the gate and coming up with our own announcements. Passengers loved it. And it was fun for us. To this day i haven’t worked with a bunch of people like the family we had at JFK. And that’s what we were, a FAMILY. Thank you for allowing me to be part of that Song Family. I would love to relive those days again.

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