How Airlines Can ‘Superbrand’ Their Experience for the Modern Traveler
Air travel isn’t just a way to get from Point A to Point B anymore. High-quality, unique and personalized brand experiences are what travelers are coming to expect — and from first-class to coach, travelers have more airlines than ever to choose from.
Who customers choose often comes down to one question: “Who do I trust?”
Airlines know trust and loyalty go hand-in-hand, and are working on how to tap into that human experience. The ones who’ve hammered out a successful approach are in a league of their own: The superbrand league.
What is a Superbrand?
The term “superbrand” was coined by British firm Superbrands U.K., which publishes annual rankings of brands that, according to Superbrands’ definition, “have established top reputation in their respective market segments and in the market as a whole.” The official rankings may be limited to the U.K., but the superbrand concept is certainly in play on a global scale.
Shashank Nigam, author of Soar: How the Best Airline Brands Delight Customers and Inspire Employees, says superbrand airlines separate themselves by delivering a personalized experience across each and every brand touchpoint.
“I don’t think any other consumer industry has as many brand touchpoints. Think about it,” says Nigam, “You typically book an airline ticket about 40 days before traveling — that’s where it starts. An airline brand needs to excel at experience delivery, set the right expectations and deliver consistently across all touchpoints over time. That’s what makes a superbrand.”
At their core, superbrands have reserved a special place in the hearts and minds of the public — something that plays out on both the conscious and subconscious levels. While booking a flight is a conscious decision, experts say most purchases are driven by consumers’ subconscious connections with the brands that evoke positive emotions. These feelings are embedded in our brains through a combination of branding, advertising and customer experience. And airlines are now leveraging technology more than ever to ingrain a positive brand perception in the psyche of their customers at every CX touchpoint.
Inflight devices, connectivity and entertainment are playing a huge role in how passengers experience airline brands. We’ve gathered some experts to discuss what some of the most prestigious airlines are doing to achieve superbrand status. We’ll also discuss what the superbrand airlines of the future might look like, and how technology will play a critical role in their evolution.
The Superbrand Airlines of Today
There’s more than one route to achieving superbrand status. Whether it’s a low-cost carrier or super-luxury brand, what the experts seem to agree on is that it’s about exceeding expectations and forging an enduring bond with customers.
Randall Stone, director of experience innovation at Lippincott, has worked with major carriers like Delta and United on re-branding major aspects of their customer experience. “With superbrands in general, people have this deep, emotional connection with the brand that goes beyond aviation. They’re the brands that we love. Whether it’s an Uber or Apple, or a Virgin Atlantic,” Stone says.
Nigam says superbrand airlines make a habit of going above and beyond, every single time — especially when things go wrong. “Superbrands need to be genuine, and must anticipate the customer’s needs. If you as an airline can do both, you have a customer for life,” he says.
Take Southwest, for example. While not included in the Superbrands U.K. report, it was recently named by Reader’s Digest as the U.S.’s most trusted airline brand. While Southwest isn’t a luxury airline, people trust Southwest because it exceeds the expectations customers have of a budget carrier. What other low-cost airline gives away shoes and puts on surprise inflight concerts for everyday customers?
At their core, superbrands have reserved a special place in the hearts and minds of the public — something that plays out on both the conscious and subconscious levels.
And this level of trust most certainly influences customer behavior. Stone notes that, in reality, United Airlines loses less baggage annually than Southwest Airlines. “But in fact, Southwest has fewer complaints. It’s that emotional connection that not only inspires or delights you, but it’s also what gives the brand permission to fail,” he says.
Abigail Comber, Head of Customer Experience at British Airways, says the U.K. airline’s approach focuses on unique differentiators and consistent service delivery to establish bonds with customers. “We have something that other airlines don’t: our inherent Britishness and heritage, combined with experience and insight. We do a lot of research into what our customers want, how they like to use the time on their flight and what they expect. Customers’ needs can vary greatly. However, the common thread is consistency,” she says.
Today’s superbrands are combining technology and customer experience innovation strategies to differentiate themselves in today’s competitive marketplace.
Comber says that empowering personnel to use tablet computers and inflight apps to enhance service has been crucial to personalizing the British Airways experience. “Perhaps a customer has reached an important milestone or frequent flyer tier level on a particular flight. A personal congratulations can be a wonderful and unexpected surprise,” she says.
Stone, however, reminds us that simply having the latest technology and amenities isn’t enough for airlines to differentiate themselves as a superbrand anymore.
Stone says Lippincott’s re-branding of Delta post-bankruptcy, with a focus on customer reactivation, was key to its recovery and becoming the second most valuable brand worldwide. Source: BrandDirectory
“Everyone buys the same planes,” Stone says. “There’s only so many seat providers. The opportunity is to really then look at your customer and make sure that what you’re filling in around them has meaning. That you’re really orchestrating an experience, and defining services and product hallmarks that pull you apart as a differentiated brand.”
Peter Knapp is the creative director at Landor, a branding agency that worked with Etihad Airlines to transform its brand. The strategy with Abu Dhabi-based Etihad was to make the airline itself a destination. From lounges with live music and personal chefs, to the ultra exclusive VVIP class, Landor undertook an “opportunity mapping process” to help Etihad extend its brand into new areas like multi-channel content and live festivals.
“The challenge and the secret for success for Etihad, or any airline brand, is to ensure that the brand strategy and the idea are consistently and coherently infused into all points of the customer journey,” Knapp says.
Superbrands Redefine Personal CX
Nigam says it’s the little things that brands can do on a personal customer experience level to further build trust and loyalty. Singapore Airlines, for example, promises the world and delivers a bit more. “If there’s severe turbulence, a flight attendant distributes chocolate boxes to all the passengers once landed. It’s unexpected,” he says.
But Stone, who worked with United and Delta, says implementing a branding strategy in every part of the customer experience is only half the battle. Observing and compiling data about how it performs is just as crucial to the equation.
“To think that you’re going to just define a customer experience and then roll it out — that’s not going to be a relevant strategy,” he says. “We are living in a fast, data-driven world that demands constant evolution. In some cases, things you do are going to be replicated. Even if they’re differentiated today, they might be parodied tomorrow.”
How Superbrands are Leveraging Technology
Superbrand airlines in the future won’t necessarily do anything revolutionary, but they’ll use existing technologies in smarter ways.
“Superbrands are going to apply technologies and use them better, and they’re going to make better use of social media,” Nigam predicts. “They’re not really reinventing the wheel, but they’re ensuring that technology enables the customer experience.”
Moving forward, airline brands will also have to reach customers on the channels they prefer, and not vice versa. “I think the first step is, you have to take care of the customers using the channels that they’re using. People text, people [use] WhatsApp and they tweet. People don’t send as many emails these days. You’ve got to be in tune with whatever the latest channels are,” Nigam says.
Social media should be high on an airline’s priority list, he argues, because it allows the brand to interact with individuals on a peer-to-peer level.
“Having two-way conversations makes the brand more human, and that’s important. A very good case study is American Airlines, wherein it’s not the world’s favorite airline, but it certainly has one of the world’s best social media teams. The social media team replies to you within minutes, no matter where you’re stuck,” he points out.
One of the big opportunities in technology is to use inflight entertainment content to help differentiate their brand and experience.
One of the big opportunities in technology is to use inflight entertainment content to help differentiate their brand and experience.
“Who says an airline might not produce their own content?” asks Stone. “An Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown news segment or a TED talk that would appeal to a businessman, for example. […] I think if airlines can find authentic partners to help produce that content — and I think they will — it’s a great opportunity for airline brands.”
Other emerging technologies will also contribute to rising (and varying) customer expectations, Knapp says. “For example, as virtual reality (VR) begins to grow, there will be an expectation that it will be available on-board. Passengers will want a seamless entertainment experience before, during and after the flight. Therefore, airlines will be forced to get into the business of being entertainment content managers,” he says.
Research also indicates that air travel will only increase in the future, with existing travelers needing to fly more often and growth of first-time flyers. Technology will play a key role in how brands connect with these passengers.
“Technology will continue to grow in importance and we’ll continue to look at where we can innovate with digital platforms,” says Comber. “The goal is to enhance the customer journey from the moment they search for a vacation package, to their return home after they land.”
Technology’s Role in Aviation Branding
Nigam predicts that airlines who succeed with technology will be the ones who take concepts that are working elsewhere and apply them in a different context to a pain point within the airline industry. Air New Zealand, for instance, took RFID technology typically used for package-tracking and applied it to how unaccompanied minors travel — except that instead of a package, the technology tracks the child and sends real-time updates to parents along the way.
Comber says British Airways is working hard to stay ahead of the curve to maintain its position as the U.K.’s top superbrand. From refining seat mechanics to designing a steam oven for improved catering, the focus is on streamlining the passenger experience. Its mobile app now even pushes key information like Wi-Fi lounge codes and gate information to customers in real time.
A lot of innovation goes on behind the scenes to accomplish all this, Comber says. “Our in-house team has created over 40 apps, quite a few being ‘under the wing.’ These apps are designed to enable a much more efficient loading and turnaround process via real-time operations data to and from the flight control center.”
She also mentions connectivity as a major focus for the airline.
“We’re already planning for it and will be introducing high-speed inflight connectivity on 118 of our long-haul aircraft, with the aim to have it on 90 per cent of those aircraft by early 2019. We will also be the first airline in Europe to launch a new air-to-ground connectivity system for our short-haul fleet,” Comber says.
Image Source: Southwest
Panasonic’s Role in the Future of Branding
Panasonic is also helping brands on the technology front in several ways. The companion app, for example, is integrated into the IFEC offering on personal mobile devices and seatback screens, allowing passengers to do things like browse entertainment options and schedule content prior to boarding.
Embedded seatbacks also present branding opportunities. They can also be programmed to reflect a code-share partner, allowing for brand continuity when a flight is operated by an airline other than the one passengers’ tickets were purchased from.
But airlines need to keep in mind that IFEC innovations are a direct reflection of the airline brand itself. Knapp says the quality and creativity of the interface are massively important to airlines’ presentations to the public, as are speed, breadth of offerings and user experience.
“These, combined with new delivery ideas, are critical to delivering a great passenger experience and building the reputation of the carrier,” he says.
Thinking Like a Superbrand in the Long Run
For most airlines, improving brand reputation isn’t a question of when, but how. In their latest Aviation Trends Report, PricewaterhouseCoopers concluded that one of the major challenges brands will face is increasing customer expectations. Those who succeed will focus on enhancing the “soft product” of customer experience. Luckily, creating welcoming and seamless customer experiences across all aspects of air travel is actually a cheaper way to improve experience than upgrading the physical aircraft. Thinking like a superbrand may actually be the only way to keep pace with increased customer expectations.
And according to the experts, those who adopt the superbrand mindset will combine a process-driven approach with a relentless focus on the customer experience. They’ll recognize that travel is a fundamentally human thing, and use data and technology to augment passenger experience. They’ll know the little things that make us smile. And they’ll also know the things that won’t make us smile — but they will be handled with humility and grace. They know travelers are constantly expecting more, and they’ll find surprising ways to deliver.