Thursday, August 14, 2008

On Airlines, Advertising, and the Olympics

Like many of you, I've been watching the Olympic coverage in the evenings. It's great to be able to watch new content; not just sports, but sports that you don't see all the time or may never actually see -- badminton, synchronized diving, crew, (curling in the winter). When you think about the athletes, it reminds me of being at my grandmother's house, watching the Olympics as a kid and thinking -- I want to do that when I grow up (swimming and diving at the time).

With all of the hoopla of modern sports broadcasting, the best coverage for me is the stuff that they broadcast live -- when they don't have enough time to throw in background on what "Dude-the-Swimmer" eats every day. Sometimes I imagine the kid out there, somewhere, thinking "I want to grow up and eat a 12000 calorie diet!"

Anyway, from a marketing view, one of the things that struck me during my network TV time has been a series of ads from United Airlines. My question is this -- what is the purpose of these ads? Is there anyone who isn't aware of their service? Do any of their target customers make or change their purchase decision based on this type of advertising? Now don't get me wrong, there are a lot of potential justifications to support this ad program, but as with any marketing program, when you're weighing priorities and looking at ROI, you always have to ask, "would there be better results if we spent the money on this instead?"

Consider the role of customer experience and Word of Mouth in this industry segment. I've never flown on Singapore Airlines, but I've heard that their quality of service is exceptional. I have flown on JAL, and the food, the quality of service, and the customer experience was so far superior to anything that I've experienced from any US-based carrier, that, whenever I'm planning a trip to Asia, I always try to check the airfare for JAL. And, more to the point, I frequently share that story with people when airline discussions come up. In that way, the main drivers in my selection of an international air carrier are price, quality of service, access to a destination, and mileage/loyalty program engagement.

Now consider the challenges that United Airlines faces as a company and how those challenges spill over into user experience -- what if they spent that money on something that improved their user experience and gave them a Word of Mouth promotional boost? Their advertising campaign is for their international flights, but what if they spent their budget on reducing the cost of beer and wine on domestic flights? What if they spent the money on purchasing a credit card processing system so that the flight attendants don't always have to ask for cash -- or exact change? What if they spent it on some sort of bonus program for the flight attendants in an effort to make them happier and more pleasant to deal with? What if they spent it on a handful of additional counter-workers to reduce lines?

On a positive note, I don't think that United had gone the way of the checked back surcharge -- hat's off to them just checked their web site and it looks like they've added the surcharge for checking the first bag also.

So, with those marketing dollars in play, what would you do to improve your customer experience?

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