Shaping the airline brand experience post-crisis
The airline industry is at a crossroads, facing significant challenges even before Covid-19. Here, we evaluate how airline brands must transform to be future-fit.
Challenge 1: New models, new rules
It’s a crowded sector, with legacy carriers scrambling to copy models pioneered by low-cost brands, who in turn have been disrupted by the value-based players. Everything is converging.
At the same time, new sector brands (Uber, Netflix, Airbnb…) are transforming expectations: seamless, frictionless, personalised. Command-and-control is giving way to participation and co-creation, yet airlines lag behind.
Key to catching up is the mastery of data analytics – as long as travelers will divulge personal information. If not, this may prevent airlines delivering the brand experience customers seek.
Smart use of data enables advantage through customization, cross-selling and dynamic pricing. But data ownership and analysis are expensive. To create stand-out passenger experiences, airlines must leverage new technology to mine consumer information, develop a meaningful brand that creates an emotional reason to share data, and do this without passing on cost to travelers.
Challenge 2: National interest?
Engagement with home nations is eroding, especially among younger cohorts. Flag carriers no longer enjoy automatic status as national ambassadors.
This is happening at the same time as the rise of stateless brands. Millennials’ top brands are firmly global: Google, Disney, Amazon, Microsoft (BrandZ). Brand Innovation, vision, cool are valued over provenance.
In the pandemic, stateless brands enjoy enormous advantage over national brands, indivisible from a country’s performance on virus safety. Brands inevitably stand or fall by their country’s Covid status.
Airline customers today seek a different kind of brand relationship. Emotional connections are created when brands open up to and reflect their values.
Stateless brands have a head start, not least because there is no need to decouple from a country’s viral status. However, others can still learn from how new sector brands engage and collaborate with consumers.
Challenge 3: Sustainable futures
Commitment to a low carbon future is gaining momentum, through clear goal-setting and firm timeframes. 83% of consumers pick brands with a better sustainability record (Wunderman Thompson Intelligence), and brands are now judged not by intent – but by concrete progress towards targets.
The airline sector is in the firing line – ‘flight shame’ could halve growth in air traffic (BBC News) – and airlines’ responses are accelerating. Witness KLM telling us to fly less, and highly publicized carbon-cutting from Delta and British Airways.
Covid, too, provides a potential boost to sustainability. Bailouts could come with strings that force jet fuel tax reform (already urged by the Gilets Jaunes), leading to price increases that may drive reconsideration of non-essential travel.
In addition, virtual travel is gaining prominence as a valid experience in itself, while the clean air benefits of cutting travel all together have made headlines.
Accelerating a brand’s sustainability strategy will only gain in importance. Consumers expect brands to lead the way in enabling ‘better’ habits; smart airlines will use the conversation around mitigating emissions as an opportunity to build engagement and increase brand preference.
The trick will be to harness new developments to enhance the traveler experience, eg by incorporating VR into the inspiration phase of a trip, or by enabling giving to causes advancing sustainable progress.
Challenge 4: Coronavirus impact
The crisis has accelerated changes in habits and priorities. It’s too early to say whether our love affair with cheaper flights will resume, although non-essential trips may suffer as consumers weigh safety against the desire to get away. Cost increases caused by the need for distancing, reduced load factors and new sanitization protocols will also play a role.
Equally, businesses are rethinking face-to-face meetings and reviewing travel costs as remote working becomes more intuitive.
Going forward, enforced changes to the way we travel may affect consumer confidence, and are likely to make us more selective in our travel choices. Building trust will be of paramount importance for airline brands.
Consumer concerns around hygiene will be a source of tension, pulling against desires to escape. However, the need to reunite with loved ones may be stronger still; there is a real opportunity to play into the human need for reconnection post-Covid.
Airline brands that support consumers in the new reality – leveraging data, reflecting new consumer expectations and values, and encouraging socially- and environmentally-aware itineraries – will stand a better chance of success.