phua-li-guen-simpliflyingOne of the major changes in the airline branding space is so universally acknowledged it’s almost too cliché to mention: Airlines are no longer in control of their brands. Based on your experience, how should airlines think about this new reality?

Rather than seeking control, brands should seek influence by joining conversations that are already happening about their brands in the social media space.

Airlines need to cultivate brand advocates who understand and connect with an airline’s brand values and who will jump to the airline’s defense when the need arises. Your brand is not what you say it is, it’s what they say it is.

Any examples?

No brand can fully adjust to losing control. Many airlines have become more receptive to criticism and complaints being aired on public platforms but the learning curve continues to get steeper as passenger expectations evolve.

Even the social media powerhouse KLM didn’t expect the backlash from its ‘Adios Amigos’ tweet during the World Cup, but because they were aware of the conversations going on, they managed to apologize shortly after the incident occurred, which helped limit the damage.

Brands that have worked on cultivating advocates, like Southwest, jetBlue and AirAsia perform much better than the traditional airline brands that still seek to maintain control.

Adio Amigos tweet KLM

KLM tweeted the above image after Mexico was knocked out of the 2014 World Cup tournament. Image via thescore.com.

A big trend in the marketing space is marketing as a service. At the same time ancillary revenue is growing in the U.S. Doesn’t charging extra contradict this approach?

The key idea here is creating something that your customers appreciate or are willing to pay for because it provides value, whether that be a service or a product.

Instead of creating a value-added product, many airlines have moved toward unbundling and charging à la carte for things like carry-on bags. Extra fees can affect the brand if the actions of the airline are not aligned with customer expectations about the brand.

In the case of Spirit Airlines, which is an ultra low-cost carrier, these extra fees go on to extend the brand identity and resonate with the ultra price-sensitive passengers.

For legacy airlines, unbundling has to be managed very carefully because customer expectations for legacy carriers are much higher.

The alternative is to create and charge for extra options that do not inconvenience most customers but which are valuable to a certain group. For example, Air France and Singapore Airlines charge extra for exit row seats on long-haul flights.

It’s important that airlines be clear about their brand identity and that they manage the expectations of their core customers. And extra fees are only one part of ancillary revenue generation. There are the commission-based ancillaries with third parties such as hotels and insurance, which don’t require the airlines to compromise the customer’s flight experience.

There is a lot of talk these days about wearable technology. A few airlines are dipping their toes in the space, but it’s by no means a proven market. How are you seeing airlines deal with the temptation of adopting ‘shiny new objects’ in service of their brand?

Virgin Atlantic is currently experimenting with Google Glass. Image via the Virgin Atlantic blog.

Virgin Atlantic is currently experimenting with Google Glass. Image via the Virgin Atlantic blog.

As our CEO, Shashank Nigam shared at the recent SITA IT Summit, right now these ‘shiny new objects’ remain just that – a way of driving buzz about the airline.

Airlines need to think about the longevity of these technologies, how much they matter to customers and whether they are scalable.

The smartwatch digital boarding pass is a great example. It’s a stunt that wowed people at first but was quickly forgotten because not enough people use it.

An article on Simpliflying suggests that just like television, people use social media for the content and not the ads, and that airlines should be treating their social channels accordingly. Does this mean we should expect to see more branded content from airlines?

We connect through stories and experiences. Of all the information, from adverts to brochures, that you’ve seen or heard before, how much of it do you actually retain?

Information is taxing to consume, but if brands can weave it into a story or content that forms a bigger part of people’s lives, experiences or fantasies, it will have a much bigger impact.

That said, not all branded content works well. Relevance is key. Airlines should take a step back, identify the value propositions that their customers appreciate most about their brands and build on that. What they shouldn’t do is shove their branding or products into people’s faces.