Does luck play a role in branding?
Remember when the Coronavirus first hit. And the jokes started flying all over the social media ecosphere about Corona Beer. Funny stuff, unless you work for Corona. After all those years of building your brand equity, it's a blow when something uncontrollable like the name of a virus blemishes your name. Lucky for the Corona team, COVID-19, and later just COVID, became the common way we now refer to one of the worst chapters in our history.
But it doesn't stop there. The new variant – Delta – that's creating a major setback in the U.S. and around the world as it shares its name with a major airline. And not surprisingly, the Delta “humor” has also been making its rounds in emails, gifs, and other web jokes.
Delta is my airline, the one I fly the most. And there are two reasons why. They are hubbed here in Detroit where I live and Jacobs Media/jacapps are based. And they've proven they're a quality airline (NOT an oxymoron) – in both the best and worst of times.
Seth Resler shows you how to use webinars to generate leads for your radio station's sales team.
It's relatively easy for brands to be likeable when the sun is shining and the up arrows are everywhere. But in down times – recessions and pandemics – in just the past dozen years – brands are put to the test.
Yesterday, I received an email out of the blue – a communiqué from Delta's CEO, Ed Bastian. Early in the pandemic, Delta realized that those who had achieved “status” (gold, silver, platinum, etc.) in 2019 would be hard-pressed to maintain it during a year of lockdowns, quarantines, and work-from-home. As a result, they extended status achieved in 2019 through the end of this year – a gracious give-back at a time when any news was good news.
Here we are on the cusp of August, and I'm back in the air again. Yesterday, I was on the east coast, last week the west coast, and in the coming weeks, it's Missouri, Nebraska, Chicago, and more. But I've run the cocktail napkin math, and even if my travel returns to 2019 levels, there's no way I match my 2019 status – diamond, the top of the heap.
Yesterday, Ed sent me (and apparently the 100 million+ SkyMiles members) an email. As has been the case throughout the pandemic, it summarized many of the moves the airline is making to adjust as conditions change.
The email addressed new digital tools, customer service hiring to meet new travel demands, and booking rules changes.
And then several paragraphs down, this:
Talk about welcome news after 18 months of the roller coaster we've been on from an airline no less. Most of us don't think of great customer service and airlines in the same area code.
And that got me to thinking. Delta has played this pandemic as well as it could have. And many of their actions serve as “best practices” for any brand – including radio stations – that want to stand above the herd, especially during a time when emotions are running hot.
Here are a half dozen of Delta's truly smart moves, as the airline has gained ground during the worst of times.
1. Surprise & delight – The very best brands have embedded this concept in their mission statements – their DNA. Four Seasons hotels have made this art a daily practice, emboldening their entire staff to look for ways to make guests feel even more welcome with that special touch – use of the hotel's Town Car, a gift for a child – you name it.
But “surprise and delight” rarely come to mind when you're thinking about airlines. Yet, Delta pulled this off with yesterday's email, a welcome policy change, especially for those of us who live on planes, in airports, and in airport lounges.
And even for more occasional travelers, silver and gold status matter in myriad ways in making the travel experience smoother and less stressful.
It was not an isolated incident, as I'll explain below.
2. Smart, strategic partnerships – When you think of airlines, you think hotel and car rental partnerships. But a few years ago, Delta did a deal with Porsche. The idea is that for elite customers in a time crunch (which is frequently), you literally get a tap on your shoulder, and Porsche (a two-seater or an SUV) is waiting for you down the stairs of the jetway, waiting to whisk you across the tarmac to your next flight.
It's a great perk, and the fact that it's totally unexpected makes it that much more valuable – and buzzworthy. It's happened to me twice – in Seattle on the way up to Vancouver. And in Detroit, on my way to LaGuardia. That's the photo you see at the top of the blog. Our Delta liaison took us for a spin all over Delta's vast footprint around Terminals A, B, and C, pointing out new aircraft and other features.
A simple collaboration with another great brand – in this case, Porsche – provided a wonderful story to tell friends and family – and all of you.
But it's also a great use of data. Delta analyzes connect times and gate locations in the airports where this service is available. They can identify their frequent flyers who are under the gun, having to get from terminal A to terminal E in 15 minutes. And when you get that shoulder tap, it's truly a nice surprise.
3. Personalizing the airline – I can't tell you I know Ed Bastian. He's relatively new to the position, ascending to CEO just five years ago. But Delta's marketing team has seized the COVID moment to put a face on their brand. His missives are branded with “An Update From Ed.” When you see the subject line in your email box – especially since COVID – you know Delta has a message to deliver.
It also helps to put a face on a brand – especially an airline – where you're hard-pressed to think of Ed's peers. We may know Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, and Elon Musk, but when it comes to airlines, it almost always feels impersonal.
Ed has stepped out, and put himself out there – a marketing tactic that will come in handy on that inevitable day when he's got some bad news to deliver.
4. Be bold – As long as you're going to rejigger the rules of your frequent flyer program, you may as well go big, be bold, and do it with panache.
I'm sure the Delta data nerds calculated that if they didn't “freeze” their program, they'd likely lose some business the last two quarters of this year. If you think there's no chance of retaining your platinum status, for example, you're less incentivized to book the rest of your flights this year with Delta.
But a big promise like Ed's update yesterday is the best way to eke out some lemonade during the pandemic, earning both good will and loyalty from their biggest customers. As long as you're going to do it, DO IT.
5. Be first – I wouldn't want to be in today's “all hands” marketing meeting at American, Southwest, and the others. Delta didn't just make a big move – they did it before anyone else could do it. If you think radio is a “lemming business,” where everyone follows a leader, the airlines are worse. Typically when the first airline announces a price hike (or drop) or a sweeping policy, the others fall into line within days. Or try to come up with a program of their own.
For Delta, this is nothing new. As we may recall, they were the first airline ever to exhibit at CES back in 2020 – a truly cool initiative that positioned them as an airline that combined technology and innovation on the world's biggest stage.
Ries & Trout made sure we knew it in their iconic 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. The very first law – appropriately – is “The Law of Leadership.” That is, it’s much easier to get into the mind of consumers when you're there first. I hope Delta's competitors have plenty of coffee on hand.
6. Listen to your customers – This is the beginning, middle, and end of Delta's “best practices.” And it should be for your radio station, too. We are wrapping up our Public Radio and Christian Music Radio Techsurveys this month. And I can tell you that the very act of surveying fans helps endear them to your brand.
It shows you care about what they think, and that you're listening to them. None of these Delta moves happen in a vacuum. They are driven by keeping that ear to the ground, especially important during turbulent times when things can change on a dime – or with a new order from the CDC.
There are always going to be the “uncontrollables” – a pandemic comes to mind. But so does rain on the day of your festival, a guest that's a no-show, or a social media troll. And that's why your brand's strength and equity is so important during times like these.
Most of the time, you can control these things. And as Delta has proved – once again – your customers truly appreciate your efforts during times of trauma and angst.
I'm looking forward to seeing many of you at Boot Camp in Chicago next month, the NAB/RAB Show in Vegas in October, and at other points along the way. And you can bet that I'll be making every effort to get there on Delta.
Thanks to Dave Paulus, Randy Kabrich, and others.
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