Thursday, December 9, 2010

Part 1: Delta Airlines new campaign - sincere care or wishful thinking?

I've been a frequent traveler for years for both business and family vacations, and as such I have some pretty definite opinions about certain airlines in addition to a keen awareness of how each airline promotes its personality. Additionally, in my past I worked in a few industries in customer service for over three years, plus client relations and project management for over ten.

Recently, I’ve taken notice of the new Delta ad campaign that features black and white photos with their red logo and a short sentence that is meant to engender you to have warm feelings to them as an airline. It’s referred to as the “Keep Climbing” campaign. (

Two of these subway ads that stick out in my mind are, "The red coats are back" (which reminds me of the British troops during the Revolution, not customer service reps from Delta) and "Sleep is not a perk", but apparently free check-in luggage is a perk. I’ll get to this next time.

I should disclose that three years ago I swore off flying Delta ever again, unless there was no option to fly another airline. I had an absolute disaster experience with their airport staff, call centers in the US and India and general over-exposure to their lost luggage processes when they lost my checked bag, and then a very botched layover experience in Atlanta a year later. The first experience was bad enough that they forced me to check a carry-on bag because the flight was full, and then it was never scanned; found three weeks later after I had re-purchased all the items in my suitcase. The second Delta experience swore me off ever connecting in Atlanta on any airline if I could help it since the Delta and Atlanta airport staff were so rude and dismissive. Honestly, I’ve had my bags lost by American Airlines a few times during work travel, but the way I was treated by Delta turned me off to them entirely.

For me, Delta lost my respect. It went from a decent airline with a solid brand I wanted to trust and that flew a lot of places I wanted to go, to a commodity airline that I avoided at all costs.

Most recently, my sister bought a ticket on Delta to fly to a college friend’s wedding. Three days before her flight, she fell sick with a really bad bacterial infection and was immediately put on antibiotics. Had she flown she would have certainly gotten a good portion of the flight’s passengers sick and many people at the wedding. So she cancelled her ticket by calling Delta. They charged her a $150 rebooking fee, on a $225 ticket. She was given a confirmation number, so she could use the remaining credit on another flight in the future. She would have to call Delta to use that credit, to book her next flight. I tried to see if they charge you a fee for calling to make a flight reservation, like other airlines do, but I couldn’t find a definitive answer one way or another.

Either way, a $20 fee to book a flight using Delta’s phone reservation system or not, it is certainly an exorbitant “rebooking” fee, especially on such an otherwise cheap ticket. Now, I well realize it is of no concern to Delta why someone is cancelling using their ticket but $150 is steep. If they really have “the customer’s back” you’d figure they would charge you a percentage of your ticket as the cancellation fee -- something more variable to match the scale of the original ticket price. Even then, I was just appalled by taking nearly 67% of the original ticket price as a “rebooking fee.”

This reminded me of the cancellation fees that cell phone companies employ. My favorite at the moment is my $350 fee with AT&T if I leave them before the 2 year contract is up. But that’s another story.

Back to the topic at hand, Delta’s branded messages and the resonation of truth behind the messages. What I like about the campaign is that it is visually coherent and consistent in its content. The message is clear and the message is singular. Any good brand message needs to be both clear and singular. Focus, focus, focus.

A wonderful, customer-service focused, but non-airline branded message is Avis’ “We Try Harder”. First used in 1963, Avis launched this campaign to gain car rental business against the giant, Hertz. Avis turned a one year profit of $1.2 million after launching “We Try Harder”, and their marketshare of 11% in 1962 increased to 35% by 1966.  Having used this slogan for over 40 years, it’s not only served Avis well but has become a well-recognized message with the public.

Delta’s promise of being nicer to you than any other airline, if true, will definitely affect all their customers.The only problem with going the “we love our customers” route is if the entire company can’t deliver, the promise sounds insincere to the public and is a waste of time and money.