I used to be quite brand-loyal. When I studied marketing, we were schooled with examples like the tagline “Avis, we try harder,” Coca-Cola’s famous “Hilltop” spot, and more of that era. Advertising existed to drive brand awareness and preference.
And as I worked on a cross-section of categories and brands in various agencies, and I lived my life, I grew a list of preferred brands that I was very loyal to: Levi's, Coca-Cola, Cadbury’s Chocolate, Toyota, British Airways, to name a few.
Over the last few weeks I’ve done quite a bit of traveling, and I sampled United Airlines, British Airways, American Airlines and Delta. First of all, in the olden days of “loyal Maarten,” I would have never dreamed of flying so many different airlines in such a short span of time. I was a British Airways guy and would occasionally fly KLM, Delta or a British Airways partner like Cathay Pacific. But never would I be as promiscuous in my travel choices as I was in the past month.
So on one of those recent flights I tried to understand myself. What had happened?
I think the first conclusion is that all airlines have become the same. They (almost all) have blue pleather seats, limited in-flight service, flight attendants who are mostly not interested, and limited leg room or recline space (I fly mostly economy, and on occasion score or buy an upgrade to what is called “premium economy”). I know that some of this is probably exaggerated and perhaps a little unfair, but I think for the most part you will agree with me.
Very few flights stand out for being remarkable. We’re already happy when we get to where we wanted to go at the time it was promised by the airlines. Did we get to put our carry-on in the overhead instead of the dreaded gate check? Small satisfaction. Was the middle seat empty? Score!
Were any of my flights terrible? No. Were any of my flights memorable? Also no.
So why would you choose one airline over the other? Clearly it isn’t because of their onboard service, and it most certainly isn’t because of their loyalty programs anymore either. All these have been so downgraded that even with my stellar Platinum Elite For Life, I did not score any upgrades or perks on any of the flights. In fact, on one of the flights with the airline where I have Platinum status, I was number 49 on the upgrade list.
I think what has happened is that all airlines have drifted to a very mediocre middle, where cost reduction has been the sole driver of all product decisions. And while airlines are advertising the beautiful world of first-class travel, the vast majority of us sit with our knees against the seat in front of us and experience none of what the airlines are marketing.
Most people experience airline products as devalued and low-cost driven. And the traveling public isn’t stupid. If we experience “low cost,” then “low cost” becomes part of the decision-making process. Consequently, my decision on which airline to fly now is almost completely cost/convenience-driven. I think something similar has happened across many other product purchases I make today. How about yours?