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Brand is forever

Non-legacy carriers have the challenge of differentiating themselves in order to stand out. Keith Mwanalushi speaks to industry experts about the importance of branding strategies for start-up airlines

Concepts that look great on paper don’t always reflect the reality of taking a business to market – the airline industry has countless examples of this.


In 2013 it was recorded that 130 new airlines launched operations, but by the end of that year 55 of them, in various regions, had ceased to fly. Few industries have as many variables and challenges as aviation.


New ventures clearly have their own unique challenges and a clear branding strategy is regarded as critical for start-ups to position themselves in the market. “Transporting a distinctive value proposition to the customer is absolutely crucial,” remarks Marc Landgraf, partner at Lufthansa Consulting.


Landgraf reminds us that the airline brand is not only a statement about the product, but it also stands for the value felt by customers, as well as how the airline deals with safety and the environment. “Depending on the business model of the airline – a low-cost or full service carrier, or something in between – it is necessary to build the brand according to the expectations of the customer target group,” he notes.


As a rule of thumb, the brand values are the major messages that will be transported over time into the market. “Start-up carriers are well advised to have a proper concept in place. We know from our experience in start-up consultancy that this pays off in the long run and supports the success of the operation,” Landgraf suggests.


The key for a start-up is understanding its competitive strategy (when compared with incumbent airlines). For example, is it going to compete via cost leadership (with lower prices than competitors) or by differentiating itself from the rest (so higher product and service quality).


Carlos Ozores, principal at ICF International, says once the airline defines how it’s going to compete, it can then develop a brand that conveys the right image to consumers. He explains that this brand needs to communicate both the functional benefits the airline offers (for example, leg-room) as well as create an emotional attachment with customers (like the airline’s ability to bring travel aspirations to life).


“Whatever the branding, the critical point for start-ups – and typically the main challenge – is to be coherent and deliver on promises made to consumers,” advises Ozores. “Otherwise, you disconnect the brand identity that the airline wants to project from the perceptions of the consumer. Building a strong and positive brand image takes time and effort, but tarnishing it only takes an instant,” he warns.


Dylan Stuart, partner at Lippincott, a global brand strategy and design consultancy, says that experience guided by the brand is in fact the only way to shift demand and generate enduring preference among customers.


“By focusing on the experience, non-legacy airlines can go beyond operational and price advantages that are more easily eroded in the long-term.” Stuart adds that this requires airlines to view brand as much more than aircraft livery and attention grabbing communications. “Brand should first and foremost be forged in the business, guiding the experience, proposition and culture. That is how new airlines can create meaningful differentiation in the passenger proposition.”


Lippincott have authored a report on how the airline industry can deliver a better customer experience and brand connection by doing more, with less. They call this ‘Selective Excellence’, with a number of airlines using this approach. Lippincott has been behind the rebrands of Delta, Southwest Airlines, Avianca and a couple of others.


“Selective excellence means driving business performance by playing to a specific set of strengths, bringing them to life through the experience,” Stuart explains. “In the case of low-cost airlines, Ryanair for one chooses to focus on high operational efficiency to deliver not just low prices, but also a market-leading record of on-time departure, where as easyJet focuses on delivering a seamless digitally enabled experience across the passenger journey. Neither of these brands try to excel in every area. They choose to focus on what they believe customers place the most value on, as well as what they are operationally well paced to deliver,” Stuart continues.


Another upcoming solution is the use of performance marketing technologies to solve complex digital challenges for airlines. “Performance marketing can help any business to maximise direct traffic and revenue,” says Phillip Rothaus, Director of Business Development at EveryMundo. “But it’s especially valuable to airlines, which operate in a heavily intermediated purchase environment where, more often than not, the customer ends up on a third-party website rather than the airline site.”


Rothaus suggests that most carriers, start-up or otherwise, struggle to win consumers’ clicks because online travel agencies (OTAs) and metasearch engines (MSEs) dominate search engine results.


“Performance marketing technologies provide airlines with the sophisticated infrastructure and expanded online presence they need to better compete with the aggregators on search engines, as well as to improve conversion across all marketing channels by making the booking process better,” Rothaus elaborates.  >>

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