Differentiating an Airline in Crowded Skies

Remarkably, even though Song Airlines (Delta’s high-touch low-cost subsidiary) was folded back into Delta in Mid 2006, I still get several comments each month from former customers and employees about what a great brand it was. As the creator of the airline, and builder of the brand, I am at once gratified by their fondness yet disappointed that the airline became a casualty of bankruptcy and the need to economize – maintaining two independent airline brands and workforces was more expensive than one, and austerity was the rule of the day.

Yet people still talk longingly about Song, even though it hasn’t flown in six years. Why is that? Isn’t the airline industry just one big commodity provider? For the most part, yes, certainly in the case of the legacy airlines it is true. Each of them has created their airline to be the “carrier of choice” for the businessman.

But as niche airlines have developed, we have seen product differentiation start to take shape. Most people still remember People Express, a true low cost carrier that appealed to the common man versus the traditional well-heeled customer, and was dedicated to the proposition that everyone should be able to fly. On the other side of the spectrum was MGM Grand Air, which provided an uber-First Class experience, but was expensive to fly, served very few markets and not enough customers to be successful.

How have some of the other non-legacy airlines differentiated themselves? Well, for Southwest, it was the peanuts and the flight attendant humor. For Spirit, it’s ultra-low cost fares, but you must be willing to pay for everything else, yes even charging for toilet use was announced then scrapped. JetBlue introduced live in-flight TV and an upscale low cost product, while Hooters Air chose to appeal to the …well, you know who you are.

So then, what was the Song brand about and how was it developed? The first differentiating element had to do with the fact that it was a “carrier within a carrier” (a very traditional carrier at that); and, no airline had ever successfully launched a “carrier within a carrier” that worked! Obviously, we were going to have to do something very different, and not be just another low fare carrier, as was Delta Express, Delta’s previous carrier within. Very different meant we would not be the “businessman’s airline”, so why not be the leisure woman’s airline? No one ever built an airline around women before, and since they represented 51% of the population, why not let the other umpteen airlines fight over the 49%? And, as we subsequently discovered via data-mining, over 80% of family vacation travel was booked by women. Wow, building a brand that would attract women would be exciting and potentially lucrative! The Red, White And Blue paint jobs of virtually everyone else might be scrapped for a color that would appeal to women. How about green – we could “own” green, because no one else did. And not just green, how about “parrot green”, as Kate Spade would call it; and why not have Kate Spade design the Flight Attendant uniforms and accessories? Then it was, why not do Women’s Focus Groups and find out what women wanted on airplanes?  Healthy Food – OK,let’s make it organicand charge for it. Charge for it?  No one ever paid for airline food, and it was in fact, the butt of many jokes. But if it was organic, that would differentiate it enough that people might pay. And they did. How about drinks – wine, beer, OK, but how about Martini’s? A Martini Bar in the Sky serving Cosmo’s, Appletini’s, Song-A-Tini’s (cranberry juice based), a total of five in all, and all hand-shaken by your well-trained, smiling Flight Attendant for just $5.00 apiece. An instant hit. Sometimes, we would sell a total of $1600 per flight– just organic wraps and treats, and martini’s!

What else did women want? Something to keep their kids busy so they could get some free time on the flight. TV did the trick. Bigger screens and digital vs. analog gave us an advantage over jetBlue. How about exercise? Yes, we even had exercise bands for passengers to use in their seats and “work-out” while they flew. And good music for them to enjoy with their headphones on, while the kids watched TV. But, what kind of music?  When we asked, it seemed everyone had a different Song going through her head. Which one should we use? Hmmm…why not just name it “Song” and give the customer their choice. Why not make everything about choice, – the music, the TV channel, the food, the exercise, the martini – a totally differentiated airline in a commoditized industry. And what would you name an airline that let everyone march to her/his own different drummer? Yes – “Song” was born, and it was, quite literally, a “carrier of choice”, designed for the woman who appreciates the difference between being “One In a Million” instead of “One Of a Million”.

Great, but can an airline survive if it only appeals to women and children? Here’s more on that and airline brand strategy.

— John Selvaggio is the former President of Song Airlines. In his 30+ years as an executive in the airline industry he helped airline brands discover and adopt new strategies to enhance the customer experienceand drive profit in a highly competitive environment. As partner and brand strategist at The Blake Project, he helps airline brands create value through unique brand differentiation workshops that lead airline brands out of the commodity space. Contact us for more.