Delta Airlines, the magazine!

April 3, 2009

Talk about drinking your own Kool-Aid. Delta Airlines announced this week that their newly revamped Sky Magazine ("a dynamic new lifestyle publication") will now be available at bookstores and newsstands nationwide for $3.99. Hmm. OK, so the seemingly always struggling airline has decided that their path to salvation lies in an investment into the magazine publishing business, which itself has been struggling mightily due to rising printing/distribution costs, changing readership habits and a weak advertising market. There's a sound move. What's next? Maybe they can still get into the video rental business.

Word to Delta: 5,000,000 travelers per year trapped staring at the front cover of your magazine does not equate to a readership of 5,000,000.

I have always been a big believer in using content to help a brand, particularly a consumer brand, express itself. Whether this is homegrown content or material "borrowed" from elsewhere, it can be used to great effect (as we've seen from Starbucks, among others). Some of the airlines do manage to put out a very readable magazine, including Delta (once you get by all the ads for executive dating and that bizarre $15,000 exercise machine). But the only reason anyone picks this thing up is that you are trapped for hours staring at the magazine cover in the seat pocket in front of you. And it's free. Maybe you'll stop at an article on route to Sudoku or the movie lineup. Maybe you'll actually read it if the plane is circling for clearance before you land. But the Delta brand as an arbiter of travel or taste or style? Not so much.

Of course Delta should invest in improving the in-flight experience. And, perhaps, a better magazine is one way to do this. But let's not get carried away. Good branding is about what deciding not to do as much as it is about deciding what to do. It is about knowing what people expect from your brand and delivering (or better, over-delivering) on that. Knowing your limitations is vital. You can't simply change the game and expect consumers to just buy into that.

I am trying to figure out the goal here. There is simply no way that this is a profitable venture. So, why do it? Does Delta think that people will love the magazine so much that it will boost airfare sales? Perhaps an investment in a better experience within your core business (food, on-board media experiences, traveler communication, etc.) is a more sensible approach. Does Delta think that the magazine will inspire people to travel and use their service more? Seems a bit of magical thinking. Does Delta think that a sexy magazine will suggest that this airline offers more of a lifestyle experience, thus separating itself from the generic herd? First, when the actual experience falls short of this promise, uh oh. Second, expecting people to pay to receive your marketing materials is foolhardy.

I'm sure the new and improved Sky magazine is fabulous. You can judge for yourself here. But a slick promotional magazine and a successful commercial magazine are two completely different beasts. Stick to what you know, Delta. Make that the best you can. Give people a real reason to consider your product above the commoditized pack. Good thing for Delta that if (rather, when) this thing flounders, it probably won't have much lasting impact on the Delta brand. The magazine will simply return to its rightful place in the seat back in front of you.


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