Brand Experience vs. Brand Expression: Class warfare at 36,000 feet

November 6, 2013

I am writing this blog from 36,009 feet - or so says the seatback in front of me. I am flying across the country to an exciting client meeting where my colleagues and I will begin planning for the launch of their new brand. Almost every time we come to this point in the process, we refer the team back to what we call the “rainbow chart” - our simple explanation of how the not so simple concept of brand works.

rainbow chart fall13 2

The idea is that brand is rooted in everything a company or organization says or does, at every touch point and with every stakeholder. It is not only represented in your communications, but in how you communicate, in how your internal culture and business processes are turned outward for the customers, consumers and end-users to experience. The end goal? To offer a clear, replicable and consistent experience to every stakeholder, every time.

As I entered the airport today - for the third time in as many weeks - I realized how unfulfilled this basic premise of branding is with airlines. The air travel experience is classism at its worst. Yet instead of money at the root of this classism, it's frequent flyer points, TSA pre-clear status, mileage accounts, zone assignments and seat assignments. All of the above determine how painful or pleasant your travel experience will be.

It's no longer first-class and everyone else; it's first-class, business class, economy plus class, economy plus in the exit row class, silver status class, gold status class, platinum status class and on and on. There are so many different experiences and so many places where these experiences diverge, that I don't know how an airline can have a consistent brand. Certainly what I am experiencing as I eat my ten free peanuts with my iPad and legs crushed between the seats, is far from what my co-travelers with flatbed seats are simultaneously experiencing.

I don't want to point fingers (though I am flying the least respected brand in the Corporate Branding Index), as the experience is consistently inconsistent across airlines, I'll use my trip today as an example.

Some how I got myself on the TSA pre-clear list. It's a wonderful gift. Short, if any, line through security and I get to keep my shoes and coat on, my laptop in my bag and my liquids in my carry-on. It's almost civilized.

But as I exit security, my privileges end. I'm working my way to elite status, but as of now, I'm still a lowly coach traveler. And this time around I didn't bother spending the extra $89 to upgrade my seat for more legroom, advanced boarding and a complementary snack. But if I did, my experience would have been different. Better. Because I had upgraded classes.

And so I walk to my gate where I wait for the pre-boards, the advanced boarding, the elites and the zones 1s to board: all in a class or three above me. In the interim, the zone 2-4s crush the boarding area in hopes of getting a two minute boarding advantage so as to still have room for their roller bags in the overhead bin.

When my zone is announced, I board the plane where I travel past first class, business class, economy plus class to the 31st row in the plane. Here I have finally secured an advantage - no three seats across for me. No middle seat either. I'm at the window, just where I prefer. Mark me one class better than those across the aisle from me. Nobody will be climbing across my lap this trip.

As for the overhead bin, I probably should have followed suit. There was no room for my bag so it's currently 15 rows behind me. Guess that means my air travel experience gets to last even longer, as I'll be the last one off the plane. Lucky me!

Let's be realistic, with security concerns and an economic downturn, the airline industry is struggling. This is not the luxurious and glorious era of Mad Men and Catch Me If You Can. We are not going to see those days again. I accept that. And I accept that classism has always been at play in air travel, but to palpably feel it at every interaction is unnecessary and degrades the experience further. To ask at every turn if I would rather be spend money or suffer uncomfortably makes the inconvenience visceral and variable. It makes your customers unable to set believable expectations above the lowest common denominator. The result is a negative brand for the airline industry overall - and no airline escapes unscathed.

So you can urge me to "fly the friendly skies" or suggest I "keep climbing" or even put "me above all" but until the brand experience meets the brand expression consistently, your brand has failed. Don't you agree?

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