Is There a Difference in Airlines?

Coke and Pepsi managed to differentiate themselves. Now it's the airlines' turn.

ByColumn By RICK SEANEY <br/> CEO
November 18, 2008, 12:10 PM

April 1, 2009 &#151; -- "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." -- Bogie/Rick in "Casablanca"

Here's to beautiful friendships, like Batman and Robin, Baskin and Robbins, Delta and Coke. Wait just a sec. That last one is a little shaky: Delta says it may break up its 77-year-old relationship with Coke, once it completes its merger with Northwest, which serves Pepsi.

I wrote about this in my blog and got deluged with comments from Coke and Pepsi partisans. I had no idea how passionate people were about their beverages.

And you have to wonder why. I know I'll sound like a heretic here but face it, Coke and Pepsi look the same, cost the same and don't taste all that different. But the zealots say otherwise.

OK, now let's look at the airlines. These days, they aren't all that different either. There are so many sales, that pricing isn't very far apart and service has devolved into "no frills" for most of them. US Airways President Scott Kirby was recently quoted as saying he has seen "very little consumer pushback" on irksome baggage fees. OK, so where are the airlines' frenzied followers?

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Good question. So let's look at marketing. Sure, Coke and Pepsi have had amazing ad campaigns over the years, but so have the airlines (think of all those soaring United ads, complete with "tinkly" piano in the background). It's sure not working now.

Maybe the head of Spirit Airlines was right. Nearly two years ago, an e-mail from CEO Ben Baldanza in which he slammed a critic who said he'd never fly Spirit again was made public. Wrote Baldanza: "[He] will be back when we save him a penny."

That suggests that the bottom line is the only thing that matters, but I don't think so and neither do the marketers at the major airlines. Consistency counts, too. Just look at the cola wars; you know your Coke or Pepsi will always taste the same and that's awfully reassuring. So, meeting customer expectations, high or low, is important for any product.

The Southwest Approach

Take Southwest Airlines, for example. Its no-frills message is consistent and meets expectations. As CEO Gary Kelly told me, "Our customers don't have low expectations. They have the right expectations."

Those expectations generally come from advertising and the all-important branding. But it better be accurate. Bill Bernbach, one of the founders of the legendary Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising agency (remember Avis' "We Try Harder" campaign?), used to say, "The most powerful element in advertising is the truth."

Case in point: Slate recently highlighted a new Comcast ad that's frankly mesmerizing. Indeed, one viewer gushed that she would literally stop and watch the moment it appeared, but she also said, "I still hate Comcast."

There's an "assassin" for you. According to branding consultant David Ellis of the VEO Group in Studio City, Calif., "assassin" is the term for an ad campaign target, a member of the flying public, in the case of the airlines, who finds the advertising doesn't jibe with the reality.

"Depending on how far the airline's delivery misses the mark," Ellis said, "the disappointed traveler then becomes an assassin, telling anyone who will listen not to fly that particular airline."

And word-of-mouth, both good and bad, is one of the most effective ad mediums of all.

So, marketing and branding alone won't do it for the airlines. As we heard all too often last fall, there's only so much lipstick you can put on a pig, especially if a product is seen as "mediocre," like many airlines, as opposed to "good" products, like Coke and Pepsi.

It's not all the airlines' fault. We have an aviation industry that needs fixing, from air traffic control to crumbling runways to oil prices that can fluctuate to insane levels. While some of the infrastructure issues sound "shovel ready," there are no stimulus package benefits for the airlines yet. So, what's to be done?

Back to Basics

Might I humbly suggest getting back to the basics and performing those basics perfectly? Let's have reasonable prices, quick and courteous security check-ins, on-time departures and arrivals, timely baggage handling, friendly employees who care (there's nothing like that human touch), along with presentable waiting areas and clean aircraft. Is this really too much to ask?

Maybe it's time for all the airlines to figure out what they do best (what they do right) and concentrate on delivering that special something in a consistent manner. And build ad campaigns that customers can trust.

Yes, the bottom line will always be important, maybe most important, but with imagination and focus, meaningful and valuable differences can emerge. And those differences just might turn into what the public needs and wants, to form beautiful friendships with the airlines.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.

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