Consumer Data Informs Brand Strategy as Airline Marketing Teams Adjust to New Normal
The COVID-19 pandemic has re-shaped consumer behaviour. Airlines discussed adaptive marketing and brand strategies to ensure growth and recovery at the Aviation Festival, London. The panel discussion, led by Ross Sleight, CSO, Somo, included insights from Annabelle Cordelli, Vice President of Marketing, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Jayne O’Brien, Head of Marketing and Loyalty, JetBlue Airways Corp., and Tyri Squyres, VP Marketing, Frontier Airlines, as well as Seth Cassel, President, Everymundo, and Perri Maxwell Chaikof, Director of Product Marketing, Ada.
“I think one thing that we’ve all learned both personally and professionally is you question everything that you used to know—rethink it”
Of the impact of the pandemic on consumers, Tyri Squyres, VP Marketing, Frontier Airlines, said: “I think one thing that we’ve all learned both personally and professionally is you question everything that you used to know—rethink it. Anything that I thought was a steadfast marketing role, you question it. If you had your systems, how you’re advertised, how you thought about your customer, you would rethink it. You retry things that maybe didn’t work before. We found a lot of success in testing things we had done before, and maybe we didn’t get the success [we hoped for]. And we would find that all of a sudden now it was something that would work and was really affecting customers. Customers have changed mindsets. Technology has changed. People have been in their own houses a lot more, so customer sensibilities have changed as well. You need to constantly test and try new things and listen to what customers are saying to make that beneficial. For me, that was the biggest thing that I am looking forward to in 2022—our whole testing plan—the things that we’re going to experiment with, and not be afraid to do some different things and think about things.”
Annabelle Cordelli, Vice President of Marketing, Virgin Atlantic Airways, shared what she learned to prioritize during the pandemic. “I think it’s bought people into sharp focus—in the broadest sense—that’s the customers who are trusting and buying a brand, but also our people delivering that service,” she said. “With everything up in the air—our lives were thrown into disarray—deeply understanding and listening to what people want and being able to adapt to that [is important]. I’ve certainly learned that things are possible, things that you never thought were possible before. I think if you’ve got that combination of really deeply understanding what customers want, what they’re dreaming about, what’s keeping
them awake, their fears at night, and getting under the skin, you can look within and work out how you’re going to try some different things. What are you going to do to challenge yourself, create [offers] that fuel the dreams and address the worries? I think it’s the combination of those two things for me.”
“We’re all living change. We’re all living in uncertainty. We’re constantly evolving.
Jayne O’Brien, Head of Marketing and Loyalty, JetBlue Airways Corp, agreed with her counterparts, saying:
“We’re all living change. We’re all living in uncertainty. We’re constantly evolving. Well, we think that we’re just back to knowing what’s going to happen and something else happens. One of the key learnings for us is the need to be flexible all the time. And the need to be listening to our customers, our marketplace, and our crew members. It’s terribly important, I think. During the earlier days of 2020, information flexibility, helping customers and helping crew members, was probably at the forefront of what we were concerned with. It was less about making sure your price or product information is out there but just making sure that people understood the different requirements of travel and what we were doing to keep people safe and secure. That was for our crew members as well as our customers. The first [priority] is just supporting customers and crew members. In terms of how we go to market, what we’re talking about has evolved for all of us. We need to keep our eye on what matters most to our customers. What do they want to know? How can we make the experience easier? How can we give them the information they need to make that trip? [Customers are] worrying about all the different regulations in different places. Early on, it was about how are the aircraft cleaned? What are the touchless features? What’s the touchless experience? Do I have to wear a face mask? Then it evolved to what type of COVID test do I need to go? And the different laws—they’re all different when we fly to different places, not just the UK. If you look particularly at the Caribbean or South America, each location has slightly different requirements. So the need for customers to understand [those requirements] easily became a priority for us. You’re giving them that information straight up… That is our primary focus, and you have many ways of doing it. We rely very heavily on our channels, our website, obviously comms or emails. You can target customers specifically, looking at where they’re going and what information they need. Using data was there already, but it’s coming back much more to the foreground.”
What is the reality of the behaviour today? Where are things headed? So you are optimizing today but also trying to keep an eye on tomorrow and creating new propositions
Cordelli of Virgin Atlantic Airways said of the airline’s use of data to inform marketing strategy: “I would say fusing lots of different data, depending on what question you [are trying to answer]. It depends on whether you’re trying to optimize today or you’re trying to create tomorrow. We’re using everything from our voice of the customer data. We ask how people want to travel and [their] concerns [about travel]. [We’re] looking at trend data mixed with search data—you get that long and short term. What is the reality of the behaviour today? Where are things headed? So you are optimizing today but also trying to keep an eye on tomorrow and creating new propositions. I think then linked to that big believer when you get some ideas and back to try things is get a concept and then put it out in front of people. So we’re doing a lot around quick turnaround reach. Agile research methodologies to get what people think about that—and how you adjust. Just be focused on deep listening, and then be flexible around adjusting to make it better, and you probably don’t have to change it again.”
Seth Cassel, President, Everymundo, said consumer behaviour data also informs their marketing strategy. “We’re looking at search data, for example, and understanding what our users are looking for, whether that’s searching on-site or searching in Google,” he said. “What we see, especially on Google, is there’s a lot more activity. You can take away from that the demand is there. There’s demand for certain markets. You can segment that data—it’s not all data, it is aggregated data, but it’s very insightful to understand what people are looking for. The fact that they’re actively looking and searching in a non-brand way searching, a flight from A to B. What we see is not necessarily a commensurate rise in brand search, which suggests a dissipation of some brand loyalty. So as you start to plan your marketing initiatives, you recognize that maybe an investment to rebuild some of that loyalty is critical to get back to where it once was. Or maybe it’s a new world, and you can’t necessarily expect the same level of loyalty that you saw before.”
“…Another way to listen to customers is to go to the airports, fly, and talk to customers”
Squyres of Frontier Airlines suggested that rebuilding loyalty requires more effective, personal messaging.
“We were cautious, in the beginning, about tone. It was a tricky place to be, where you’re trying to get attention but have the appropriate tone. In hindsight, we probably [wavered],” Squyres said. “We have a playful, fun brand. We were probably a little too conservative in the beginning. People needed a reason to smile and think about travel again. I learned to test some of the [messaging]. We could have taken a small sample size, sent an email with a clever headline and seen how customers responded. Because, as soon as we did, we started to see a great response. People were looking for a reason to smile and think about really positive things. I think the trial and the testing is really important. Then another way to listen to customers is to go to the airports, fly, and talk to customers. Talk to the flight attendants who are working on those flights. Talk to the team members and take care of crew members. First, they love to be heard. Second, they have great insights into what customers say. Every day, you have a flying focus group sitting in the lounge before they get on the flight and then on board. I find that’s where I get my best insights—my best ideas.”
JetBlue’s O’Brien agreed with Squyres on the importance of one-to-one contact with customers and crew. “We do a lot of what we call Blue Unity Days at JetBlue. That’s about getting out there in the front line. We [met] with our crew members throughout the pandemic and listened to our customers by helping at our airports. There is nothing like sitting, working and being there in the frontline and listening…because you see firsthand what customers are experiencing and the pain points. We also make it a policy to reach out to our most valuable Mosaic customers. They’re part of our TrueBlue loyalty program—just talking to them about how’s it going. You can’t sit in the ivory tower—it’s a new world. You’ve got to go and experience it. Certainly, during the pandemic, I was flying weekly, up and down and around the US. It sounds really simple, but it’s back to basics. Listen to the customer. Listen to your crew members and just design everything around what you’re hearing.”
Perri Maxwell Chaikof, Director of Product Marketing, Ada, brought the conversation back to data and emphasized the importance of inter-departmental collaboration where marketing supports revenue management.
“Airlines own a lot of data already. The challenge is to leverage that information in the right places to get the most out of every interaction with your customers.”
“You have so much more data about your customer than the average e-commerce business. Airlines own a lot of data already. The challenge is to leverage that information in the right places to get the most out of every interaction with your customers. So I’ll use a specific example now and talk a little bit about AirAsia, one of our larger airline partners. They deployed data across all their social channels with their customers. If you want to talk to someone at AirAsia, whether you’re on WhatsApp, WeChat, their website, or in their app, your first point of contact is an interaction with Ada, which is a fully automated experience. Ada is connected to [the airline’s] back-end systems. If I’m logged in, I can speak with Ada, and it will say, hey, Perri, welcome back. Are you asking about your upcoming flight on X? Would you like to upgrade your seat? Do you want to add a meal? Do you want to pay for your baggage now? Their ability to turn a support inquiry into a revenue-oriented conversation allowed them to drive an 8x increase in their ancillary revenue. I think it’s just a great example. You have so much data at your fingertips already. There’s so much you can do with what you already have to not only the customer experience but drive business value as well.”
By Marisa Garcia
Note: Please note that quotes were edited for clarity.