Half-Assing It: Why Airline Marketing Efforts are Incomplete

Your mind is already halfway there. You’ve worked 14-hour days for past month, developing your strategic plan. You’ve prioritized your initiatives, calculated your budget, done your resource allocation, outlined your KPIs, and spent the past few late nights seasoning your presentation for the board. And you aced it.

Now, it’s time to start thinking about that accrued vacation, since you’ve maxed out and it won’t carry over anymore. Your mind is already in Bali, for at least a few hours a day. You’ve set your dates, made your flight arrangements, and now you’re just figuring out where to stay. As you scroll through your search results, you’re tempted by the Shangri-La, but concerned about the $589/night price tag. You’ve heard nice things about the InterContinental, which is a little more reasonable at $320. As you near the end of your search, you are surprised to see options like the “Seashell,” at $10 a night.  (I’m guessing you chose the InterCon).

You’ve seen each of these hotels “4 P’s” of marketing revealed: Product (you’ve seen the pictures of the rooms), Place (you’ve mapped their location), Promotion (you’ve seen the virtual brochure and you’re signed up for the newsletter) and Price. But does that mean the hotels’ marketing work is done?


Most airline marketing departments have a strict focus on the tangible 4 P’s. They know they are moving people from one airport to another at a certain price, using a mix of television, print and electronic advertising to promote their offering, and distribution channels like travel agencies and their own Web sites to enable the transfer of money. That’s pretty straightforward. But by failing to understand the other equally important component to each P–the intangible elements–they are losing an opportunity to further build and entrench their brands and build customer trust and loyalty in the process. Marketing, as typically defined by the 4 P’s, is not the same as branding, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. Marketing is your tangible. Branding is your intangible.

Let’s go back to our Bali getaway, for a moment. You did the research, and what did you learn? Well, you know the hotels exist, you know where they are, you’ve seen pictures of the lobby, and you know how much it will cost you to stay there. But is that all you learned?

This is where branding comes in–the intangible four P’s. There’s often a massive disconnect between the physical product someone buys, and what they think they are buying, which can vary vastly across cultures. Or between the actual price someone pays for something, and their perception of the value they are receiving. Or the actual media used to send a message and the message that is received. As soon as you saw the details I mentioned above while searching for your hotel in Bali, you made some assumptions. While you automatically built an expectation for the Shangri-La in your mind, basedsolely on the price point (two bathrobes, marble fixtures and fluffy towels in the bathrooms, and maybe an infinity pool overlooking the ocean), you probably also wondered to yourself if the $10 hotel even has towels or a bathroom. Essentially, you’ve just built a marginal cost curve in your head, which is what became the intangibleelement of the price.

Tangible vs. Intangible Elements of the Four P’s:

The reality is that marketing works the same way human communication does. The message sent is not always the same message that is being received. And while airlines seem to place a tremendous focus on the message that is sent, they are leaving their marketing job incomplete–and leaving business on the table–by not seeing their efforts through to understanding what message is being received. The tangible elements of marketing generate sales, but it’s the intangible elements of marketing that create customers. And often it’s those intangibles that send more of a message about your brand than the tangible ones that dominate so much of most airlines’ marketing efforts.



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Customer Engagement Strategy for the Airline Industry