American Airlines set out to relaunch its brand image almost two years ago when it placed the largest aircraft order in history. Since then the airline has been rolling out key changes to represent its new identity across channels, from planes’ interiors and in-airport signage to its website, emails, apps, and loyalty marketing messages. With the US Airways merger in progress, forming the “new” American Airlines, the airline’s new messaging will continue to roll out in the coming year.
In January the company unveiled its new Flight Symbol logo, the first time the company had redesigned its logo in more than four decades. The new logo drops the familiar AA in favor of a forward-leaning icon with wings. Jeremiah Owyang, partner and industry analyst on customer strategy at the Altimeter Group, says that the new logo shows a sign of maturity. “When you move from the name to an icon, that’s a sign that a heritage brand is moving forward,” he says. “It’s like Apple moving to the fruit logo. It could be a way for the airline to herald in a change.”
Keeping customers in high spirits
The process of redesigning the logo also speaks to American’s new approach to customer service: It involved a great deal of input from its customers. “We started with our most important audiences to ensure that the visual element represented our iconic company, and have since taken those elements and transformed many parts of our business, including how we communicate with our customers,” says Stacey Frantz, director of corporate communications at American Airlines. “Our marketing goals are consistent with our new look: clean, sophisticated, yet simple and modern.”
It was definitely time for a change at American. In 2011 the company filed for bankruptcy and announced layoffs. But the airline is taking some tentative steps toward rebounding. In June a bankruptcy judge approved American’s reorganization plan (this includes the merger with US Airways) which, as of this writing, enables company stakeholders to approve the plan and place American on a course to free itself from bankruptcy court by late summer. In January when the company introduced its new look, it also released a financial report with positive results. In 2012, the airline earned revenue of $24.8 billion, an increase of 3.6% since 2011. Moreover, in the key metric of revenue per available seat mile (RASM), which includes average ticket price and the percentage of seats occupied by paying passengers, American saw a 5.6% increase. The airline also announced that it was ordering a new fleet of planes with plans to have the “youngest, most fuel-efficient fleet among U.S. network carriers by 2017.”
New fleet notwithstanding, American still has a lot of burnishing to do around its reputation with travelers. While customer satisfaction is up 14 points this year for North American airlines in general, according to J.D. Power and Associates’ 2013 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, American Airlines ranked below Alaska Airlines and Delta in the traditional airlines category, averaging three out of five stars across the board from overall satisfaction to the reservation, check-in, boarding, aircraft, and staff experiences. Although the airline rated higher than United, American is also faced with the challenge of competing with low-cost carriers like JetBlue and Southwest, who have higher customer satisfaction ratings in the airline marketplace in general.
But American is making a concerted effort to use its makeover as an excuse to rebuild its reputation, and is doing so by thinking about how the customer interacts with the brand throughout their travel experience—from searching for and booking flights to airport check-ins, the in-flight experience, and services needed upon landing. Each touchpoint has its own role. “The comprehensive way we approached this work, thinking through the totality of the customer experience and how the new brand story and identity could help shape that experience, was unprecedented in the industry,” says Kari Blanchard, senior director of strategy at FutureBrand, American’s branding agency.
A site to see
AA.com, the company’s online booking engine, is central to the customer’s experience and therefore is essential to conveying American’s new message. The new website is lighter and more spacious than the previous version. It is less text heavy, and has bigger images. Visitors to the website are greeted with the brand’s new message, “The new American is arriving: We’re bringing you a new level of comfort, connectivity, and convenience.”
“When launching the new visual identity, we took into consideration where our customers interact with us the most and where our new look would resonate immediately,” Frantz says. “AA.com is one of the most important places our customers interact with our brand.”
The homepage is a functional destination that serves customers in various stages of the purchase cycle. AAdvantage loyalty program members, of which American counts more than 70 million, are prompted to log in; all visitors are offered options for flight search, check-in, and flight status. These tools represent the main reasons travelers visit the website. Beneath them are three rotating, image-led items, such as a list of flight routes that are currently on sale, a link to images of the company’s newest plane, the Airbus 319, and a call to join the brand’s AAdvantage loyalty program.
“The redesign of AA.com continues to serve the important function of disseminating information, while being wholly reflective of our new modern and clean look,” Frantz explains.
Still, ensuring that travelers see AA.com remains a challenge. In reality, many people begin their travel search on sites like Kayak, Expedia, and Orbitz. “The challenge for American is the same as other brands: They don’t control that much of the search experience until people come to their own site,” says Nate Elliott, VP and principal analyst at Forrester Research. “The company has an opportunity to sell new customers on the branding and the new experience on its own site.” Television, social media, billboards, and in-airport signage are working to help drive customers online.
Email gets new wings
The airline is using email to communicate the new message with existing customers—and is using data to create a more personalized experience with its email program. With the help of email service provider e-Dialog, the airline recently created an abandoned shopping cart program that sends personalized triggered emails based on a customer’s site behavior. This site behavior is matched with customer data and those customers that had logged into AA.com, searched for fares, and chose a flight, but hadn’t yet made a purchase. Triggered emails go out to customers within 24 hours from when they have abandoned their search.
“When a customer visits AA.com and shops for a specific itinerary and then leaves, presumably, it’s because they either didn’t find the most suitable deal or they had to focus their attention elsewhere at that moment,” says Richard Elieson, managing director of digital marketing at American Airlines. “Therefore, we continue searching on their behalf and then reach out again to inform them of the best offer we’re able to find.”
Unlike sending an abandoned shopping cart email for, say, a sweater or a pair of shoes, which generally have the same price over a short period of time, sending these kinds of emails for airline pricing is a bit more complicated since airfares are constantly shifting. American sends messages for flights that have at least six seats left at a particular price point, which helps increase the odds that that price point is still available when the customer opens the email. “With more than 1.5 million visitors a day on AA.com, seat availability at a certain price can change quickly, but we do our best to promote a price that will still be available when the customers revisit the website,” Elieson says.
Some of these emails have a single price point. These “lowest fare” emails include the lowest price for the exact search that a customer had been seeking out. Some emails have dual price points. These “flexible date” emails show the least expensive fare for the selected destination and date of travel, alongside the cheapest fares found on dates within 60 days of the original departure date, but keeping the same number of nights.
When compared to the standard American Airlines promotional email campaigns, the triggered emails have nearly 300% higher open rates, about 200% higher click-through rates, and 400% higher conversion rates.
Flying high with mobile
Reaching consumers on mobile devices is another way that American Airlines is putting its foot forward as a modern brand. And it is a good way to target its audience; after all, who’s more mobile than a traveler? American works with digital agency Soap Creative to develop branded apps for tablet devices and mobile handsets (for Android, Apple, Blackberry, and Windows mobile operating systems—the latter makes up 6.5 million of American’s total 8 million app downloads). When it first set out to create an app, the airline thought about simply porting the functionality and layout from its website, but quickly realized that this was the wrong approach. Jason McMinn, VP of technology/mobile at Soap Creative, says that too many brands make this mistake.
“We tried to take a step back with them to say, ‘How does mobility play a role in the customer experience,’ not just from the app user experience, but for the customer across all of the different touchpoints that they interact with American,” McMinn says.
Soap’s research revealed that most customers were still searching and booking online, while mobile offered the airline a way to connect with customers in a personal way while they were traveling. “We know our customers are mobile by definition, and as such, they need to engage with us often while they’re on the go,” Franz says.
The app is a functional tool designed to make customers’ travel easier from the time they pack until the time they land at their destination and are looking for a rental car or a taxi, McMinn says. Flyers can use the app to check in to their flights, scan a mobile boarding pass, and check their AAdvantage balance. “Different marketing channels excel at supporting customers at different stages of their journey and it’s important to understand which channels customers are turning to at which stage,” Forrester’s Elliott says.
Mobile check-ins are gaining ground. In 2012, 15% of passengers checked into their flights using a mobile device, up from 6% in 2011, according to J.D. Power and Associates. And these passengers tend to be more satisfied. Satisfaction with check-in among passengers who did so using a mobile device is 853 out of a 1,000-point scale, and that number goes up to 866 for passengers using a mobile app.
Beyond check-in capabilities, the app also acts as a helpful tool for travelers looking for flight status updates, terminal maps, and seat-selection options. For example, it provides updates on gate changes, and there’s even a tool for customers to note where they parked at the airport. “We want our customers to be able to engage with us easily, while they’re on the go,” says Phil Easter, director of mobile apps at American Airlines. “[The app’s] intelligent data display allows us to provide the most relevant day-of-travel information.”
Conversely, the iPad app is more focused on booking. According to Easter, iPad purchasing is over $1 million a day. American studies the way its customers interact with its mobile and tablet apps to help inform its future products and marketing programs. “Through these applications, we’re able to see what customers like and how we can enhance our products and marketing efforts to enhance our customer’s travel experience,” Easter says.
Bringing technology to loyalty
American is taking its new customer-centric approach to its AAdvantage loyalty program, as well. For instance, American was the first U.S. airline to allow customers to store their loyalty card information within Apple’s Passbook app to make it easier to track mileage balances. “We’re executing plans that support brand modernization while internally embracing the overarching concepts of innovation and collaboration,” says Suzanne Rubin, VP of customer insight and loyalty at American Airlines. “We’re continually looking for ways to improve customer connectivity and put customers at ease when interacting with the AAdvantage program.”
To reach every loyalty member in his preferred channel, American takes a cross-channel approach with mailings, emails, mobile apps, and even social media pages dedicated to AAdvantange members. “We constantly fine-tune the type of communication to learn what resonates best with our customers. [This] can range from detailed messaging to shorter messaging or include a video or an infographic,” Rubin says.
So far, American’s promise to be the new American seems to be working. According to NetBase Solutions Inc., a provider of social media analysis tools, the American Airlines brand received 198,931 mentions from June 2012 to November 2012 in social networks and on online media websites, 56% of which were positive and 44% of which were negative. American served 3.9 million impressions and the net sentiment was 11 with a passion intensity of 28. All of these metrics improved from November 2012 to June 2013, during which time the new branding and marketing push took off. In this period, the brand got 304,692 mentions, 63% of which were positive and 37% of which were negative. It had 11.4 million impressions and the net sentiment went up to 26 and the passion intensity rose to 34 on a 100-point scale.
The merger with US Airways is taking shape and American continues to push its new message across channels from app updates to new in-flight entertainment systems. Time will tell if the new message will equate to a better experience that really is a “new” American Airlines, or if it’s just an expensive paint job.
“Hiring a branding agency is very different than changing the customer experience of an established company,” Altimeter’s Owyang says. “If the service doesn’t change, then it is just a veneer. But American has the opportunity to use this new look to lean forward with innovation, and offer services to customers throughout their journey. That is their big opportunity.”