Monday, May 05, 2008

A flying leap.

The most interesting things happen to me on airplanes.

Let me pause here and provide some background for my friends abroad: The topic of this post is an airline called WestJet. WestJet is a plucky little upstart carrier cut from the same cloth as Southwest Airlines in the USA, but with a clearer sense of purpose. Namely, that sense of purpose is to harass and undermine one reviled competitor: Canada’s flag carrier, Air Canada, an enterprise whose crown corporation roots live on in a culture of disinterested arrogance of the likes seldom seen since the court of Louis XIV. WestJet barnstormed its way into our hearts with low fares and charming, denim-clad ground and in-flight personnel who would do things like board passengers by sock colour. We like WestJet. They’re funny, they’re on our side, and they give Air Canada apoplexy. They are so popular, in fact, that when WestJet executives were busted for rooting through Air Canada’s garbage looking for confidential competitive information a while back, public opinion shrugged it off the way they would an errant teenager’s breaking curfew to play ball hockey.

Get the idea?

Okay, so a few weeks back, Sweetie, the kids and I are on a WestJet flight leaving Calgary for Toronto. As we’re buckling up, a nattily-attired fellow strides onto the airplane like he owns the place, and helps himself to the public address system. He is, as it turns out, the President of the airline, Sean Durfy, and he’ll be riding east with us. A frisson of excitement ripples through the plane… maybe something wonderful will happen, or at least something funny. This is WestJet, after all. Well, nothing of either sort transpires, but Mr. Durfy does introduce himself and politely thank the passengers for their custom. Sounds okay, right? I mean, it’s not very WestJet of him, but at least it’s presidential, right?

Maybe not when I add some texture to the story.

See, Mr. Durfy swaggered on to his jet carrying a Starbucks cup. Not itself a crime, of course, but wait: What he thanked us for was making them “… the most profitable airline in the world for the last two quarters.” And our reward for this support was that he was able to order a bunch of new airplanes, each of which costs, he said, $45 million. When he finished his speech, the audience - er, passengers - could only muster a polite golf clap, with the same vaguely shocked and confused tentativeness that might have followed had he just turned his eyelids inside out. He sat down, the plane got airborne, and we were served up free airline coffee and pop, along with $3 headphones so we could use the ‘free’ in-flight entertainment system.

I imagine Sean Durfy is a good guy and wants the best for the airline and its passengers. But when he seized that microphone, he became part of the WestJet brand experience for us passengers. And his unspoken message was, “I hate the coffee we serve on board. My main concern is our shareholders, not you lot. And these planes are getting old.”

To which our unspoken reply was, “Who do you think you are with your fancy Starbucks cup? Your own coffee not good enough for you? And for the rest of us, Bucko, a quarter is something you put in a payphone. And by the way, what’s wrong with the airplanes you’ve got, one of which is about to hurtle us skyward at 450 mph?” Okay, harsh, but you get the point. For an airline that has passionately preached about its customer-centric culture, this particular ‘brand experience’ felt like an uncomfortable glimpse behind the curtain. A misleading one, we hope, a moment of insensitivity rather than a flash of truth, but uncomfortable all the same.

To me, this underscores an inescapable reality for brands in the post-modern world: Leaders are the brand managers. It’s organizational behavior, not advertising, that makes a brand what it is, and organizational behavior is a leadership responsibility. So when the leader himself stands up to speak, he had better radiate what his brand stands for, and do so from the heart. Or he should just sit down and be quiet. The best kind of brand to have is one that is authentically an advocate for its customers; the second best kind to have is one that simply stands in front of a well-run company. But to have people believe that a brand is the champion of the people and then be faced, even for a minute or two, with evidence that it’s really just out for itself? That’s just not going to fly.

I forgive you this time, Mr. Durfy. I’m sure most of the folks on that plane did. Flight 798 was probably nothing worse than a missed opportunity for you. But let this be a warning: Customer-centricity is a glass house. And airport security doesn’t screen for stones.


miro slodki said...

Excellent story Bruce

shows how a brand has evolved to a 24x7 'promise' at all touchpoints

the big question that has yet to be debated properly is the issue of who is the enterprises' primary stake holder -

Shareholders or profitable retained customers.

perhaps the growing trend to report customer retention metrics will clarify people's thinking on the matter.

For the record - I'm on the side of the retained profitable customer - without them - there is nothing . .


BrandCowboy said...

Thanks, Miro.

Let me reframe your question a bit: What is the role of a brand in the business model? Believe it or not, I don't think companies ask this, despite the enormous investment it takes to build one. Spend $45 million on an airplane, and there's no doubt about what it has to do: generate revenue in excess of the cost of owning it. There's no mystery about the stakeholders' interests: To a shareholder, it's an income-producing asset. To a customer, it's added value.

But what about a brand? It's not hard to spend $45 million on one of those, yet nobody asks what it's supposed to return for that investment. For WestJet, the answer lies in some combination of its ability to engender subjective preference in a commodity market, its ability to support margins, and its ability to reinforce repeat custom. All of those things are calculable and legitimate. If more marketers did that homework, they might treat their brands with more respect. They'd at least know what they're worth, that's for sure.