ANALYSIS <strong>Corporate Case Study</strong>: Song distinguishes brand to surpass expectations

When Delta launched low-cost airline Song last year, media critics thought the carrier was doomed to fail. But by creating its own brand identity, Song has proven its critics wrong.

When Delta launched low-cost airline Song last year, media critics thought the carrier was doomed to fail. But by creating its own brand identity, Song has proven its critics wrong.

In March 2002, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines was still facing repercussions from 9/11, including a decline in the demand for air travel, rising fuel costs, and industry layoffs. But the embattled airline also faced the added setback of increased competition at the hands of low-fare airlines. As such carriers as JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines held their own by offering cost-efficient alternatives, Delta began to realize that a change was needed in order to prevent its legacy airline from becoming obsolete. Its previous attempt to compete in this market with subsidiary Delta Express proved unsuccessful. But in July 2002, the third-largest airline made the decision to create an innovative and viable low-fare competitor, and nine months later Song took flight. Before its launch, Song had to overcome the stigma of being associated with a legacy airline with both consumers and the media. "There were so many skeptics when Song was first created," says travel journalist and commentator Christopher Elliott, "because they thought, 'An airline within an airline... hasn't this been done before, and didn't it fail?'" Critics assumed it was only a matter of time before Song suffered the same fate as Delta Express. "Organizationally, we were much clearer on the requirements of success with Song," says Tim Mapes, managing director of marketing programs, about comparing the lines, "and for that reason, PR and our marketing communications programs were among the most critical elements straight through." Creating a unique identity To gain credibility within the media, it was essential that Song was viewed as a standalone brand and not just another experiment by Delta. "Delta has given us the ability to function as a separate entity," says Jaime Jewell, Song's GM of brand activation. "The decision was made early on to keep the brands very separate. We are aware of Delta's objectives, and they of ours, but we go about our marketing campaigns separately. Fortunately, they give us latitude to do what we think this brand needs to be doing and allow us to completely manage Song from a PR and ad perspective." To keep Song's brand image distinct from Delta's, the 36-plane airline needed to find its niche audience before its first flight on April 15, 2003. After exhaustive market research, Song's target was narrowed to what is referred to as a "discount diva" - a woman between the ages of 35 and 54 with a middle- to upper-class household income who makes most of the travel decisions for her family. Armed with this information, Song was set to position itself not only as an airline, but also as a lifestyle brand, with marketing and PR platforms built around three specific categories - style and fashion, health and wellness, and entertainment. Because Song has a significantly smaller internal PR machine than most airlines, it relies heavily on its integrated marketing efforts, including its PR firm, Dan Klores Communications, for branding assistance. Brought in several months before the launch, DKC leveraged its existing clients into partnerships with the airline in order to cement Song's image within the media. "All of the major legacy brands get treated rather roughly in the business press," says Sean Cassidy, president and MD of DKC. "We realized that it was going to be very important for us to distract the media from covering Song as an airline - we needed to establish it more as a lifestyle brand." For the first six months of its existence, Song only used marketing to help brand the line, with 15% of the budget allocated to PR. Before the advertising campaign was even launched in September 2003, the airline already had an impressive 22% brand awareness. Much of this was because of media attention garnered by partnerships considered atypical for an airline, including those with renowned chef and best-selling author Michel Nischan and fitness expert David Barton. While Nischan created the healthy and organic on-board food program, Barton produced an in-flight fitness program exclusively for Song customers. "We had a kind of filter in the beginning," said Joanne Smith, VP of marketing and customers. "If it looks or sounds like an airline would do this, then we don't want to do it." But attention-grabbing partnerships could only go so far in raising the awareness of Song's amenities. While the coverage it received in lifestyle sections of the media was impressive, the marketing team knew that customers would need to experience what Song had to offer before they would book a flight. This resulted in an industry first when Song opened a one-of-a-kind concept store, "Song in the City," in downtown Manhattan during the 2003 holiday season. For two months, people were invited to go in and experience the airline without ever leaving the ground. Attendees tested Song's leather seats and sampled the satellite television, video-on-demand, MP3 files, and video games. Nischan was on hand to give cooking classes, and attendees were given the chance to taste Song's cuisine. Guests could sit alongside fuselage windows featuring moving clouds that replicated the flying experience. Parents brought their children for book readings, paper-airplane-making contests, and face painting. As a result of the success in New York, the store was recreated months later in Boston. In keeping with its promise of bringing style back to the airline industry, Song strategically unveiled its exclusive Kate Spade/Jack Spade designer uniforms for flight attendants during New York City's Fashion Week last May. One of its more recent ventures had Song stepping into the philanthropic spotlight by offering a signature pink martini on-board, with 20% of the proceeds benefiting the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade. This arrangement earned ample media attention during October, which was Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Song also partnered with Earth's Best to sell organic baby food on-board, giving parents one less worry when traveling with infants. "Our customers know that we think about them and appreciate that we give them options," says Katie Connell, senior manager of corporate communications. "We know how busy they are, and we're looking to do anything we can to make the travel experience more convenient and pleasant." Winning Delta's confidence Unfortunately, customer satisfaction means nothing if an airline isn't pulling its weight - or if it doesn't have support from above. That was the fear when an unimpressed Gerald Grinstein took over as CEO at Delta in January, questioning Song's profitability and even suggesting that the line might be better referred to as "Swan Song." But despite such comments, Grinstein has changed his tune, says Mapes. "Upon his arrival, he had been one of the larger challengers of the degree to which Song's strategy was correct," he says. "Now he's among our greatest cheerleaders, as is evident by his decision to grow Song by 33% next year. That is a by-product of him having seen the numbers and the customer reaction to the operation and the brand." So in an economic climate where most airlines struggle to stay aloft, Delta has instilled enough confidence in Song to expand the airline by 12 aircraft - no small feat, considering most legacy lines are currently cutting costs to avoid filing for Chapter 11. "Everyone's going through a bad time right now, and no one's exempt from the troubles," says Jewell. "Even if you're a successful carrier like JetBlue, you're still feeling the crunch of fuel prices. I think it's important for us to maintain an upward focus." Considering this fledgling airline's track record, that won't be hard to do. PR contacts Senior manager of corporate comms Katie Connell GM of brand activation Jaime Jewell VP of marketing and customers Joanne Smith MD of marketing programs Tim Mapes PR agency Dan Klores Communications

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