Airlines are ramping up initiatives geared to younger consumers to strengthen their brand in a competitive market.
A decade ago, while talking to an Atlanta radio station, Tad Hutchinson, VP of marketing and sales for AirTran Airways, proposed the airline offer a special deal to the station's listeners. For $99 round-trip, anyone with the station's discount card could fly stand-by on any AirTran route. But the station balked.
"We were all ready to go," he recalls. "We were going to call it '99x fares,' after the station's name. But they said it wasn't something their listeners wanted."
AirTran was convinced though, and went ahead with the idea anyway. It dropped the "99," called the program simply "x-fares," and opened it up to the general public.
Fast forward a decade and AirTran decided to take a fresh look at the program. The review was overdue - not because the program wasn't successful, but because there was an increasing awareness that they could be squeezing even more benefit from the idea.
According to Hutchinson, two things led to an eventual relaunch this past January. First, a college student pointed out to him that the program wasn't tied to the AirTran brand. Second, the airline's own research showed that people form their brand preferences for airlines in their mid-20s.
The second piece of information particularly interested Hutchinson. If the airline could use creative PR efforts to target young people, they just might see an increase in loyalty over the long haul.
Jeff Green, VP at CKPR, AirTran's AOR, adds that the company had been focusing on areas left untapped by other airlines.
Going to school
In January, working with CKPR, they relaunched the product as AirTran U. The effort included a YouTube contest involving AirTran U's mascot - a ewe, logically - that was launched during Florida's Spring Break rush (it was called a EweTube contest). The team also launched a microsite, AirTranU.com, to explain the rules of flying under the program.
The results were significant. Hutchinson says the number of participants in the program is up 30% from this time a year ago.
"It was extremely difficult to take fliers who have been entrenched in other airlines' programs and try to convert them to our airline and program," he says. "Through 'x-fares' we found that when the students graduated that loyalty translated. They signed up in our frequent fliers program. In some cases, we've gotten corporate accounts out of some of the passengers who used to use 'x-fares.' "
With the new campaign, the airline made one other important change. They reversed their long-standing policy to not award frequent flier miles for passengers flying as part of the program.
"We originally said we couldn't afford to give them points, that fares were low already," Hutchinson says. "But we've done a 180 and began awarding them so that the kids sign up for our program."
Admittedly, stability is not something the airline industry has enjoyed over the past decade. Domestic carriers were able to stave off bankruptcy in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, international carriers faced increased competition from a number of fronts, and all the established players have faced down a plethora of new, low-fare airlines determined to lure away customers.
For communicators working in the industry, things have only got more complicated. Today, travelers increasingly look beyond fares. A range of issues are being considered, and the importance of effectively increasing brand loyalty continues to weigh on the minds of executives.
Many have come to the same conclusion AirTran did - that young professionals form their brand loyalty early in their 20s and that it then becomes harder to get them to switch airlines.
"I don't think the communications process is always being tailored specifically to young people, but it clearly is understood that the younger generation takes advantage of technology," says David Castelveter, communications VP for the Air Transport Association.
Castelveter, an industry veteran of three-plus decades, says people today are generally more attracted to "hip and edgy" in terms of communications - and that's helping some airlines make headway.
"Things are changing more rapidly than ever," he adds. "Look at the demographics today of travelers - [it's] a younger workforce."
New media makes headway
Southwest Airlines, a company that like AirTran has worked to use innovative communications to make headway against the well-entrenched industry players, has also been using new media geared toward the younger generation.
A microsite, Southwestwannagetaway.com, was set up in February inviting consumers to submit ideas for commercials based on the airline's tagline. The winner of the contest is set to have the commercial air during TNT broadcasts of the NBA playoffs.
"We are very focused on expanding the mediums in which we work," says Linda Rutherford, VP of PR and community affairs for Southwest. "We might have a traditional message, but we're always exploring how to tweak it to communicate via other mediums."
It has also been a year since the airline launched its corporate blog - another example of the communications team exploring options that have helped them connect with a younger audience, she says.
"We're moderating more posts than we ever had," adds Rutherford. "The blog was a great way for us to get informal feedback. Recently, we even changed the way we're building our schedule online based on feedback on the blog."
Younger, edgier airlines like Southwest have an advantage over legacy carriers, she adds, because they have been speaking directly to their customers for longer.
"Most airlines used to get the majority of their business through travel agents," notes Rutherford. "We rarely used them; we spoke directly with our customers. So launching the blog was another way to speak with them."
How Airlines Connect with Younger Audiences
1. Technology, technology, technology. Even when airlines aren't marketing directly to the younger fliers, they're certainly aware that they're the generation most likely to take advantage of new technology, says Castelveter.
2. Let's play. Young people, Rutherford says, are more comfortable interacting with a
corporation than their parents are. Campaigns that allow customers to interact with the brand are simply more likely to be effective.
3. Playing up the "cool" factor. "Hip and edgy is what sells right now," Castelveter. "You see a less buttoned-down form of communications these days."
4. AirGreen. Hutchinson says young people tend to be more aware of their impact on the environment. By addressing the issue, airlines speak to the green generation.
5. Looking beyond traditional media. "Marketing has been acutely aware of just how important it is to broaden all the mediums where you try to get a message out," Rutherford says. "We've been following that from a communications perspective."