Why branding airlines for Millennials and Gen Z’s is the wrong approach

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Level, IAG’s hybrid carrier is geared to millennials, with destinations and brand geared to a younger market.

The past few years has seen a few airlines decide to position themselves as a lifestyle brand, appealing to the younger, time-rich generation who are gap-year embracing, iPhone toting and generally bank-rolled by their parents. While airlines – like the big US 3 – see their passenger demographic age as fast as the airline does, new start-ups are trying to appeal to a younger generation, shaking off the image of a crusty carrier who doesn’t represent the consumer habits of a younger, tech-clad traveller.

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Now re-absorbed in to Air France, even the airline couldn’t get their head around the brand that was ‘also an airline’.

Play, the rebranded Wow joins the ranks of Scoot, Peach, Ernest, Joon and Level. For those who are over the age of 25, those are all airlines. All of them have pitched themselves to the insta-generation. It’s no surprise they pitch themselves as affordable low-cost alternatives to their legacy counterparts. Most of them are positioned as cool lifestyle brands – not airlines – which are on trend, filled with bright colours and court the likes of Instagram with filtered images to speak to a younger demographic.

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Level’s branding is too cool for school. This is more of an airport quiz than a marketing campaign.

Bring your own IFE? Supply USB charging points, even dressing up their cabin crew in sneakers and cool t-shirts? Anything is game in trying to appeal to this jet-setting youth. But what most airlines aren’t realising is that they are appealing to a demographic that is brand-fickle and has a lack of loyalty, always looking for the next best thing. Trends come and go as fast as X-factor contestants and fundamentally, these cash-sensitive consumers will vote with their (parent’s) wallet, meaning that no matter how the airline positions itself, its the cheapest ticket that will always win. After all, Epsilon’s transaction database showcases that Gen Z travellers still have the lowest disposable income of any demographic so it’s a risky passenger base to court.

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Play replaces Wow, the one-stop connector across the Atlantic. Is the playful brand enough to entice passengers onboard?

That usually means that behemoth pre-existing ultra-budget carriers like Southwest, Ryanair, easyJet and AirAsia will usually swoop up these younger passengers with very little effort in targeting them. After all, this image conscious traveller is more likely to spend money on getting the perfect instagram shot in destination than taking a pic of themselves in 30E on a short-haul flight.

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Yet airlines, like Play – with a name that clearly doesn’t reference the airline experience, and more of a social experience – seem to be missing the point. No matter how an airline, even a reborn ‘Wow’ positions themselves, they are still simply a function of getting from A to B. Not to forget, none of these ‘cooler brands’ actually offer anything of value – let alone instagrammable – for their passengers apart from a cheap ticket. In some regards, the easyJet brand is the epitome of the perfect brand positioning for a younger generation, even coining (quite smartly) the catchphrase ‘generation easyJet’

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Virgin Atlantic, competing with Norwegian ‘across the pond’, has built a brand on making Insta-ready moments onboard all based on the passenger experience.

But one potentially interesting side effect, is that the legacy carriers who have been flying passengers for decades now have a passenger experience that in some regards will outperform their low cost counterparts – even a free meal will come as a surprise and garner a mention on social. These historic airlines have reduced their price point in economy to compete with these low-cost competitors, offering cabin baggage fares, like Virgin Atlantic and Lufthansa. This means these Gen Z passengers could end up picking legacy carriers and end up instagramming and promoting the experience because its above the expectations of their previous experiences on lower-cost carriers.

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Meanwhile Norwegian builds brand preference with its own Frequent Flyer program. 

Whatsmore, these legacy carriers offer loyalty, and Gen Z, like Millenials and my generation, are becoming more savvy with their money. A frequent flier program, such as Norwegian’s offers true value to passengers. These below-25s know their bank of mum and dad won’t last forever, so a miles program might allow them one last hurrah when they have to start earning and can no longer rely on the bottomless loan from their parents. Airlines need to be smarter and give passengers more than a colourful brand and an engaging marketing strategy to build brand preference.

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Wow, Play’s predecessor featured a similar paint job, but sadly couldn’t get the numbers to stack up on this heavily competitive market.

Fundamentally, airlines shouldn’t invest in smart lifestyle brands, they should focus their efforts on their key USPs. These USPs can be easily created with little or no cost to the carrier, but will make brand preference a true decider in their ticketing habits. An airline could easily promote a low-cost carrier frequent flier program, a priority boarding system, or even the fact they have the most legroom in economy compared to their competitors. These, real passenger enhancements are more marketable than a brand that says they are a rooftop bar or give their crew trainers. After all, if Gen Z have less disposable income than other demographics, the only way to appeal to this demographic – apart from cost – is to lure them with passenger experience benefits.

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Southwest, one of the largest global carriers, was built on a service promise of being people-led. It’s known for its friendly and heartfelt approach, not on being a ‘cool’ brand.

So where does this leave Play, Swoop or Level? Sure people will end up flying them, because their fares are attractive, but brand preference? On a bare-bones inflight product, it’s going to take more than a snazzy paint job and an animated digital profile pic to sway the purchaser away from another affordable fare found on a Millennial’s smartphone. Is this all, just a matter of style over substance? Time will tell.

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