Reflections on What Not to Do: The Case of Song Airlines

Song Airlines, Delta’s now-defunct “discount airline for women,” was an attempt to build a business around a brand concept that would answer to the perceived needs and desires of the female traveler. The airline was barely off the ground – pun heartily intended – when Delta executives announced they were discontinuing Song entirely, though the trademark lime green planes would still be flying.

What went wrong? It was likely a combination of factors. First and foremost, Delta was attempting to launch a new airline brand during some of the industry’s worst-ever market conditions. From 2001 to 2004, the airline industry posted over $32 billion in losses, with at least one major carrier, US Airways, forced into bankruptcy (Morrison, 2005). It’s difficult to imagine that the leadership of an established airline like Delta was unaware of their economic environment.

Second, and of equal importance, Delta simply did not do enough broad, deliberate research at the outset of brand development. The brand fell into the dangerous territory of being too creative (the art) driven, without backing up their ideas with some solid consumer insight (the science).

PBS’s Frontline episode, The Persuaders, brought the audience behind the scenes during Song’s brand development. The creative team behind the brand conjured up Song’s ideal customer – an affluent woman with children who was concerned about things like designer labels and the “right” shoes (Frontline, 2004).

But there were problems with this model consumer – she was based on an extremely narrow demographic profile, and one largely conjured up in the minds of the creative team. There was no evidence she really existed outside of Sex and the City, and certainly not in numbers significant enough to support an entirely new airline – or that she would choose a mode of getting to point A to point B based on things like a passionfruit martini. Airline seats are largely viewed as commodities (Morrison, 2005). During brand development, the brains and imaginations behind Song did not delve deeply enough into consumers’ minds to unearth this long-held belief, and/or they overestimated their ability to make a dramatic change in the airline industry paradigm – turning a commodity into an experience.

Tim Maples, Song’s director of marketing, communicated the new airline’s intent to add emotion to an as-yet emotionless choice. He singled out JetBlue, a value carrier who has been successful not only by airline standards, but by any standards, as airline that was starting to get things, in his mind, right.

“JetBlue is a very good airline, but they left the door wide open for an airline to be better. They didn’t do as much as perhaps could be done to build a brand around a greater emotional context. Song is working hard to do that with an optimistic, can-do, up-tempo, up-beat, attitude,” said Maples (Reverie, 2004).

Song’s creative minds, laser-light focused on spreading that “attitude,” blew ahead full-bore in creating an “image” brand of air travel. They asked the New York City Meatpacking District’s bartenders to come up with a Song signature cocktail. They also opened a store for six weeks in SoHo that gave consumers a chance to purchase Song’s better-quality airline food. It generated some interest – so much so, in fact, that a similar store was launched in Boston for a short period of time. Reservations were made.

“The thought was that while there are fashion, automotive and liquor brands that have a certain badge-value, there really wasn’t an airline that reflected who people are when they fly,” said Maples, reinforcing the Song team’s unsubstantiated idea that consumers were truly looking to “express themselves” via their choice of airline.

“The Song Book,” a brand identity handbook produced by ad agency Leo Burnett and branding firm Landor Associates, lays out just what Song aims to be to the company’s executives and external marketing firms. Song is “friendly, simple, and approachable,” more like comedian Janeane Garofalo than Martha Stewart (Kirsner, 2003). The Song Book includes a “brand-inspired” CD featuring tracks by The Strokes, the Buena Vista Social Club and Portishead.

All of the creativity and brandiness would have been well and good had the Delta creative team been launching, say, a new line of ready-to-wear fashions. Women may well be the decision-makers when it comes to air travel, but, unfortunately, their buying decisions when it comes to travel are made very differently than when they make a choice to buy a new pair of Manolo Blahniks.

Because air travel has always been simply a means to a very literal end, women aren’t looking for an experience – they are primarily looking for a good value and a reasonable level of comfort. This argument is perhaps best illustrated by an action recently taken by Japan’s All Nippon Airways: In response to requests from female flyers with sensitive noses, the airline will now designating one bathroom per plane as “women only (The Telegraph, 2010).”

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