Brands Taking a Nosedive

When bad service meets social media, brands crash fast, which is all too visible right now with US airlines. United is desperately trying to pull out of a PR death spiral that started in March and shows no sign of letting up, but American is also in trouble. How can airlines maintain a positive brand image when the shoddy reality of your product is up on Facebook for all to see? Truth is, the main problem in this $664 billion market isn’t razor-thin margins (jet fuel prices have halved); it’s lack of competition: only four airlines control 80% of US domestic air travel. During the mid-80s, Virgin Atlantic shook the industry with a rock ’n’ roll alternative to the chilly sterility offered by trans-Atlantic services. Now it’s the turn of other disruptors. With a promise to fly US passengers to Europe for as little as $65 from regional airports that carry much smaller passenger processing fees, Norwegian Airlines is undercutting prices and offering a far more pleasant airport experience. Meanwhile, others are betting that speed trumps price, at least for a good-sized swathe of air travelers, and a return to supersonic passenger service is promised for 2018. These tactics are regarded as precarious investment vehicles for now — much depends on just how fed up US air travelers actually are with the status quo. With these and future airline challengers, brands will need to genuinely reflect a user-friendly product. But, with insouciant incumbents revealed as willing to treat customers like cattle, there’s a low bar for now. Is your company living up to its brand promise, or is it vulnerable to the harsh spotlight of social media, with a challenger just waiting to cash in on the damage?

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