How You Treat Me When The Chips Are Down

“She has a million excuses for not wanting to get together with me,” she said.

“Maybe she’s actually busy,” I replied.

“No…it’s the same pattern, over and over again. When the chips are down, she’s never there.”

Because they’ve studied marketing, so many marketers are completely blind to Branding 101.

And the axiom: Our favorite brands are like our friends. There for us in bad times, not just sometimes but primarily.

I’ll tell you a secret: American Airlines sucks. And if I have any choice about it, I’ll fly JetBlue even if the fare is higher.

Here’s why: Every single flight with JetBlue is like hanging out with your friends. On American you feel like a prisoner doing jail time.

Let’s start with the employees, because they are the single most important part of every brand equation. JetBlue employees joke around. They give you PopChips and a drink. You get a TV for the duration of the flight. It’s delightful to be on board – it’s something to look forward to. Even if you’re having the crappiest possible day of your life, a JetBlue flight is guaranteed to cheer you up.

On the other hand, American’s staff looks and acts absolutely miserable. If you walk onto the flight depressed, the best you can hope for is to fall asleep until the very minute it’s over.

I remember the time we landed in DC from Florida. The flight attendant said, “We are now landing” and then walked up and down the aisles, slamming the overhead bins loudly over our heads. It was so loud the passengers sat up like birds startled out of their nests: “WTF is going on?”

Another time, more recently, we traveled on Christmas Eve and the airline was so disorganized they changed the gate just before departure. We wound up at a “combined gate” where you had to either go left for Santa Fe (us) or right for El Paso. No less than three times I had to get up and figure out if we were in the right place, and the passengers were furious.

“Don’t say anything too loud,” someone warned me. “They will kick you off the flight.”

There were the airline representatives, standing at the microphone reading out instructions. On top of the stupid gate arrangements, as we boarded they told us we’d have to “give them” our carry-ons – as in, no receipt whatsoever.

“I’m not giving you my bag,” I said fearfully. I could just imagine showing up in snowy Santa Fe and being told they’d lost my stuff, or maybe even denying they ever received it, because – you guessed it – I had no receipt.

It was American’s fault not to explain in advance that the plane to Santa Fe would be small, and we’d have to check our things. They could have supported their staff on communicating the gate change, so that the customers weren’t milling around in the frustrated, fearful state they were.

I sat there and felt angry. It’s 2015, they are getting tons of money from the customer, and they cannot get their shit together? They leave their brand ambassadors twisting in the wind, to be eaten by us starving wolves?

The only explanation: They may market themselves in whatever way, but whoever is in charge doesn’t know the first thing about branding.

Life is full of big and little hassles. The stings are ameliorated a bit by the brands that cheer me up along the way.

Being my friend is the magic secret. Forget about airlines, which you fly because you have to. Think about the stores you visit “just for fun,” even when there’s nothing in particular you want to get. Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, Nordstrom, Apple.

In Santa Fe we went to Kadima Levana’s Oxygen Healing Bar. We didn’t need anything, but we wound up staying for for hours. Kadima became a real friend, that is, we sat and talked with her and her family about important things, and nothing at all. She gave us her time and her ear, and she said “you’ll pay me whatever you feel you can or need to.” She said, “I want to build a community, and I hope you come back just to sit here.”

Kadima has never been to a marketing class, and her beautiful hand-crafted space, full of homemade art, hand-crafted local remedies and soothing herbal drinks is my destination of choice in Santa Fe. (Here’s a link to her site.)

Sometimes we hang out with people we don’t like, just because we have to. Those companies aren’t real brands.

Most of the time, we run toward people who make us feel welcome, for no reason at all than that we exist.

If you’re building a brand, make your foundation on empathy and kindness. Make friendship your founding principle.


Photo by Mark Seymour via Flickr. All opinions my own.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Kevin Lanahan

I remember my professors telling me the purpose of corporations was to maximize profits to increase stockholder equity. It struck me as odd that they put investors ahead of the people that actually used the product or service and paid the organization to do so.

AA seems like it resents that it has to deal with humans to make money, and it is reflected in their front-line staff. Imagine the money they could make if they didn’t have to clean bathrooms, serve drinks or actually fly anywhere.

JetBlue, on the other hand, seems to realize that air travel is difficult for passengers, and a difficult industry to make money in. By making the best of it, and providing a good customer experience, they know they’ll get return business and live to fly another day. Their staff seems empowered to help make a good experience, while I imagine AA flight attendants would fear a reprimand if they gave out an extra bag of peanuts.