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August 03, 2005

The Amazing Power of Brand

There's been talk of late of "The Decline of Brands" -- with consumers being seen as fickle and thus disloyal. Or that through things like customer reviews, all that matters are things like price and quality, not brand name.

One area where brands are under attack is in the travel industry. With intermediaries like Expedia, Orbitz, Hotels.com, etc., showing us side-by-side comparisons on airline tickets, hotel rooms, and car rentals, it's easy for the consumer to ignore brand and simply opt for the best deal.

That's what happened on this past trip to Dallas. Through Orbitz, I was booked on America West, and given a Budget car rental. Through Hotels.com, I was put up at a Wyndham. It would seem that disintermediation worked in their favor, informing me of deals they offered that I would have never found had I gone straight to individual travel providers.

And perhaps it did work in their favor... this once. But I can say I will never again:
- fly America West
- Rent with Budget
- stay at a Wyndham


America Werst

As written earlier, America Worst has no clue how to run an airline (For another view, read here.). I can only imagine them surviving if Southwest doesn't compete on their routes, because the experience one has with those two airlines is pretty much the opposite. I've flown Southwest a fair amount this past year, and flights are on time, the staff is friendly, and, most importantly, the trip is uneventful. Whereas, with my colleague and I flying America Worst, our flights were delayed, our connections nearly missed, and my colleague ended up getting in at 4am on his last flight, when he was supposed to be in by 1:30am.


Bustyourbudget


At first it seems that all rental car companies are pretty much alike, and so, hey, why not rent with Budget? I'll tell you -- the gouging they administer through insurance. After my car accident, I returned the car to the airport. Being in Dallas, it's pretty much impossible to get around without a car, so I got another one from them. Renting a car for a single day ended up costing $96. And this was a Chevy Monte Carlo. While Budget might appear cheap when lined up side-by-side with other rental agencies on a web page, they're heap of hidden fees really end up adding up. I never recall Enterprise acting so mercenary.

The only time before I that I stayed at a Wyndham was three years ago in Salt Lake City, when we weren't given our non-smoking requests, and we're given a hard time by the people at reception when we complained about it. But someone else booked this travel, and I ended up in the Wyndham again. While this experience wasn't as bad as the prior one, it was still poor enough for me to never want to stay there again. Starting with the drab decor, continuing to the $12.95/day wireless internet gouging, and continuing to the mediocre buffet breakfasts that you have to pay extra for. I don't see a long future for Wyndham when they compete with the likes of Marriott, particularly Courtyard by Marriott, who typically offer excellent customer service, free wireless internet, and free breakfast buffets (it's fine to serve mediocre food... just don't charge extra for it!)

Surowiecki, when he wrote about the decline of brands, focused on physical products, and he probably has a point in that space. But in the world of services, brands and "brand experiences" are increasingly crucial. As a colleague said the other day, "Why can't every airline be like JetBlue?" As savvy entrepreneurs figure out how to better serve their customers, people will drift toward them and away from legacy providers that assumed "lock-in."

Posted by peterme at August 3, 2005 08:24 AM

Comments

Branding, of course, started as a mark on livestock to establish ownership, not, necessarily, quality or consistency. Beyond that, I don't know the history of product branding and why it came to mean so much to the consumer. It apparently provides the buyer with a comfort zone that is more emotional that practical. Example Sony, which has not made a top quality television product in the last fifteen years, yet still enjoys higher customer loyalty than any of its far superior competitors. Why is that?

When it comes to the branding iron, one man's cow is another man's bull.

Brand name reliance can be a trap, and so can low pricing lures. I hesitate to say it in this world of pixel power at our fingertips, but there is no substitute for thinking it through ourselves.

Posted by: BJMe [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 3, 2005 12:01 PM

Service and customer focus is the key to great brands.

I completely agree with Air West, I was flown out to the Bay Area in the Spring on this carrier. The first plane was completely dirty and was having air circulation problems. The flight crew was complaining about the poor condition of the plane, but also that it was getting to be the norm (most passengers around me agreed). The flight was delayed leaving and then had problems in Phoenix getting access to land. This lead to missing my connection to San Jose. By the time I got into my hotel it was well past 3am my home time. I had a morning presentation and meetings that ran the whole day, and I started the day completely off.

The flight back was not a whole lot better. The airline completely tainted my impression of the company that flew me out there.

I have become a huge fan on JetBlue in this past year. They have been wonderful to deal with and put a lot of power into my hands. Their check-in kiosk is the best I have ever dealt with as it is simple and clear with few steps.

I am not a fan of many car rental companies. I do have one I like, but my preference is because they have XM radio in their fleet. I have XM radio at home and I know the stations that I like. I can quickly set the car radio to my preferred stations and save a button for the local traffic station (the best traffic station in every market I have been in). These make the traveling a little easier and more familiar.

I hate long lines and I like helpful friendly people (call me crazy). I would even pay more at a drug store to get that services as that is one place that is univerally miserable in every city I have been in over the past 15 years. The large chains seemingly hire bottom bracket clerks and manager that can't run the registers and seemingly are required to be surly. The brand does not matter, be it Walgreens, CVS, RiteAid, Duane Reed, or any other they all have the same traits. Before the major consolidation and focus on price over service in the late 80s to late 90s the drugstore was a friendly neighborly establishment with good efficient service. The price differences are negligible on the products bought at these stores (maybe an extra 20 to 40 dollars a year) and I know many people who would love to just have better more friendly service.

Posted by: vanderwal [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 3, 2005 06:59 PM

My gut feeling is that negative brand experiences are stronger than positive brand experiences. So your experiences do impact on brand, but a bunch of regular to positive ones may not do so as strongly.

Posted by: DonnaM [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 4, 2005 05:03 AM

Peter, look for flights through mobissimo.com next time. Much better deals than Orbitz.

I flew Southwest for the first time this past April (cheapest ticket on Mobissimo). I've been going straight to southwest.com ever since (10+ trips so far). They have captured my heart. I don't think I have ever identified with a brand so strongly - I am what is usually referred to as the "disloyal" type and price/quality will almost always make me switch to pretty much anything that comes around. I don't see that happening with Southwest - even though others may provide the same level of service (I don't know any that do, JetBlue to some extent), Southwest has it at a level I am happy with and gives me no reason to try and optimize my price/quality attributes.

That is Brand to me. It's not the image they sold me of what they could potentially be. It's my perception of what they are through experience. The "brand promise" is not the brand itself.

If Southwest slips and becomes something like the drugstore model Thomas was describing, I'll switch. But that will mean their brand is no longer the brand I recognized. The biggest problem in brand discussions is that people talk about brand like it's a monolythic thing, when its ever-evolving and highly contextual to an individual's perception.

Southwest flies San Jose - Dallas ;)
http://www.southwest.com/travel_center/routemap_dyn.html

Posted by: Livia Labate [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 5, 2005 10:09 AM

Thanks, Livia. I am a very careful consumer. I checked out mobissimo.com and found it's listings very competetive, especially the Last Minute offerings. It is now in my Travel Folder

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