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Bye, Bye Midwest Airlines

October 1, 2010

Yesterday I flew on one of the last Midwest Airlines flights. In the growing phenomenon of airline mergers my favorite airline and the only one with the quality slogan of “The Best Care in the Air” went by the wayside. Airline magazines and company press releases tell us “market research” determined that Frontier Airlines was better positioned to be the new brand for the merged lines. Loyal Midwest customers can already tell by the service that the decision was probably more about no longer having to worry about keeping the quality of care associated with the Midwest brand.

Change happens. And I certainly appreciate the struggles companies are going through in today’s economy. But as someone in the “brand” business I can’t help but suffer more than a little disappointment when a company is so clearly disaffected by reality that they fill their press releases with corporate jargon and expect us to care. For over a year now I’ve been reading about this merger. And for over a year I’ve heard the same corporate gobbledygook (yes, that’s a technical term). I have a few very unrevolutionary ideas for any company, business or individual looking to reinvent themselves (and I hope you read this, Mr. Bedford, CEO of Republic Airways).

1. Reveal your sources. Don’t quote vague “market research.” If you’re making major changes to a brand or in this case, killing one off, you owe loyal customers more specific answers. If the motivations are financial, tell us! Most Americans are capitalists, we can take it. You’re better off telling us you made the decision arbitrarily or because your kid liked the sound better than quoting vague research.

2. Don’t offer rewards that aren’t. We’re all pretty savvy consumers these days (thanks, Groupon!). When Republic Airways tells me that I get to keep my frequent flier miles or my elite flier status like it’s a bonus, I have to laugh. These things should be inherent in a merger, and treating anything that should be basic customer service like a bonus strikes the average person as a bit disingenuous.

3. Don’t lie. A merger or major brand change implies that things will be different. So don’t promise a customer experience you can’t deliver.

4. Give me my dang cookies back. Two of them. And they should be warm, not cold, and without a taste of bitterness. (If you’ve ever flown Midwest Airlines before, you know what I’m talking about. If not, just be glad you don’t have to know what you’re missing with the new Frontier Airlines, where the cookies, like the quality of service, is second-rate).

5. Involve your stakeholders. Republic Airways could have involved social media in its recent merger. Even a marginal level of empowerment among your brand enthusiasts can go a long way in ensuring they “stick with you” despite their disappointments. Checking out the current Midwest Express Twitter feed is like watching good social media gone bad. My only sense of reassurance is noting how many other disillusioned Midwest customers there are out there. Unfortunately, when anyone checking out your Twitter feed sees nothing but a series of responses to issues, rather than explanations, offers, or forward movement, you’re not exactly advancing your brand, but keeping it stuck in a negative spin cycle (an entire future blog post could be dedicated to how to – and how not to – respond to customer complaints on Twitter).  Any company going through significant changes needs to involve stakeholders in its social media campaigns. I get at least two e-mails from the carrier each month, yet not one has asked me to engage with them about the merger via social media.

Building a brand takes time. And once you’ve built one, you need to understand that you as a company don’t own that brand, as much as you might like to think so. If you’ve built even a marginally successful company, it belongs to the customer base that supports you. So when you’re making any change, keep that in mind. A little courtesy, common sense and candor can move mountains – and perhaps even your customer base – when major changes come around.

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