03 MAR 2021
How has the travel experience changed during the pandemic? What might it look like in the future? How did American Airlines adapt to the changing landscape? And what could other brands learn?
MediaCom's Anna Rosenblatt, Managing Partner & Strategy Director, explored these questions and more in a fireside chat with our client Dana Lawrence, Managing Director of Global Brand Marketing for American Airlines, as part of the Brand Innovators “Future of Travel” series.
Travel has been one of the industries hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, as borders closed, cities and entire regions locked down, and global movement ground to a halt. At one point in April 2020, U.S. net flight bookings were down 98% vs. the year before. But now, there is hope on the horizon – as vaccines roll out, the world gradually reopens, and people start moving again.
Here, we unpack key themes and imperatives from Dana and Anna’s discussion. You can watch the full conversation at this link.
“Sometimes the best ideas can come out of adversity. This past year was a testament to that. We were forced to think differently… It gave us the opportunity for so much innovation.”
– Dana Lawrence
- AGILITY & THINKING DIFFERENTLY ARE KEY
- A few themes consistently rose to the top in our discussion of how American Airlines adapted to the pandemic: agility, flexibility, and thinking differently.
- The airline’s policies, operations, and communications all had to change in response to spreading case rates, global government regulations, CDC recommendations, consumer expectations – and they had to change quickly.
- As a result, one of the biggest challenges facing Dana’s team on the marketing side was planning. Normally, they plan campaigns up to a year out. But it’s hard to plan for what you don’t know and for what you can’t control. So they had to think differently, plan differently, and set themselves up to be able to pivot quickly.
- Dana said: “This past year has taught us how quickly we need to pivot and how fluid we can be…. We’ve got to be prepared. We want to make sure we’re doing everything to capture the existing demand that’s out there, as well as helping to inspire travel and build demand.”
- BREAK DOWN THE SILOS
- From an internal organizational perspective, the pandemic forced teams across American Airlines to collaborate much more closely. Different groups – from marketing to revenue management – started sharing the latest data, brainstorming and ideating together, and learning from one another.
- As Dana explained, “We were all focused on one key goal…. We were really lock-step together in a way that we hadn’t been before. You just couldn’t operate in these silos and be as effective and efficient as we needed to be… We had to collaborate on a totally different level than we had before.”
- This collaboration helped the teams drive results – and enabled them to try new things. And some of those new things, in turn, drove new best practices – ones that Dana says will continue past the pandemic.
- FOCUS ON THE CUSTOMER’S CHANGING NEEDS
- When I asked how American Airlines adapted to the pandemic, Dana started with the consumer: “First thing, focus on the customer. What were their barriers to travel? How could we make them feel more comfortable?”
- A top traveler concern during the pandemic has been cleanliness and safety. So American’s priority was to reassure consumers, to give them peace of mind, and to make them feel safe traveling again.
- American implemented their new Clean Commitment, ramped up touchless travel, partnered with Purell, and got certified by GBAC (Global Biorisk Advisory Council). They also started telling the public about HEPA filters in planes – something that was in place long before the pandemic, but that consumers knew little about.
- DO NOT BE AFRAID TO LET GO OF THINGS THAT ARE NO LONGER RIGHT – EVEN IF YOU WORKED REALLY HARD ON THEM
- When the pandemic hit, American already had an entire marketing plan built out for 2020, including a major new brand campaign – which they had been working on for a year.
- Although the team had already invested significant effort, they knew the message was no longer timely and that it was not the right environment to launch this type of campaign. So Dana and the team let it go – and instead, focused on the new reality, pivoting to what was needed and what would resonate at that moment.
- KNOW YOUR PURPOSE – AND BE AUTHENTIC IN EXPRESSING IT
- At the beginning of the pandemic, some people were questioning whether airlines should be flying in the current situation. So Dana’s team started by asking the most fundamental question of all: “Why do we fly?”
- American Airlines realized that they fly because people need to get home (there were a lot of expatriation efforts at the time). They fly because lifesaving equipment needs to get to the people who need it. “Everyone was doing their part to keep the world moving – all of the amazing frontline workers, medical workers” – and American Airlines wanted to do their part too. And they realized that their part was to keep the world moving: both people and cargo.
- Ultimately, the answer to the question, “Why do we fly?” was “You are why we fly.” And that became American’s new brand tagline!
- ENSURE YOUR COMMUNICATIONS REFLECT THE CURRENT REALITY
- In response to the pandemic, all of American’s marketing had to change – down to every single image on the AA.com website. Although it would have been easier to just talk about the current flying experience, including mask requirements, American wanted to accurately portray it, too – which meant that all brand images should show people wearing masks.
- LEVERAGE EXISTING CAPABILITIES & PARTNERSHIPS IN NEW WAYS
- Innovation does not need to mean new features. To drive revenue amid a severely reduced flight schedule, American Airlines refocused on cargo. While the cargo side of the business existed before, it hadn’t been a priority. But now, when American could no longer move people (as much), they leaned into moving things.
- Similarly, American found a new angle to their sports sponsorships – moving away from fun promotions and getting people to games, and instead highlighting how their Clean Commitment helps teams like the Dallas Cowboys and the LA Rams feel safe flying with American.
- EMBRACE NEW CUSTOMER BASES – WHILE REMEMBERING YOUR LOYALISTS
- American has seen a younger demographic (especially under 30) flying more during the pandemic; perhaps they are taking advantage of lower fares, or they feel safer traveling than older passengers. This posed a new opportunity for Dana and her team: introducing a new customer base to the American flight experience and hopefully turning them into loyal travelers for the future.
- But American is also eager to welcome back AAdvantage loyalty members who have not been traveling this year. Dana believes loyalty will “continue to be an intrinsic part of travel… [since it] enables people to do more of what they love.” The more you fly, the more benefits you earn, and the more you can travel.
- NEW TRAVEL EXPECTATIONS ARE HERE TO STAY
- Although many changes in the travel experience were driven by immediate needs during the pandemic, some changes will persist and become a permanent new way of doing things – as consumer expectations have been forever altered.
- Things like enhanced cleaning, contactless travel, and flexibility are here to stay:
- The Clean Commitment is now table stakes.
- Contactless travel will become even more so in the future. From mobile app check-in and electronic boarding passes, to touchless bag drops, to ordering COVID testing kits online, to the VeriFLY mobile health passport, to biometric technology – Dana believes that all these things are only going to ramp up in the future. And contactless now serves two purposes: not just convenience, but also safety and cleanliness in the age of COVID.
- Flexibility rules. Many airlines – including American – introduced new flexible policies, such as no change fees. The pandemic has also led to shorter booking periods (travelers booking flights less in advance), and this habit may stick. As Dana notes, “once customers have gotten used to that type of travel and that way of booking travel, it is an expectation they will have going forward.”
- NOT BEING ABLE TO TRAVEL HAS REMINDED US HOW MUCH WE REALLY LOVE IT – AND WHY
- Many of us can’t wait to travel again. The pandemic “reminded people how important travel is in their lives and how much they really love it, what they love about it, what they’ve missed most, where they want to go next.”
- Digging into this, Dana’s team discovered that what people are missing the most, and why they most want to travel, is to be with family and friends. “It wasn’t necessarily about the destination, or having that great vacation, it was not about going to Hawaii – it was about going to see grandma, going to see your best friend.” Inspired by this insight, American ran a campaign last summer called “The Best Places Are People.”
- This past year also reinforced that travel is about the whole journey, not just the destination. “Part of the fun is the planning, the thinking ahead, preparing for it. Some people who maybe thought the flight wasn’t the best part of the experience – now they just want to get on a plane again. The actual [experience] when you’re there. And all the memories upon return.”
- TRAVEL IS A GROUP EXPERIENCE – AND WE’RE ALL IN IT TOGETHER
- Before the pandemic, we viewed travel through a singular lens: where do I want to go, and how do I want to get there. Now, consumers are more cognizant that travel is a group experience – and that they play an active role in the collective. Certain travel requirements (like wearing masks) protect not just you as a traveler, but also your fellow passengers, as well as airline team members.
- As Dana points out, “We’re in this together. We all want to be traveling more than we are today. But that’s going to take some work on both our parts.”
“At the end of the day, travel makes the world a smaller place.” So, here’s to traveling again – and to finally reconnecting in person!