In Branding

Lights flashed and an alarm sounded.

I looked around with concern to learn who was the cause of the ruckus….apparently it was me. “There is no guarantee your bag will make it to Denver on time,” the gate agent barked at me. She quickly slapped an extra tag on my bag, the one I had just waited 20 minutes to check. It was bright, bold, unmistakable. It read “LATE CHECK IN” in neon yellow. Wow, I had never felt so ‘branded’.

Theresa AgrestaI was shocked.

This was Southwest Airlines, where I had come to expect only genuine friendliness, respect and lightheartedness. It was still 43 minutes until my flight and lines were long on this busy Memorial Day weekend. Where was the warm smile and recognition of my ‘rewards’ status. Perhaps I had just checked my bag at the wrong counter? Nope – there it went off on the belt. I watched it disappear around the corner and under the heavy plastic flap and hoped that it would magically reappear in Denver with no incident. “Thanks a lot,” I shot back at the agent.

At first I thought “That tag is a sign to the crew to handle my bag first, to ensure that everything possible is done to get it on the plane on time.” But doubts started to creep in. The alarm was overkill; the tag sealed the deal. I decided that it was more likely permission for the handlers to not worry about my bag. After all, I had been loudly warned and publicly admonished.

I started to calculate how I would handle collecting my belongings in time to get to my niece’s graduation. When I arrived in Denver, I first identified the claims department before eyeing the luggage spilling onto the rounder. After a long wait and with low expectations, I was relieved to pluck my bag off the belt and continue on my trip.

Theresa AgrestaNext stop, Hertz.

I don’t generally rent from Hertz, but I was traveling with my parents and my Dad had handled the rental. My experience is their pricing is consistently higher, albeit their service stands out. The only thing standing that day were our fellow travelers. “Thiscan’t be the line for those with reservations,” I thought. At least 150 people snaked around the building and no one appeared to be processing rentals. We joined the confusion at the back of the line.

The couple behind us was on their way to a graduation, too, for their granddaughter. They had no time to spare and no patience for the disgruntled staff that finally appeared to announce that there was not much they could do about the wait, which they smugly estimated to be about an hour. The grandfather started shouting at the agent, who was less than sympathetic. “Folks, we’re very busy due to the holiday weekend and all the graduations in the region. The hail storm last night caused a lot of damage to the cars returning today. We’re doing the best we can, please be patient.”

It didn’t add up.

The place was over-run. There were at least 15 empty rental stations and only a handful of agents on duty. Why didn’t Hertz call extra employees in to help? How else could they maintain their reputation for legendary service and justify their pricing structure? And, after all, we all had reservations…you’d think they were expecting us. They did live up to one expectation. It was at least an hour before we made our way to the car and exited toward the mountains.

If you are a frequent traveller, you definitely understand that things often don’t go according to plan…and you learn to plan for it. I maintained my good humor and even had fun with my father standing in line at Hertz. We had plenty of time to make friends with the grandparents behind us and wished them well as they eventually sped off to the baccalaureate, hopefully with enough time to change from their traveling clothes before the celebration.

A company’s brand is not built by marketing genius and brought to life with posters that line the jet bridge. Only the real, live experiences of customers can do that.

This weekend, I encountered rudeness, fear, frustration and sore feet. Perhaps the lines could not be avoided. But the response of both companies definitely did not match the expectations I held, built over years of exposure to their advertising, their websites, the stories of friends and family and my own experiences.

It was a reminder to me that the people behind the brand are as human, and sometimes as weary, as the travelers on the other side of the counter. Ironically, I talk about Southwest Airlines on a weekly basis as part of educating Allegory’s clients and presenting seminars and workshops on branding. I share why I prefer Southwest to most other airlines I travel. It’s the only airline where employees break the ice, get the passengers to laugh out loud together and allows themselves to enjoy their work. Everyone around them is happier and the travails of travel are lightened just a bit.

Southwest has earned my respect and I’ll let this one out-of-character experience slide because, on balance, my trip was awesome. But I do have to wonder who decided that the automatic alarm, triggered as soon as I slid my ID through the kiosk, was in-brand? And how about the ‘late’ tag, also cleared by corporate policy? Not very Southwesterly in my opinion.

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