Brand Winners... And Losers: US Airways and Citibank

Brand Winners…

   And Losers





The Marketing Doctor says:

Winner: U.S. Airways


Loser: Citigroup

This is a time for getting back to basics after economic excess has made many of us forget the fundamentals.  We definitely see this reality reflected in this week’s selections.  


The winner is an airline that reminds us about what really matters in an airline brand, and the loser is a bank that does the same for the banking brand (but through its forgetfulness of its branding essentials).  Without further ado, this week’s picks:



The Winner:


Our winner (for obvious reasons) is US Airways.  Never before has a commercial aircraft made an emergency water landing with no fatalities. 


The so-called “Miracle on the Hudson” goes way beyond a one-off miracle or dumb luck and tells us something very important about brand building.  I always like to say that you can learn a lot about a person or a brand when things go wrong. 

 

Sure, customer satisfaction and service is important, but this accident reminds us about a core brand feature of airlines that can be easily forgotten by impatient and demanding fliers: safety.


Safely getting a passenger from Point A to Point B is the single most important aspect of air travel, and US Airways (which apparently did poorly on a recent customer satisfaction survey) reminds us that their brand takes this most valuable quality very seriously.  This is not tactical fluff; this is real marketing!


The fact that US Airways had Captain Sullenberger at the command of that plane (and has employed him for 30 years) tells us a lot about this airline’s priorities.  


Sullenberger is a man whose resume seemed custom-made for this disaster.  He is an expert on airline accidents and safety and recently became a visiting scholar on the subject at Berkeley.  He also runs a company that applies airline industry safety methods to other businesses.  (Here's his website and bio.) 


US Airways wins from a brand point of view because it employs someone of such high quality, and this near tragedy shows us why this priority matters.  


A day doesn’t go by without me speaking about the importance of remembering your Target Market and knocking the ignorant arrogance of thinking that you know better than your Target Market what it needs, but the US Airways example requires me to add a little nuance to my general rule.  


In certain businesses, there are fundamental features that the Target Market can forget about or discount for a while… but that doesn’t mean that the Target Market doesn’t ultimately value these fundamental features (i.e. airline safety) or that the company should concentrate on other things (i.e. customer service and entertainment) to the detriment of these brand fundamentals. 


Up until this event in the Hudson, most airline consumers may very well have said that every airline is just like any other when it comes to safety.  But my guess is that most people won’t be saying this anymore, since it’s obvious that a different pilot, a different flight crew and a different set of airline priorities might have resulted in a very different and deadly outcome.


US Airways is a brand winner because it will almost certainly benefit from the successful outcome of this event, but most of all because it clearly continued to concentrate on its brand essentials even in an environment where other, more superficial, consumer needs could have distracted it from its mission.



The Loser:


This week’s loser did the exact opposite.  Citigroup forgot its brand mission, neglecting safety and the fundamentals of its brand and business.  


Last summer, I blogged about banking and banking’s future as a brand.  Here’s that post.  Basically, I argued that we are heading back to a time when banks must remember what banks do and become boring again in order to survive and prosper.  Boring and safe was long considered a virtue for banks; and now with bleeding balance sheets, we remember why this was true for so long.


Citigroup is a great example of what happens when a bank with a rich historical pedigree forgets what it is supposed to be doing.  The company succumbed to the great expansion craze of the last ten years in the financial sector, where bigger meant better and supposedly translated to shareholder value.


Now, with shares worth less than four dollars, we see where that got Citigroup’s shareholder value.  


This week, the news is that the CEO (who may well be on his way out) is planning to engineer the bank’s break-up so that it will once again more closely resemble a bank rather than a one-stop amalgam of consumer banking, investment banking and brokerage.  Here’s that story from Bloomberg.


That’s good news for the brand, but at this point things are so bad that this plan might not work.  With close to 800 billion dollars in deposits, it’s probably true that Citigroup is too big to fail, but as a brand I think it already has.  


Citigroup has forgotten its banking history as well as its own particular innovative contributions to that history (like the invention of the ATM) that served its Target Markets needs.  The record of the last ten years in big banking reads more like the story of trying to find ways to soak the Target Market with fees and credit services that led to higher, unsupportable debt than one of actually trying to serve and sustain its Target Market.  


In the weeks and months to come, we’ll see if the curtain has already closed on the Citigroup brand.  What is clear is that Citigroup and other institutions in similar positions must begin to aggressively court their Target Markets again and remind consumers that they are there for them.  


One way for Citigroup to reach out to consumers is by addressing all the murkiness around the TARP funds by instituting its own transparency and accountability standards, even if the government itself can’t seem to figure out where all the money has gone.  Part of this effort could even involve a forthright and well-marketed campaign to show that they are lending again with some or all of these funds.  This will underscore the bank’s consumer, small-business and community-minded brand essentials and show that Citigroup can be a leader in challenging times.  The bank will also build good will in political and voter circles —something that Citi and a lot of other businesses are probably going to need.


And remember, it’s always easier when you keep marketing and branding in mind.



TODAY'S TANTILLO TAKEAWAY -

Sometimes even your Target Market may take some of its needs for granted —but you and your business can’t afford to do so.



 

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    Brand Winner… And Loser John Tantillo’s Winner and Loser of The Week: Winner: GunsLoser: Airlines Folks, without further ado:The WinnerThe gun industry. Since November, Americans have been buying an unprecedented amount of guns and ammo. The trend might be political —i.e., worries that a Democratic president might succeed in passing anti-gun legislation. Whatever the reason, the gun industry is going gangbusters.More than cash register success, the industry might actually be on the brink of finally claiming the kind of brand high ground that it has sought for ...
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    Brand Winner… And Loser John Tantillo’s Winner and Loser of The Week: Winner: GunsLoser: Airlines Folks, without further ado:The WinnerThe gun industry. Since November, Americans have been buying an unprecedented amount of guns and ammo. The trend might be political —i.e., worries that a Democratic president might succeed in passing anti-gun legislation. Whatever the reason, the gun industry is going gangbusters.More than cash register success, the industry might actually be on the brink of finally claiming the kind of brand high ground that it has sought for ...
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