Whenever the marketplace coins a term for a negative experience that is your brand name, you have a big marketing problem. And that’s exactly what Air Canada experienced when their discount brand Rouge flights began service out of Vancouver last week.
Launched with great fanfare and expectations of success last July 2013, Rouge, a discount brand within the Air Canada portfolio, was meant to service the leisure market at stylishly affordable prices and give the airline a way to be more market competitive. Flight attendants adorned in chic, stylish, retro attire complete with John Fluevog shoes, promised to deliver exceptional service.
But to save costs, the flight experience was stripped down. Most notably there is 4-6″ less of legroom and no seat back entertainment unless you bring your own iPad or rent one onboard. This has irritated many flyers; specifically those that booked and paid full rates for an Air Canada flight, and then found themselves on a Rouge plane.
Air Canada has selectively designated numerous non-business traveler heavy flights out of Vancouver as Rouge flights, and according to the airline they will continue to do so for sun vacation flights, designated European flights during the summer, as well as domestic and US travel to leisure destinations. Going forward customers will clearly see if they are booking a Rouge flight or Air Canada flight, but in the interim for existing bookings, the airline has chosen to email customers about the change to their flights. After a piece aired nationally on CBC TV featuring a complaint over the apparent bait and switch tactic that left a 6’2″ passenger feeling like a downgraded pretzel, Air Canada said it would provide a full refund to passengers who have been switched to Rouge and don’t want to use the airline. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/air-canada-customers-angry-over-bumping-to-rouge-1.2633845
But the damage has been done.
Flights have been switched, higher prices paid, and customers have been left in cramped seats. At the root is a feeling of deceit. And it’s left many complaining they’ve been “rouged.”
This statement is worth repeating:
Whenever the marketplace coins a term for a negative experience that is your brand name, you have a big marketing problem.
Here’s just a small sampling of #rouged hashtag comments on Twitter:
Getting “rouged” is what marketers would call a “sticky” word. Usually sticky words invite positive publicity. Witness Lululemon and their April fools “Mansy”, the high cut one piece yoga suit for men https://www.flickr.com/photos/tobyvs/2371674531/ (warning: it isn’t pretty!)
Or Parisa wax inventing “backvertising” when they commandeered a hairy guy’s back to wax in their logo and parade him around Kids beach handing out samples. http://vimeo.com/7479018 (again a visual disclaimer is likely in order!)
But “I got rouged” will quickly become the brunt of negative jokes. Air Canada’s brand name Rouge has now become the lexicon for being taken. That’s NOT where you want your identity to be.
Adding to the fire is the apparent attempt by the airline to remove posted complaints from their Facebook page. But they’re still coming fast a furious, and Air Canada’s response is at times comical. I particularly like the exchange with a customer suggesting he could upgrade for a fee because he was tall… No kidding! https://www.facebook.com/aircanadarouge
At stake of course is profit. The closer spacing of seats and a reduced number of larger premium seats, allows the airline to put in two more rows, for a total of 18 more seats on an Airbus plane normally carrying 525 passengers. By using the newly configured plane on many non-business routes, the airline stands to increase profits substantially.
But at what cost to customer loyalty and brand value?
Given the initial stumbles and consumer push back, perhaps the name Rouge will be the colour of their financial statements. Or the colour on their embarrassed cheeks dealing with the social media fiasco.
And just in time for Mother’s Day this past weekend, our other national airline, Westjet, with their quirky sense of humour, put this ad out. With a wink and a nudge to Danny DeVito and Billy Crystal in the 1987 comedy “Throw Momma from the Train,” Westjet proves yet again the truth in their positioning line: It’s nicer up here.
Timely, irreverent, and fun. At least one of these airlines understands good marketing.