Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Delta’s Big Branding Exercise Reflects Changes That Have Already Been Made, Not New Ones

You’d think from the tone of Delta’s announcement yesterday that there were some huge changes being made to the airline’s product. That’s not the case. This is really Delta’s attempt to do a better job of branding what it’s already been building over the last several years. I won’t call it lipstick on a pig, because I think Delta’s product is relatively good. But you get the point. This is more about optics and expectations than it is any substantive change going forward. Though that doesn’t mean the airline won’t do more in the future.

The announcement is that Delta is rebranding most of its classes of service. If you’re an airline historian, the naming might sound familiar. Delta seems to have taken some cues from TWA, of all airlines. The naming changes don’t come across as cohesive to me, but I’ll let you judge that. Here’s what’s happening.

BusinessElite –> Delta One
Delta’s BusinessElite class, its premium cabin on international long haul flights and big transcon routes, will become Delta One. Remember when TWA created Trans World One? Reading through the TWA release, I imagine it sounds a lot like what was discussed at Delta.

Our target is the frequent flier buying business class tickets who hopes to upgrade to first class. We’ve eliminated that anxiety because Trans World One service, in the front cabin, offers first class services for the price of business.

Seems about right since Delta has no international First Class. If Delta gets rid of “Business” in the name, then people will stop associating it with a Business Class, or so I imagine the conversation went. And to be fair, if you last flew Delta in BusinessElite even five years ago, you’d be shocked at how much better it is today.

The only other reason I can think of to make this change is if there was concern about name confusion with United’s BusinessFirst. But that’s hard to believe considering Delta just renamed its coach cabin to match the name used by a competitor. (We’ll talk about that below.)

Considering how much has changed over the last several years, is anything changing due to this announcement? New seat covers. That’s it.

First Class –> First Class
Delta doesn’t have a long haul international First Class, as we discussed, but on its North American flights, the name remains the same. I’ve always found the “First Class” name strange on domestic flights since it’s barely better than a premium economy product, but Delta is keeping this as is. Is anything changing? Yes, seat covers. Again. That’s it.

Economy Comfort –> Comfort+
Delta Comfort+
Economy Comfort will turn into Comfort+. (Yes, it’s the symbol, not the word “plus.”) That’s quite a generic name, so I’ve included the image above as a handy guide to avoid confusion. I had to include TWA’s Comfort Class even though that was a “more room through coach” kind of offer. Sounds like someone in Delta marketing had TWA on the brain.

There was talk that this would be a true premium economy offering with different seats and food but that’s not happening. This is still just an extra legroom seat but some amenities are being bulked up. Yes, there are new seat covers, but there’s a little more here. It looks like Comfort+ travelers will also now get dedicated overhead bin storage. On domestic flights, they’ll also get free alcohol and, on flights over 900 miles, free premium snacks. (International travelers already got that.) This is on top of things like free entertainment, which was announced over the summer, and amenity kits on longer haul flights.

Apparently this is enough for Delta to start pulling this away as a benefit for elites. Gold elites used to be able to reserve these seats at the time of booking but now they have to wait until 72 hours prior to travel. Silvers still can’t reserve until check-in. Oh, and I’m told that while Silvers used to get a discount if they wanted to purchase the seat in advance, that discount will be going away as well.

Economy –> Main Cabin
The regular old coach cabin, which Delta called Economy, will now become Main Cabin. If Delta was trying to avoid confusion with other airlines, then this flies in the face of that idea. American already calls its coach offering Main Cabin. Seems to me that Delta wants to get away from the “economy” name because it sounds cheap. But hey, it is what it is. No branding exercise is going to change that in this cabin.

What’s actually changing? NOT seat covers! Actually, nothing is changing at all. Delta’s regular coach cabin is already more a premium offering compared to others. You still get free cookies/pretzels/peanuts and there is some free streaming entertainment. Apparently Delta didn’t feel the need to add any more to the product in this round of changes.

Basic Economy –> Basic Economy
You’d think Delta would have called this “Basic Main Cabin” but no. The “economy” name might sound too cheap for regular coach, but for the Basic Economy product, Delta’s making it clear this is all about price. This is sort of a coming out party for what Delta has been experimenting with for a long time. (I wrote about it two and half years ago.)

Basic Economy isn’t a separate cabin. People onboard will be treated exactly the same as those in, ahem, Main Cabin. But it’s meant to compete with ultra low cost carriers so it’s the cheapest fare on the airplane. In the markets where it exists (usually in markets where Spirit flies), you can buy this fare but you won’t get an advance seat assignment and you won’t be allowed to make any changes to the ticket. Use it or lose it, as they say.

So that’s it. It’s really just one big branding effort. I get the idea of wanting a consistent brand to reflect all the improvements that have been made over the past few years, but this doesn’t really come across as all that consistent. Delta One, First Class, Comfort+, Main Cabin, Basic Economy… do those seem in any way related? Not really (though maybe future enhancements will make it somehow seem different). I like the new seat covers a lot from a visual perspective, but I would have hoped for something more cohesive to show that the brands are all part of the same airline.

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