Here's to looking after the customer experience.

If I was the CMO of an airline, I’d hate two things over everything else.

The first is social media, which for airlines has pretty much taken what used to be a very private practice – customer complaints – and turned them into very sharable content. When a customer was dragged from a United Airlines flight in April this year, and another passenger uploaded a video of the incident, it resulted in brand damage that wiped an estimated $US1 billion from the value of the company. That’s billion with a B.

The second is TV news crews rocking up at airport terminals and picking disgruntled people out of long lines to roll the cameras on. Usually the complete lack of information provided by the relevant airline about whatever delay is being experienced for whatever reason is the predictable grab that is used.

So, when launching a new brand campaign for an airline, my radar would be tuned to making sure we avoid as much as possible the potential storm of social media whingers + whingers in line on the TV news. Unfortunately for Virgin Australia, they seemed to have hit some turbulence less than 24 hours after a very successful launch as part of their partnership with the AFL.

If you are not a footy fan, the AFL Grand Final was a brilliant platform to showcase some excellent strategic and creative work from the airline and its agency partner. The new positioning of ‘Here’s to Looking Up’ is designed to demonstrate the positive attributes of the Virgin Australia attitude. Perhaps best personified by its cheery staff and bright and breezy passenger experience. As the Virgin Australia CMO was quoted in the trade press, Qantas’ tone is more associated with welcoming people home, where Virgin wanted to express itself more as taking off. About possibility. About optimism.

The day after the ‘Here’s to looking up’ message was so clearly and cleverly plastered around the MCG in all the key TV moments (pre-game performance from The Killers, post-game performance from The Killers featuring Richmond star Jack Riewoldt), it appears there weren’t a lot of people actually taking off with Virgin thanks to a massive computer glitch.

Virgin attributed the blame to Optus whose technical fault meant the Virgin check-in system was down and every passenger had to be checked in manually, causing delays right across the country. So not Virgin’s fault, says Virgin, that stranded passengers (and mostly down in the dumps Crows supporters trying to get back to Adelaide) were delayed. Also, the Crows players themselves were late arriving at their supporter’s day in Adelaide so the effect of the delay wasn’t just for those flying.

As the adage goes, a tradesman doesn’t blame his tools and I think the good work that Virgin had done on the Saturday by being positive and optimistic was let down somewhat on the Sunday. Firstly, by blame shifting/attribution (passengers are flying with Virgin not Optus), and secondly by a probable lack of preparedness on the part of the airline.

We all know airlines don’t try and delay flights. Delays cost airlines significantly. The longer planes are stuck on the tarmac the less profitable, if at all, the flight. So, weather, computer glitches, late arriving aircraft – are all things out of Virgin’s control and would be causing them plenty of headaches as well.

But what is in their control is the execution of their brand launch and if the launch stopped with the Grand Final takeover, then it hasn’t really taken off. If it’s about looking up, I wonder what plans were in place for the customer experience to also be positive and optimistic on the next busiest flying day – that being the day after the AFL Grand Final, the day of the NRL Grand Final with two interstate teams competing, a Sunday during School holidays etc).

Were there additional Virgin staff deployed handing out food and drinks? Did any complimentary lounge passes make their ways into the hands of customers? Were Upgrades offered?   Refunds considered? How were the Virgin team planning to make even the uncontrollable situation a good one for customers? It’s not apparent based on the backlash being shared.

It’s not like flight delays will never happen. They do all the time. I’m a Gold Velocity Member with Virgin and I can tell you every time I’m interstate my wife asks if I’m flying Virgin because she knows to expect me late. Her brand perception – despite also watching the AFL Grand Final and being positive and optimistic – is that Virgin = late.

Excellent strategy and memorable, distinct creative is always just the beginning of a brand campaign. Glossy TV ads and clear positioning statements mean nothing unless you over deliver that experience no matter what obstacles you face.

Too many brands focus on the moment of the launch. It’s deemed to be a success if the launch event looks and feels right. Effective brand strategy needs to focus on having execution plans ready to go should the ‘what if’ happen. A lot of ‘what ifs’ can actually be predicted and planned so the promised brand experience is delivered in spades. Virgin might not have anticipated the scale of the delays today, but there are always flight delays. Delays themselves are predictable. So is the customer reaction to delays.

So, if you don’t plan for the customer experience the moment after they’ve seen the shiny new TV ad you could be left looking up while the customer is looking elsewhere.