More thoughts on why positioning is wrong for your brand

The issue or issues I have with positioning are well documented in this blog.

But I still get a lot of resistance when I try to explain to companies that they are wasting their money relying on advertising agencies to manage their brands by developing a positioning strategy.

This is because another issue that is increasingly relevant is the fact that it takes time to develop a position, strategise it and then communicate it, normally across traditional media channels.

Please, not more messages!
Please, not more messages!

In a (reluctant) nod to the Internet and Social Media, agencies are beginning to use online channels (whilst online advertising is growing, I don’t think it is growing fast enough and one reason is because agencies can’t control it or rather it is too transparent) but they are using these channels in the same way as they use traditional media, ie trying to broadcast a position to as many people as possible.

Developing a position was alright in a ‘mono’ world such as the early to end 20th Century USA or in Europe where many of marketing’s traditional tools and tactics were developed.

Indeed, before commercial flights, mass migration of peoples, national TV and newspapers as well as a more localised population and limited competition, such a model had legs and made sense.

It was also easier to find those USPs – remember when quality was a USP? – imagine trying to build a brand on a product that wasn’t high quality. OK, Microsoft did it but there are always exceptions to every rule!

As Glen Myatt said in his response to one of my blog postings (read his reply in full here) Quote, “With the myriad touchpoints available to brands now, a better way of thinking about what a brand should represent is what its story is rather than what its positioning is.

This is beyond benefits and personality to its values, what it believes in, its purpose in ‘the world’, its ambition.

The result is usually a unique combination of associations rather than a single unique association. (For instance, some may argue Apple is positioned on simple & intuitive technology while others fall back on its creative values of ‘thinking differently’. Both of these are valid as are the myriad other associations that make up the Apple story).

A brand story is typically not single-minded though it often has a central theme. In this respect positioning as a single ownable thought that can be packaged in a 30 second television spot is probably redundant.

As the idea of a unique, ownable story it is alive and well. And companies need to have and steer those stories even as their customers may also be shaping them. As the saying goes, “If you don’t know what you stand for you’ll fall for anything”. End quote.

With 2 exceptions, I agree with What Glen says.

The first exception I have is that I don’t think Apple is positioned. I think it produces great products, tells a great story, creates a great experience and then lets consumers define the brand. In other words, it offers economic, experiential and emotional value to consumers and on their terms (it makes mistakes but generally addresses those mistakes in a transparent, emotional, fair and collaborative manner). It is very human in its approach. Unfamiliar corporate territory but in the social economy, branding dynamite.

Which leads onto my second exception. I don’t believe you can create a unique ownable story and then develop it into a position. And knowing what you stand for doesn’t equate to a position. Those are corporate values. Perhaps there is an overlap…

Going back to my original point, not many companies have the time, or for that matter the resources to go through what is traditionally required to build a brand.

The days of broadcasting a corporate driven message are over
The days of broadcasting a corporate driven message are over

I believe that instead they should focus on delivering economic, experiential and emotional value to customers and on their terms. And do this in a transparent, human, personal, collaborative manner. Everything else will fall into place.

Isn’t it time you valued – not measured — customer satisfaction?

Recently I’ve met a couple of companies who couldn’t explain why they implemented a customer satisfaction survey and how they used the results! I hope this is the exception, not the rule.

If you’ve carried out a customer satisfaction survey, you probably did it because you want to deliver great customer service and believe the satisfaction survey will give you something to benchmark future results against. If this is the case, you are not alone.

Many companies regularly measure customer satisfaction. They send out surveys or call asking questions about satisfaction with service, product usage and more. Most people will have encountered the satisfaction survey at the bank counter that encourages immediate responses, the results of which can impact the manager’s bonus.

Others may have received a call from a car workshop after a service or an email from an online service provider.

But, unfortunately, the results of such measurement are unactionable. That means customer satisfaction surveys do a poor job of linking cause and effect.

As an example, a traditional survey might ask, “How satisfied were you with the product/service?” And then give 5 options from “Very satisfied” to “Very dissatisfied” but where’s the cause and effect?

If customers are dissatisfied with the product, what caused it? Was it a poor sales or other service experience? Or was it because the teller gave the wrong information? An unfair ‘returns policy’? Complexity? A lack of add-ons?

Part of a typical satisfaction survey, how measureable are the results?

Many customer satisfaction surveys measure the wrong activity at the wrong time, often with the wrong customers. If a walk in customer to a branch of a bank is a frequent visitor who takes up a lot of time making withdrawals or engaging expensive, trained personnel with minor transactions, should the bank care if they are satisfied or not?

Another failing of customer satisfaction surveys is that they are divorced from the costs of satisfaction. Yes, customers can be satisfied, but do you really want to satisfy every customer no matter what it costs?

Many organizations apparently do and some think good satisfaction scores are considered more important than profits. At least one Malaysian firm boasts of “exceeding expectations.” Not unexpectedly, setting the satisfaction bar so high inevitably leads to excessive expenses, hurting profitability.

And it is also misleading. According to Frederick Reichheld, writing in the influential Harvard Business School publication, 90% of industry customers report that they are satisfied or very satisfied. Impressive figures but why is it then that repeat purchases remain in the 30% – 40% range? Surely if so many customers are satisfied, shouldn’t they be making repeat purchases?

But most telling of all, in numerous surveys, 60% – 80% of customers have reported they are happy with service, before moving to a competitor!

Harvard Business Review - even completely satisfied customers can leave

Another issue with satisfaction is that as consumers become more empowered, the less likely they are to be satisfied. According to a survey by Accenture and the Marketing Society, the percentage of people whose ‘expectations of service quality are frequently or always met’ declined from 53% in 2007 to 40% in 2009. If this trend continues, it is unlikely that expectations will ever be met and therefore, what is the relevance of a satisfaction survey?

Companies can also influence or manipulate satisfaction scores with the timing of the questions. For instance, if an airline upgrades a traveler from economy to business class on a long haul flight and then calls the next day to ask if the passenger was satisfied will produce a predictable answer.

What you really want to do is to value satisfaction, not measure it. Valuing satisfaction means putting an actual cost figure on the satisfaction that is required to keep a customer as a customer.

After all, you spend large amounts of money on advertising, sales and other branding tactics to acquire a customer and then when you do acquire him, you ask if he is satisfied with the service. Wouldn’t it make sense to know why he became a customer and what it will take to keep him as a customer?

The importance of keeping a customer as a customer is ignored in almost all satisfaction surveys. Yet why would you want to satisfy a customer if 60% – 80% are likely to defect to a competitor with the next purchase?

Companies committed to growing profitability instead of expenses are already making the move to valuing satisfaction.

One of the first companies was Starbucks. Starbucks prides itself in providing a unique customer experience. In many ways, its brand is based on this customer experience. But Starbucks success meant longer queues that created unhappy customers. So, to ensure continued growth, Starbucks sought to measure satisfaction with the customer experience.

Starbucks strives to deliver value

Starbucks decided to talk to customers. Its customer research discovered that the average “unsatisfied” customer stuck with the company for a little more than one year, made 47 visits to its stores during that period and spent a total of approximately US$200. Not bad, really, for an “unsatisfied” customer.

But look at the value of a “satisfied” customer. The average “highly satisfied” Starbucks customer patronized the chain for more than eight years, made almost double the amount of visits (86) per year and spent over US$3,000 over that average eight-year time frame.

What was the primary difference between “unsatisfied” and “highly satisfied” customers? The amount of time the customer had to wait in line. Now that Starbucks knew the value of satisfaction, it could make the appropriate financial decisions.

Indeed, once the connection was made between marketing metric and financial outcome, calculating the investment and its potential payoff became easier. Based on Starbucks’ estimate, marketing would have to invest US$40 million annually worldwide to sufficiently reduce wait times and help convert those unsatisfied customers into highly satisfied ones. That’s no small amount, even for Starbucks.

If you were the CEO of Starbucks, what would you have done?

Actually, the data made the decision quite easy. Since the research had shown that each highly satisfied customer was worth US$3,000 over eight years and each unsatisfied customer was worth US$200 for one year, all Starbucks had to do was calculate the discounted cash flow and determine how many customers must be converted from unsatisfied to satisfied customers to generate the US$40 million in incremental revenue needed to cover the investment. The calculation revealed that Starbucks would rapidly recover its investment in satisfaction.

So take a close look at your own customer satisfaction surveys. Are they just telling you how “happy” customers are at a particular time and place and based on a specific transaction? Or do they provide actionable data about customer value?

Do they let you know their standards for product and service performance? Do they let you know how customers hold you accountable? Do they provide data that lets you make financial investments in customers that will bring the greatest financial return?

What’s needed today – and unfortunately is missing among companies that depend on creativity to build their brand – is a correlation between marketing metrics and financial outcomes.

Don’t limit your bottom line with feel-good customer satisfaction surveys that just look at customer good will. Instead, measure the value of their satisfaction. The result will not only tell you the causes of their satisfaction or dissatisfaction, but, much more importantly, provide the hard financial data to determine what to do about it.

How to build a brand in Asia today

Building brands has evolved from the one dimensional, top down era where the company controlled the relationship and essentially managed that relationship using broadcasts across mass media such as TV, Out of Home, print and radio with messages and content created to tell you what the company wanted you to know into the bottom up, customer economy.

In the bottom up customer economy, brands and their success or failure are defined and determined by customers. Those customers will create content and messages and disseminate that content and those messages across multiple platforms and to communities who are interested in their opinions. Now, how you interact with consumers is on their terms.

This is not revolution, simply evolution in the branding space. Brands are to blame for this loss of control because they have consistently misled consumers or over promised and under delivered. Brands can no longer be built using one-size-fits-all messages broadcast across traditional media channels to anyone who will listen. Basically because no one is listening.

Sure, there is still a place for messages, campaigns, and so on but because there are so many sources of information, so much clutter, these messages don’t have the impact or influence they had 20 or 30 years ago. In the digital age you can spend as much as you want on traditional media and reach everyone in the country but if they are not listening they won’t buy your product or service.

If a brand wants to be successful it must learn to communicate with multiple segments, and messages must be targeted and must be dynamic, using content and channels that resonate with those segments. But brands must move away from the traditional demographic approach to researching those segments. After all, how many 15 – 24 communities are there on Facebook? And content must constantly be revised and updated with new content.

And organizations must ensure that they deliver on promises and that promise must deliver economic, experiential and emotional value to each of those multiple segments. In the consumer business, this is most often done, initially anyway, in the store. Because in the customer economy, no matter how much you spend, if your staff don’t know how to build rapport with your prospects then they may buy once but rarely will they become a loyal customer. And without loyal customers, you won’t have a brand.

So if you are looking to build a brand, forget about reach, awareness, positioning and brand equity and trying to be all things to all people and start thinking about delivering value to specific segments and building customer equity.

Self service can help brand profitability

The other day, one of our computers froze. This is a scary moment for most companies and it was even more scary for us as we use Apple computers and it was the first time this happened in 7 years. More worrying, this particular PC is running some expensive design software and auto-save was off!

We had two options call tech support and wait 24 – 36 hours for them to come in or check out the Apple support site and see of we could solve the problem ourselves. We chose the latter and 20 minutes later the PC was up and running.

Enabling prospects and customers to answer their own questions is nothing new, but few Asian brands use it effectively. Yet it can have a significant impact on profitability. Forrester found that the cost of a customer sales or support call cost as much as US$33. The same report found that even email support can cost as much as US$10 per response. Yet Web-based self help averages US$1.17 per incident. And this doesn’t take into account the impact on reputation due to lost productivity by the customer.

Customers benefit too. In our case, we work to tight deadlines, sometimes spending the whole weekend in the office. If this had happened on a Saturday night, with a Monday delivery deadline, we may have lost the account.

One word of caution though. Self-service is not an excuse for avoiding service.

3 words that can ruin your brand in Malaysia and Singapore

If you are in Malaysia or Singapore and you sell stuff to customers, there is one phrase that can ruin your brand.

“No stock Lah.” Is repeated time again by poorly trained and disinterested staff.

This seemingly innocuous phrase should be banned in your organization. While we’re at it, you should also ban the obligatory disinterested shrug of the shoulders that normally comes with the phrase.

For the uninitiated, the phrase is common in retail outlets the length and breadth of Malaysia and still, despite the alleged sophistication of the city state, in many of the malls up and down Orchard Road in Singapore.

This simple yet powerful phrase, used with annoying regularity in both discount stores and swank boutiques of luxury brands negates every penny your organization has spent on sales training, reputation development, customer service, customer relationship management and other operational excellence initiatives.

It renders worthless the massive investments you have made in licenses, real estate, interior design, stock, utilities and more.

It erases the hard work you have put into press releases, press conferences and other promotional efforts.

It undoes all the good of the advertising campaigns you have run for years in an attempt to get a consumer or two to give your brand a chance.

In a heartbeat, it ruins every single, expensive effort, financial and otherwise you have put into getting the consumer into your store.

In short, this seemingly innocuous phrase can ruin your brand.

A is for Advertising

This is a good place to start a compendium of branding terms because unfortunately, it is where many companies start their brand building. And that’s a shame, no tragedy because it is an expensive exercise in futility to try and build a brand using advertising alone.

Advertising can be traced back to around the late eighteenth century when the first print ads appeared in the USA. However, they were rarely much more than extensions of the editorial copy and newspapers were reluctant to allow ads that were bigger than a single column. Even magazines preferred to print all the advertisements at the back of the publication.

Mass advertising only really began in the second half of the nineteenth century when firms began to produce greater quantities of more and more products thanks to improved production techniques. Soon after manufacturing, other businesses such as department stores and mail order firms jumped on the bandwagon and by 1880 advertising in the US was estimated to be in the region of US$200 million. This grew to almost US$3 billion by 1920.

In the mass economy of the 1930s to the 1990s that coincided with the growth of mass circulation magazines, advertising companies proliferated. At the same time, companies wanting to stand out from the competition determined, quite rightly that the quickest way to grow was to raise the profile and awareness of the company’s product or service by informing or reaching as many people as possible in the shortest time.

The most common way to do this was via advertising, especially via TV advertising. The business of advertising is based on a model of repetition across mass media. OK, creativity is important, initially anyway, but once you get over the wow factor, the idea is to repeat the same message through as many channels as possible for as long as possible.

Budget played (and still does) a significant part in what sort of advertising an agency may recommend. It is important for you to know that from the advertising company point of view, the size of the available budget will determine two main points, 1) who works on the project (in terms of seniority and talent) and 2) what channels will be utilised. A larger budget generally results in TV advertising becoming part of the recommendations.

Other platforms include print advertisements, billboards, lamp post buntings, banners, taxi, bus and tube trains, coffee shop tables, flyers, leaflets and more. The introduction of the Internet has seen a proliferation of banner ads, tower ads, unicast ads, contextual ads, takeover ads, interstitial ads, floating ads, and other options to an already noisy, crowded and complicated marketplace. It is important to note that none of these initiatives are branding, they are all advertising and advertising is a tactical initiative not a strategic initiative, like branding.

In the mass economy and unfortunately still to this day, once a campaign has launched, probably to much fanfare, the client waits with anticipation to see the promised sales spike. Meanwhile the agency submitted any well executed commercials to one of the numerous creative shows that offer awards for creativity.

As mentioned earlier, repetition is important and with enough frequency, and perhaps a little vague targeting, this repetition was expected to encourage enough consumers to walk into a store or other outlet and choose or request the advertised product.

The model worked, to some degree fifty years ago but in today’s crowded marketplace, using advertising alone to build a brand is leaving too much to chance. It is simply too difficult to stand out from the crowd. Can you remember the last ‘great’ TV commercial or print ad that you saw? And even if you can, have you bought the product?

Quite often, the promised sales spike didn’t happen, unperturbed and with a straight face, the agency would ask the client for more money, arguing that it is the client’s fault as it should have made more money available in the first place for increased frequency. If you have gone this route, I suggest you bin the advertising agency and call a brand consultant.

Should you still use advertising? Absolutely because advertising will help your company project a vision of the relationship you can deliver to the customer. The ads also help you to educate customers about the value that you can offer them. Advertising must also communicate trust. Unfortunately this is forgotten by most advertisers, especially in South East Asia where outrageous claims made in advertising are rarely backed up in reality. In Malaysia for example, after years of being let down by claims made in advertising, only 14% of Malaysians now believe what companies tell them in their advertising.

But instead of seeking to increase awareness of your product or service with as many consumers as possible, ensure your advertising seeks to communicate with those consumers that are most likely to adopt your product or service.

Make your advertising relevant to those consumers you have targeted. Core messages must be related to those consumers interests, needs and/or desires. So rather than a one-size-fits-all approach in your communications, it is essential for messages to be about offering value to those specific customers and making their life better as a result. How to identify those consumers and what is relevant to them will be explored in brand audits and targetting.

The goal is to ensure a consumer incorporates an offering into their personal or business lives.

Adoption will ensure your brand is seen as the best, hey perhaps even the only choice. This won’t happen on its own. It is a process built on operational excellence, superb sales incorporating ‘top of game’ customer service and the ability to match offerings to the consumers individual requirements for value, on an ongoing basis. To build a brand retention is key and retention requires relationships and without relationships, adoption is not achievable.

And this is good news for Asian companies because the fact is Asian companies, and especially those from South East Asia, simply don’t have deep enough pockets to compete with international brands using outdated one-size-fits-all, mass economy tactics.

If a consumer cannot afford your brand, he won’t buy it

Brands are defined by the economic, emotional and experiential value they provide to a consumer. If you can’t match the attributes of your brand to those requirements for value, consumers won’t buy it. Cost is a critical element.

No matter how much you spend on expensive TV commercials that the agency says will reach the most consumers and create awareness of your product the quickest, if a consumer cannot afford your product, he won’t buy it.

It doesn’t matter how much you spend positioning your product in the mind of consumers. If those consumers can’t afford your product, they won’t buy it.

Even if you manage to completely differentiate your product from other products, if a consumer can’t afford your product, he won’t buy it.

Stop your product joining the 95% club

According to an Ernst & Young study, the failure rate of new U.S. consumer products is 95%. 95%! Imagine if Boeing or Airbus had a 5% success rate! Yet despite this appalling return, companies spend approximately US$1.5 trillion on marketing, and in particular advertising, annually!

A couple of years ago, (before the explosion of social media, Dominique Hanssens, a director at the Marketing Science Institute in the US and a professor at UCLA’s Anderson Graduate School of Management, reported that the average advertising elasticity for established products is .01. He went on to say that if one of those brands increased its advertising expenditure by 100%, it would see a sales increase of only 1%.

He used as an example Anheuser-Busch. If the firm doubled the US$445 million that it was spending at the time on TV, print, radio, outdoor, and Internet advertising, it would enjoy a 1% increase in net revenues from the then base of US$5.7 billion. Put another way, Anheuser-Busch would spend a total of US$890 million to make US$57 million.

We have to accept that mass economy models that made global brands out of such products as Coke, Budweiser, Marlboro, Sony and others are no longer relevant. And if firms continue to invest in outdated tactics that no longer work, their products will join the 95% club.

If they are to survive, brands today must address current branding imperatives. Current branding imperatives include building and maintaining relationships with customers and partners, internal communication, education, understanding and adaptation of corporate goals throughout the organisations.

Clearly defined organisational processes that are developed with the customer in mind and not shareholders or the organisation. These processes must be developed for both customer facing and non-customer facing departments, not independently but in tandem.

Communications, including advertising are important, but not the traditional one size fits all mass market approach. Communications must understand the requirements of prospects and customers and communicate with them using content that resonates with them via channels that are relevant to them.

Branding imperatives also require effective use of technology and, most important of all, ongoing feedback, measurement and improvement. These establish the foundations for identifying prospects and acquiring and retaining (key to brand success) profitable customers.

If John McEnroe were to play tennis against Roger Federer today, using the racquets he played with back in the day, he might win a few points but he is going to lose the match. It is the same for companies who fail to adapt to the branding imperatives of today.

If consultants recommend you emulate models used by such brands as Coke, Pepsi, Sony and other mass economy brands that were built when tennis racquets were made of wood, show them the door. Likewise, enormous budgets, integrated, synergistic, holistic, innovative, design or creative driven, energetic, positioning campaigns will not establish a brand.

Companies, and governments must understand that there is no quick way to build a brand. It is this obsession and belief that there is a silver bullet and it is called advertising that keeps the 95% club growing.

Tips for building a retail brand

In terms of service, Christmas shopping this year has been a roller coaster ride from the highs of the interactions in the luxury stores of Pavillion to the lows of the interactions in the wannabe Malaysian fashion store in Mid Valley.

And even though approximately 85% of the interactions have left me frustrated, I want to be positive during the festive season and so am offering free advice to those retailers in Malaysia who want to build a profitable brand.

1) Teach your staff to smile when a customer walks into your shop. It costs nothing and instantly makes the customer feel welcome.

2) If you are a clothes store, get your staff to wear your clothes. If you are not a clothes store, develop a company policy on dress and stick to it. It may also help if you are responsible for laundry, that way the clothes will get washed.

3) Make it a company policy that all customer facing staff must have a shower and brush their teeth EVERY day, before coming to work. This is especially important in restaurants.

4) Teach your staff to approach the customer and say ‘good morning/afternoon’ etc with a smile on their face.

5) Teach your staff to understand how to respond if another customer interrupts a transaction. Essentially, teach them how to say no.

6) If you are a luxury or high end store, make it a company policy not to allow staff to drink from plastic bags when customers are in the store. Actually, make it a company policy not to allow staff to drink from plastic anything, ever.

7) The same goes with food. I walked into one store as a member of the staff was eating at the counter. He was on his own so came to serve me. I walked out 9 seconds later with half his samosa on my lapel.

8) The opening line, “Can I help you?” Begs a negative response. Teach your staff to try something open ended, such as “Are you looking for shirts or trousers?”

9) Sales staff are not order takers. If a customer, despite all the attempts by your staff to prevent him from making a purchase, insists on buying something, teach your staff to show something that goes well with the purchase. You never know, you might actually sell something else.

10) Listen carefully, the statement, “NO STOCK LAH!” is being used by many staff to get the prospect out of the store so the staff member can go back to sending sms messages to his friends. Teach your staff to apologise profusely for the fact that they just sold the last piece 15 minutes ago. Teach them to then explain that they will be happy to call other branches to see if they have the relevant product/size/colour. If you don’t have other branches, then teach them to ask nicely for the prospect’s number and explain that your customer service representative will call the prospect as soon as the correct product/size/colour comes in.

11) If someone buys something they have gone from being a prospect to a customer. Remember all that money you spent on launch party/PR/mailshots/leaflets/brochures/billboards/print ads etc? Well, you did all that for this moment. It wasn’t to create awareness, it was to drive this person to your store. And now he’s bought something, what are you going to do? Well, most of you let him walk out the door! Are you nuts? You have a 5% – 15% chance of selling to a prospect and a 50% chance of selling to an existing customer. So what is the point of letting a new customer walk out the door? It’s criminal! I’m serious! Be nice to this person, flatter him, spoil him, kiss him, do whatever it takes to get his contact information because he is now a customer. He is familiar with your product, your store, your staff, despite their best efforts. Your job now is to get him back into the store, preferably tomorrow!

12) Not every white person is a tourist. And not every tourist is a white person, but that’s another story. Just because a customer looks like a tourist, doesn’t mean he is one. Moreover, if he is wearing a suit, he probably has a white collar job which means, in Asia that he is probably paid well. Even if he is visiting, he may be back or he may be lonely so ensure your staff engage him.

13) The needs of a Saudi are different to those of an Englishman. And the needs of an Englishman are different to those of a Korean. You get the point. Invest in some training that teaches your staff to be able to develop rapport with different nationalities.

14) Pay your staff a commission on sales. If you don’t where is the incentive to sell your products? Without a commission, all the staff are doing is increasing your energy bill and destroying your brand.

15) While we are on the subject of remuneration, I suggest you pay your staff more. Every sales person I spoke to complained about their salary. One was earning RM550 per month, with no commission. That is slavery. Sales staff are an investment, not a cost. They represent your brand and, with the correct training, can multiply your profits enormously. And good ones are worth paying for. And before you tell me about the lack of loyalty, please don’t bother. If you create a nice environment with good pay, your staff will stick with you.

If you implement the above into your corporate strategy (if you have one, and many of the stores I visited over the last week can’t even spell it) then I guarantee you will increase your sales and move toward a more profitable brand.

I’ve got about 100 more of these but I’ve got a plane to catch. Happy Christmas!

Retention is key. Low cost carriers must learn from the mistakes of legacy carriers

The legendary Peter Drucker said it best: “The purpose of business is not to make a sale but to make and keep a customer”. This is what branding is about. It’s not about aquisition, it’s about retention. And the airline industry, and in particular, Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) need to realise this soon otherwise they will find it tough to build brands that can compete, long term with the mighty legacy carriers with their frequent flyer programmes, multiple classes, business lounges, inflight entertainment and gourmet food (well some of them).

Most of the LCCs have a price based offering. Being small, they are nimble and more efficient than their lumbering competitors. These young, brash and determined airlines, often helmed by charismatic individuals with little industry experience have ripped up the industry manuals and replaced them with revolutionary business models that charge consumers for peanuts, coffee, noodles, seats, luggage and most recently in the case of Air Asia, a ‘convenience fee’.

According to an official response from the airline to an indignant passenger, this ‘convenience fee’ is “meant to recover costs in implementing, upgrading and maintaining our online payment systems. It is also to enhance security features for credit card payments to give guests a comfortable and safe booking environment.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this response, available here in full on malaysiakini.com came from one of those stuffy legacy carriers mentioned earlier. You’d be forgiven too for scoffing at the line, “give guests a comfortable booking environment”. How does charging me more make me more comfortable? You’d also be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the online payment system wasn’t good in the first place and wondering what the implications of that might be.

In the past most airlines, including Air Asia, would have absorbed these costs. I quote again, “However, now that AirAsia is experiencing a rapidly growing number of online transactions, these costs have significantly increased.”

The official response to the complaint goes on to say, “This convenience fee is charged on a per way per guest basis because the costs of these systems are driven by the value of the transaction rather than by the number of transactions. As costs vary per country, the convenience fee also varies.”

The whole process has been dealt with in a manner more suited to one of the aging behemoths than such a young, aggressive and savvy carrier. To me it says that because you, the customer have helped us grow so fast, we’d like to reward you by charging you to use our online booking service. Even though it is automated and therefore doesn’t require the ongoing investment in real estate and talent that a booking office requires, we’re going to make you, the customer pay for it.

The danger here is that Air Asia is making a common legacy carrier, or perhaps I can call it legacy branding, mistake. It is treating passengers as if they are insignificant seat fillers and it is assuming that all passengers are the same, don’t have options and will put up with being treated badly. Irrespective of whether it is the first or fifty first time the passenger is using the airline.

Surely, if a passenger is a long time user of the airline, there will be significant personal data available (and Air Asia offers customers the opportunity to submit a lot of personal, travel and other information) and multiple transactions with that customer mean that the liklihood of fraud is low, should that passenger be treated, and charged, the same as a new customer? And anyway, the burden of fraud is with the Credit Card company and not the carrier, which is why it is the Credit Card company that sometimes calls after you use the card to make a booking.

Unfortunately, because the prevaling attitude in most agencies (and companies) is that acquisition is key, the typical response is yes. And it would seem, based on this episode, that Air Asia agrees with this attitude.

However, FusionBrand has long argued that retention is key to brand building. Although LCC’s have thrown some traditional branding theories out the window with their price driven strategies, you cannot build a long term profitable brand, on acquisition alone. Indeed, a low price strategy that aims to ‘buy’ loyalty can often encourage only disloyalty. That’s because a price driven customer is always looking for a cheaper alternative. And, in the LCC space, will often find it.

This is substantiated in a survey carried out by Sabre Airline Solutions, which found that 86% of airlines believe that customer loyalty and retention will have the most positive impact on their business in 2010.

So my advice to Air Asia and other LCCs is that if you want to become a brand, you must start treating customers with more respect, understand that a low price alone will not build relationships, think carefully about how you communicate with your passengers and remember that the purpose of business is not to make a sale but to make and keep a customer.