Last Updated: December 3, 2020

Imagine stepping into a taxi cab and asking your driver to take you back home after a long flight. Instead of the usual grunt of acknowledgment, the cab driver turns around and promptly informs you that the bags you put in the trunk cost an extra $25, all thanks to “new company policy.”

You would mostly likely be outraged, incensed, and confused that a previously free of charge perk became so expensive – and added on top of the price of the ride too.

Airlines like JetBlue and Southwest understand your outrage. The previous scenario, explored in an advertisement by JetBlue, identifies with many travelers’ frustrations with how airlines seem to tack on more and more expensive fees to the flying experience. They tap into the hindrances and difficulties experienced by many travelers every day, telling you to relax and fly with an airline who won’t put you through that.

These branding strategies rely on an understanding of what consumers want in an airline, and why they choose a particular airline. Are they more interested in comfort at the cost of higher prices or would they rather pick a budget airline who brings a sense of quirkiness to the travel experience?

Concepts in consumer psychology help identify the reasons why consumers develop positive or negative feelings toward brands like airlines. By exploring concepts of customer satisfaction and brand loyalty, airlines better position themselves to rise above the competition.

The Psychology of Marketing Airlines

Brand and CommercialExplanation of AdvertisementDemographicsPsychological Response Elicited
American Airlines “We know why you fly”A delicious sundae from Ben and Jerry’s is shown, with a blurry background of an airplane. “We’re thinking of installing ‘loosen your seatbelt’ signs.”First class and business class travelers, men and women ages 25-65Desire for Decadence: American Airlines encourages you to indulge in the high class services they offer. They understand travel doesn’t need to be stressful, but can actually be nice.
Jetblue “Our Promise”An airtraffic controller is shown waving down a plane, as Jetblue promises to bring humanity back to air travel.Frequent flyers, men and women ages 25-65Reassurance: Air travel in recent years has become synonymous with annoyance and frustration. Jetblue assures customers that by flying on their airline, they will be treated like people again.
Southwest Airlines “Fees”A business man is shown boarding a plane, only to become frustrated by the increasing number of hidden fees he must pay.Business travelers, ages 25-45Humor: The sheer ridiculousness of the fees the man pays elicits humor in the viewer, making them question why other airlines charge so many fees. The viewer is then promised that at Southwest, “Fees don’t fly with is.”

A unique industry

Unlike organizations selling cars, alcohol, or food brands, airlines exist as part of the service industry. In the service industry, various companies compete to offer the best experience despite relatively similar end products.

For example, all people fly airplanes with one major goal in mind – to get somewhere. Whether you choose to fly Jetblue, Southwest, Delta, or American Airlines largely depends on how well those companies sell you on their travel experience.

According to “A Case Study on Classic Airlines: Practical Marketing Solutions,” published in The Journal of Business Studies Quarterly, there are four unique elements of services. Airlines must take these issues into account if they hope to edge out the competition.

These elements include:

  • Intangibility
    Services can’t be held, touched, or seen before the purchase decision. When you step onto an airplane, you expect certain qualities like comfort, a smooth flight, and prompt service from flight attendants. These qualities, while important to flyers, are typically impossible to gauge until after purchasing a plane ticket.
  • Inconsistency
    Pricing and promotion of services changes rapidly. The airline industry is constantly changing and adjusting to meet economic concerns and consumer demand. For example, plane tickets quickly rise in price as the date of departure nears, and some airlines adjust policies such as baggage fees without prior notice.
  • Inseparability
    The brand of the service provider and the service cannot be separated. Airlines are known primarily for the service they provide – flying. Airlines must distinguish the qualities of their service from each other to succeed.
  • Inventory
    Companies must manage the goods and products associated with their services. Airlines are responsible for managing the quality of their aircraft, the in-flight food they provide, and other amenities associated with a satisfying flying experience.

The study, conducted by researcher Milaly Tokhi, notes that to help customers assess and compare service providers, companies should try their best to market the service as tangible. This means marketing efforts that show the direct benefits of using that service – benefits that rest in a psychological understanding of what consumers really want.

For example, Delta airlines markets itself as valuing your time. The companies branding message notes that Delta “respects you and your time, and acknowledges the challenges of travel today.” Delta promises that by choosing their airline, you’ll arrive to your destination on time with little stress.

Conversely, American Airlines’ new marketing campaign focuses on the ease of traveling with their airplanes. Commercials promote the company’s in-flight wi-fi, allowing you to travel “without putting your life on pause.”

By marketing themselves as the best available service provider, airlines build up their brands in the minds of consumers. In order to retain these customers – and attract those disgruntled by the competition – airlines focus on increasing consumer loyalty through special promotions and enhancing a consumer’s sense of belonging.

You belong here – How airlines convince consumers to stick around

What if one particular airline captured your business for years, only to give you one bad experience recently. Maybe that could convince you to switch to a separate air carrier and give the competition a chance.

How consumers evaluate brands

In “Pricing and The Consumer” author Stowe Shoemaker explains the various dimensions important to consumers when evaluating various brands:

  • Core Service
  • Feelings
  • Service
  • Interpersonal Service
  • Publicity
  • Advertising
  • Word of Mouth

Source: Pricing and the Consumer – Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management

However, if you’ve built up thousands of frequent flyer mile points at your preferred airline, that might dissuade you from switching. Perhaps you’ve built up enough points to gain special status at that airline, giving you access to free flights, seat upgrades, and VIP waiting areas.

Airlines frequently participate in loyalty marketing – a marketing technique that seeks to enhance a consumer’s sense of status and social belonging. These psychological concepts are powerful tools for airlines constantly wrestling with travel issues beyond their control, such as airport security and unfortunate weather patterns.

According to “A Review of the Theoretical Underpinnings of Loyalty Programs,” by Conor M. Henderson, humans are drawn to status-based systems, and are charmed and intrigued by opportunities that elevate their status in those systems.

The article, published in The Journal of Consumer Psychology, notes that airline loyalty programs enhance the sense of well-being and self-esteem in customers. They feel wanted and needed by that particular airline, and are rewarded with personal benefits that enhance their sense of reputation.

Henderson notes that reward programs like frequent flyer miles actually create anticipation in the consumer for future trips, and encourage consumers to increase the number of accumulated miles. As miles increase, loyalty and motivation to use that particular airline also increases.

What do consumers want in an airline?

In “An Empirical Analysis of Customer Satisfaction in International Air Travel,” by Michael D. Clemes and others, important aspects of travel are analyzed. Published in Innovative Marketing, the study lists some of the following qualities that consumers consider when rating airlines**:

  • Timeliness
    Delays have a lasting negative impact for passengers.
  • Assurance
    A management committed to customer service and satisfaction.
  • Convenience
    Convenient check-ins, departure and arrival times, and ticket reservations.
  • Helpfulness
    An airline staff willing to meet requests and customer needs in a constructive manner.
  • Comfort
    Having enough knee and leg room.
  • Meals
    Satisfactory and free in-flight meals
  • Safety and Security
    Some people view boarding a plane as a life or death situation. Employees should emphasize the safety features of their airlines.

**Source: An Empirical Analysis of Customer Satisfaction in International Air Travel. Innovative Marketing

Outside of loyalty programs, airlines are working in other ways to enhance sense of belonging. For example, Southwest positions itself as a budget airline, but tries to provide exemplary customer service to make consumers feel wanted.

The article “Positioning Southwest Airlines Through Employee Branding,” by Sandra J. Miles identifies Southwest as one of the most unique and successful airline brands thanks to how their employees act toward consumers.

Published by Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, the article notes that by effectively positioning themselves in the minds of consumers, Southwest is synonymous with reliable and friendly staff.

Southwest conducted consumer research and discovered that ease of travel and customer service were two top qualities that consumers wanted in an airline. By training their staff to better cater to consumer needs, their customers in turn feel more wanted and valued by the airline, elevating their sense of confidence and self-esteem.

Customers who receive satisfactory customer service are more psychologically motivated to remain loyal to that service. With increased customer loyalty also comes free word of mouth advertising, positive customer reviews, and other non-traditional marketing benefits.

Psychology and Marketing

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For airlines, retaining customers, increasing loyalty, and engaging in positive word of mouth advertising are the keys to future success. In fact, according to surveys conducted by Forrester Research, only 16% of travelers are influenced by advertising campaigns undertaken by the airlines themselves, reaffirming the importance of these factors.

This means continuing to consider the psychological underpinnings of consumer outreach efforts. Consumers have a psychological need for belonging and wellbeing – aspects that airlines must recognize to survive in a still tumultuous economy.

If you’re interested in learning more about the intersection of psychology and marketing, read more about consumer psychology.