Earlier this year, Alaska Airlines announced that they would retire the brand and logo of Virgin America by 2019. The news prompted a vehement response from the airline’s many loyal fans — and for good reason. In many ways, the airline had come to represent a step change, providing passengers with a positive and distinctive experience.
Virgin America offers its customers the much-loved Elevate frequent flyer program. But beyond that, the airline's famous purple mood-lighting, super-friendly staff, and on-demand food and entertainment — all underpinned by fares that don’t break the bank — have created a whole package has naturally created brand loyalists.
As Alaska's news was announced, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson penned a blog post for the Virgin team and its customers, recounting the ingredients that had made the airline so successful since its founding.
“You proved it is possible to run a business with a strategy that does not rely on low fares and a dominant position alone,” he wrote to Virgin team members. “You attracted premium flyers with a fun and beautiful guest experience. You created the world’s most loved safety video. You proved that it is possible to create a business with a terrific culture and a brand that people love.”
And chief among the strengths of Virgin America, he said, was the commitment to providing enduring and reliable value to the customer.
Virgin America didn’t just add a few bells and whistles to the conventional in-flight experience. They challenged ingrained assumptions about what an airline should mean for its passengers. It helped customers imagine something better — and then delivered on that vision.
In short, the airline succeeded in winning hearts and minds, proving there’s miles more to loyalty marketing than points.
The Customer Challenge to Brands
Despite its impending sunset, we can learn a lot from Virgin America. Today, customers have greater autonomy, more choice, and higher expectations than ever before. According to a 2017 Salesforce report, 72 percent of consumers and 89 percent of business buyers expect companies to understand their unique needs and expectations; 66 percent are inclined to switch brands if they feel treated like a number, not an individual.
In short, today’s customers demand personal respect as standard.
As expectations heighten, marketers’ questions multiply. How can they help customers decide between the products or services they’ll try once and the ones they’ll revisit year after year? How can a brand's status be transformed from a nice-to-have to a must-have? How can customers distinguish an unforgettable brand from merely a recognised one?
Richard Branson said it well in his Virgin farewell post: “Businesses come and go, but beloved brands make lasting impressions and remain in your heart.”
In its broadest definition, loyalty marketing answers those challenges. The conscious decision by marketers to create a valued, valuable, and consistent experience; to reward returning customers in any number of inspiring and relevant ways; and to recognise them as individuals with courtesy and respect — these are fundamental principles of advanced loyalty thinking.
Arguably, the surest path to sustained business growth and profitability is through strengthening mutually beneficial and highly personal relationships — rather than devising marginal product variants or chasing elusive new customer segments.
At ICF Olson, we contend that loyalty marketing is much more than points on a card, effective though it may be. Intelligent loyalty marketing is a holistic business strategy, an investment in sustained customer affiliation and advocacy.
We believe it’s a superior way of doing business — not just a ploy to keep customers on the hook.
A Vote of Confidence in the Future
Today, we are thrilled to announce our latest step in supporting clients as they navigate these changing tides. We're acquiring The Future Customer, a London-based loyalty strategy and marketing company that works across the retail, media, mobile, energy, and health industries. The Future Customer team will operate as part of ICF Olson, our award-winning agency group that offers a broad range of advanced communications, marketing, and customer engagement services.
The Future Customer team includes the creators of the Tesco Clubcard, the UK’s most successful retail loyalty program, which propelled Tesco to dominance in the British supermarket sector. We couldn’t be more excited to work alongside top strategic thinkers and architects in loyalty. They have a proven track record in delivering transformative and measurable outcomes for their customers: increased revenue, improved net promoter score, higher retention, increased engagement and enhanced brand affiliation.
Pairing The Future Customer’s advisory capabilities, design, and experience-centric thinking with our industry-leading creative communications and implementation services will provide a complementary dimension to our end-to-end loyalty offering. It is a vote of confidence in our mission to redefine customer loyalty for the future, creating measurable impacts for our clients’ business success.