There is no room for schadenfreude in airline marketing, given that the keyword in this industry is volatility. Any ridiculing of competitor misfortunes may just mean instant karma at the next turn of day. That’s why Lufthansa Group's vice president of marketing, Alexander Schlaubitz (above), tries to stay away from talking about the recent United Airlines fiasco, because "these things happen".
"Actually, United is not a mean organisation and not a bad brand. Out of the millions and millions of touch points that occur any given day, this was one that went horribly wrong," he says. "And no system, I think, is immune to that." United’s brand narrative of "flying the friendly skies" is still true for 99.99% of its customers, he feels.
When things get unfriendly though, both the protagonist and its competitors need to take deep breaths, he advises, so the protagonist can take the right actions to "recalibrate" from within, and its competitors can avoid being "too jumpy" with online trolling.
Schlaubitz saw sense after the extended Lufthansa pilot strikes in 2016 that grounded more than half a million flyers. "We’ve let our customers down, and we’ve disappointed and angered them to a large extent. Let’s be very respectful of their feelings; let’s not deviate from the overall storyline of us being empathic," he told his team then.
Empathy in that particular context, he explains, means not doing too much marketing while customers are still angry. The reverse is true for competitors in trouble: not doing too much trolling while customers are still angry.
Schlaubitz’s overall approach to airline marketing is an emotive one: it's about preventing customers getting angry by giving employees as much empowerment as possible. His approach has a good dose of intellectual rigour, characteristic of German culture, so it may be more apt to call it his philosophy.
"Being a German brand, we feel like we’ve come out of the Enlightenment movement that was predominantly out of Germany, France and the Netherlands. And so we believe in empowering human beings so they can make the most mature and sophisticated type of decisions on their own, without necessarily dictating to them," he says. The caveat? "Hopefully they adhere to the same set of values as we have and will act accordingly."
Against a current backdrop of a proposed German surveillance law, criticised to be infringing on civil liberties, Schlaubitz says it’s improbable to monitor airline staff every day. "We cannot write down instruction manuals that go down to the level of granularity where they would be able to comprehend every imaginable situation that may come their way. There is an enormous amount of situations that can occur."
Instead, Lufthansa is trying to instill empathy – a term Schlaubitz emphasised over the course of our interview – in its staff. Surely, empathic staff will empower themselves to behave.
"Make sure you are always conscious of what the traveller’s mood might be," he instructs. "Travel can be stressful. People who are stepping onto a flight may have just come out of a business meeting. They’re running to the gate to catch the flight, they’re doing all sorts of stuff."
But empathy is not something you can put up as an abstract mission statement on a laminated piece of paper on the wall. In his capacity as vice-president of marketing, Schlaubitz tries to understand individual Lufthansa customers by sometimes making house visits when he goes to Shanghai, for example. Conveniently, they happen to be personal friends of Helen Lo, head of strategic planning of Lufthansa’s Asia-Pacific lead agency WE Marketing Group. It's a classic case of ethnographic research within one’s immediate circle.
"I’m trying to observe people as much as possible in their natural environment and really understand what motivates them and what drives them," he says. "Because that’s when I become relevant. I can only become relevant if I embed myself into their lives."
Speaking about natural environments, to a frequent flyer the airport is like a bee and its hive. Schlaubitz’s team has done batteries of interviews at airports, even on airplanes, using a research methodology called morphological analysis. One of his favourite insights emerging from the research was what he describes as "delightful immobilisation".
What does that mean? "It’s the moment when you sit down in the airplane and fasten your seatbelt, and all of a sudden you’re like, okay, I’m not going to be able to move around the way that I’m used to for whatever the length of the flight is," he explains. "And at first it is very disconcerting and uncomfortable, but at some point you come to a realisation that you don’t have to run somewhere for the next two hours, you don’t have to answer every email that you usually do, your thoughts don’t have to last more than the two-and-a-half split seconds that they usually last."
Aha! That’s when it becomes delightful.
That insight was instrumental in reconceiving Lufthansa’s three in-flight magazines. "We actually took a hard look at the kind of stories we want to tell [in the magazines] and we ended up telling much more immersive stories with longer text now," he says. "In the past we felt people were just rushing through the magazines. Now we are giving them more time to read and providing more content: both snack-sized and deeper items."
Anecdotes from Schlaubitz’s own travels are also marketing lessons, as different airlines accentuate different aspects of excellence, he points out. "On fantastic airlines, I kept taking notes. What is it they do that we can have another look at? What are the types of service we haven’t thought about in the same way? What is impressive and what should we emulate? And we play those back to our product teams."
HIS PROFESSIONAL CV
Vice President, Marketing, Lufthansa Group
Director, Marketing - EMEA, Facebook
Director, Marketing – EMEA, Intel Corporation
Managing Director, Change Communications (Lowe Germany)
Managing Director, Leo Burnett Prague
Management Director, DDB San Francisco
Asian airlines often have a higher crew-to-passenger ratio than European brands, he highlights. In addition, every time their aircrew pushes the cart through business or first class, they address passengers by name – every single time, he notices. Lufthansa’s routine has been to greet passengers by name only the first time and then go through the usual service routine. "I thought that was interesting. It’s not necessarily like, oh my god, it’s so much better but more like a stimulus for ourselves."
The questions Schlaubitz pose in team meetings after sharing a travelogue like that range from: What’s the benefit of doing it one way or another? Does addressing passengers by name every time become too much? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it compatible to Lufthansa’s service culture?
The level of detail Schlaubitz goes to illustrate a point he makes is refreshing, something he attributes to intellectual vigor and discipline once again.
"We are in a resource-constrained environment; we need to apply a ton of vigor to ask the right questions, make the right evaluations, and then take the right actions." Speaking to Schlaubitz, one can be convinced that marketing should lean more towards science than art. "We experiment all the time. We put forward this hypothesis, and if this hasn’t worked, let’s never ever do this again." This is how marketers can attain a higher level of knowledge quickly, and only then can they shift to a different kind of playing field, he asserts. "To me, applying the vigour in finding the right questions to ask is what I think what marketers need to be doing."
A version of this article was first published by Campaign Asia-Pacific