Delta Air Lines nosedives in its bid to be first rather than best
A view from Andy Nairn

Delta Air Lines nosedives in its bid to be first rather than best

The airline's poster promoting a link-up with Equinox gyms is typical of the vogue for gimmicks rather than robust thinking.

I’m ashamed to say that I succumbed to a bout of air rage recently.  

I wasn’t going anywhere but a poster for Delta Air Lines flew on to my radar, courtesy of Campaign. It was a crowded flight: on board the billboard were 11 words, four numbers, two letters, two brands, one destination and a specially created URL. These were arranged in the typographical equivalent of cattle class (four rows of capital letters, with no visual entertainment):

DELTA. EQUINOX. 
JUST LANDED ON FLIGHT DL9293?
SWEAT THE AMSTERDAM OUT.
BOOK A CLASS AT SWEATLAG.COM

In case you hadn’t guessed, the intention was to use real-time flight data to target passengers arriving at LAX and offer them an Equinox gym session. As such, it was proudly promoted as a world "first". Except it’s not. It’s a "latest". The latest example in that long tradition of marketers doing something because they can, rather than because they should. 

Now, I don’t want to be too critical about one campaign. It’s certainly not the worst piece of communication I’ve seen this year. The underlying partnership might well make sense (personally, I can’t think of anything I’d like to do less after a red-eye than go to the gym but I am a Sweaty Sock and this is LA). Moreover, the offer might be intrinsically difficult to communicate. But, in that case, why use a poster (rather than, say, a voucher on the flight)? Why no attempt to entertain (compare it with British Airways’ "Magic of flying", which was genuinely ground-breaking five years ago)? And how does any of this contribute to Delta’s over-arching strategy? If anything, making a detour to the gym feels somewhat at odds with their most recent brand advertising, which celebrates the idea of "chasing" new experiences and throwing yourself straight into new destinations.

No, what made me grumpy was not the fleeting glimpse of this one execution but the view from 35,000 feet: our industry’s widespread obsession with being "first" rather than "best", the vogue for gimmicks rather than robust thinking and, in particular, the use of data at the expense of strong communication, rather than in support of it. It’s a world where short-term tactics trump long-term thinking – and that worries me.

But what to do? Well, thankfully, just as my hopes for the industry were starting to nosedive, another aeronautical communication jetted into view. It was an email from a company called AirHelp. It’s a start-up, backed by US seed accelerator Y Combinator, and has a very interesting, data-driven business model. It uses passenger information from partners such as Expedia to contact travellers who may be due compensation for delayed, cancelled or over-booked flights. In the UK alone, passengers were eligible for about £383m of compensation last year but fewer than 2% made a claim because the rules are so poorly understood and the process so complex. AirHelp takes on the task for you, for a percentage of any proceeds, and uses an AI-powered "lawyer" called Herman to crunch through the repetitive claims process. Using machine learning, it gets 95% of assessments right. 

Of course, I know AirHelp isn’t an ad, so I’m not really comparing like with like. But for me, it’s a higher-order of commercial creativity that shows us the way forward: upstream, long term, powered by data but in pursuit of a human goal, using channels that are suited to the task. 

At the risk of pursuing my aviation metaphor until it crashes and burns, we need more turbo-powered ideas like this and fewer shiny toys.


Andy Nairn is a founding partner of Lucky Generals