Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
I'm amazingly concerned about how some executives see their companies.
You see, I've just watched a pulsating internal American Airlines video, posted by View From the Wing's Gary Leff.
In it, the airline's senior VP of network planning, Vasu Raja, tells employees:
You might think it's a terrible thing because we've put more seats on the tube. Actually, I'd argue that both for our customers and for our team and for the future of American Airlines, that's an amazing thing.
Could it be amazing because it brings everyone closer together, just as our world is falling apart?
I fear not. I fear the essence lies in American believing this is the best way to make more money.
There are two reasons why American says it makes money, in this era of relatively lowered fares (and elevated fees). Raja explained:
One, is that we have a much bigger network that enables us to collect more revenue. But just as big and arguably maybe even bigger than that are the number of seats that we have on the airplane.
American's Uncomfortable Logic.
Isn't there more to being a strong company than just being rigidly focused on revenue?
It's worth asking, given that American's financial performance has actually been relatively poor when compared to its rivals.
Yet watch this video and you get the impression that the company's ethos revolves around the revenue and almost not at all around human beings and their experience.
Any executive who has the gall to tell you that stuffing more seats on a plane is amazing may not have a grasp of what an amazing brand truly is.
If you haven't flown American lately, the airline inserted as many seats as it could into as many narrow-body planes as it could. It reduced the size of the bathrooms to a squirm-inducing squish, removed seatback screens, and even reduced the legroom in first class.
It was called, no really, Project Oasis.
American wasn't alone in doing something like this. But the extreme depths it plumbed merely helped it become the poster child for cold (dis)comfort. After all, one of its own pilots described the bathrooms as "the most miserable experience in the world."
In this video, Raja claims customers have lost nothing in legroom or comfort because the seats are thinner. I've flown in similar thin seats. They're a lot more like municipal bus seats.
Here, American insists customers may say they want more legroom, but they simply won't pay for it--because the airline tried offering it at the turn of the century and it didn't generate enough revenue.
It could be, though, that American's marketing of this new approach was terrible. Perhaps the airline didn't show the true value in a way that customers could embrace. The times, too, were different.
What Is American Airlines' Brand Purpose? Just Point A to Point B?
Steve Jobs's Apple showed how a strong brand is one that has a palpable purpose in a customer's life. Isn't that what American is truly lacking?
American CEO Doug Parker has made it clear that customer service is secondary. The airline's president, Robert Isom, once opined that American wouldn't make improvements to service unless they're immediately profitable.
If such thinking drives your whole purpose, then you're a brand that may live and die on price. Which is rarely a comfortable place to be, especially if you want loyal and premium customers.
If the only reason American exists is to make money by ferrying passengers on time, how are customers supposed to feel?
Equally importantly, how are employees supposed to feel? How are they supposed to be energized? Too often, American's employees appear to feel little. They seem merely to bear it all with less of a grin and more of a grim chagrin.
American has done little to change that. Last year, the airline freely admitted it has no brand purpose. Isn't that where the true issues lie? Not with what customers say they want, but with the airline's view of its purpose and its relationship with customers and employees.
A Brand Is What Customers Experience.
Competitors are realizing that, goodness, human feelings make an enormous difference.
Southwest has long maintained a strong emotional bond with both customers and employees.
United is clearly trying to create an atmosphere of trust with employees and customers and making it a core part of its purpose.
However, Delta has persistently created a reputation for thoughtful customer service. It consistently makes decisions in accordance with that reputation. It's even started wondering if there's an alternative to change fees. (Ask Southwest.)
Running an efficient airline is part of a greater brand purpose, embraced by both employees and customers. Delta CEO Ed Bastian wants the airline to be a trusted consumer brand. And he came from finance.
Delta's CMO Tim Mapes explained it succinctly:
A brand is what customers experience. For a services business like ours, that experience is defined by our 80,000 employees and their efforts to connect with our customers on a human level.
Oddly, the airline's finances have been doing quite well.
And here's the strange thing that ought to make American think hard about its brand purpose: Delta is increasingly the slightly more expensive option, yet customers choose to fly it.
Isn't that, well, amazing?