I have recently returned from an excellent short break to Gibraltar, marred only by a return flight delayed by 6 hours. On return home, and that same morning, I was surprised to receive an email from Monarch Airlines apologising for the delay. Airlines don’t do that, do they? I contrasted this with the experience at Gibraltar airport and Malaga airport (where we had to be driven to catch our plane home), where the lack of information and total absence of Monarch staff whilst we waited was damning.
So is this discrepancy in customer service evidence of a disconnect between the brand promise and its delivery? I thought an investigation into Brand Monarch would be an interesting exercise, a kind of marketing scrutiny of Monarch Airlines.
Background: Monarch was started in 1967 as a charter airline serving, chiefly, its sister company Cosmos Holidays, but in 1985 began scheduled services to serve the independent traveller initially for the British ex-pat market in Spain and the Canaries but this has expanded over time – for example, Sharm-el Sheik was added in 2011. It serves 5 airports in the UK – as well as Manchester, Luton and Gatwick, it opened operations at East Midlands airport in 2012, the latter as a result of the BMIbaby’s merger with BA which freed up new routes, and is opening at Leeds/Bradford in Spring 2013. The airline flies to a wide variety of destinations, including places as far away as the Maldives, Africa and the Caribbean.
Finance & Strategy: In September 2011, Monarch revealed its strategy when it cancelled its order for 6 Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, explaining that it intended to focus on scheduled services and short-haul routes rather than long-haul – for which the 787 is suited. It is expanding of course as it opens up in East Midlands and Leeds/Bradford and this expansion includes the new service of scheduled ski flights to Europe in 2012/13. But it is clearly finding the air transport environment highly competitive, with an operating loss of £45m in the year to October 2011. In November 2011 it received a £75m injection from its private owners to boost its balance sheet and help launch 14 new routes (mainly from Leeds/Bradford) and add narrow-body jets to the fleet, which is now around 30 aircraft. The FT article is revealing – it reports the CEO “wants passengers to regard the brand as a step above its low-cost rivals but as a cheaper alternative to full-service carriers”. In the article, Douglas McNeill, an airline analyst with Charles Stanley, questions whether this niche actually exists. Clearly the pressure is on Monarch, with Ryanair posting healthy results for the first half of 2012 with a £477m profit, up 10%.
The Brand: Whilst the Monarch brand clearly plays on its heritage – it proudly states on its website that many of its competitors from 1967 no longer exist – like other airlines it too has had brand changes over the years. More recently, in 2008 it changed the name of its website from flymonarch.com to monarch.co.uk, perhaps deciding that this kind of call-to-action url no longer worked for it (although some competitors such as flybe.com still retain it). It also changed its advertising slogan to The Low Fare Airline That Cares. This cheesy and rather tacky strapline didn’t last because in June 2011, the airline announced that it was re-launching its brand which included a new strapline of Fly your way. Every day.I find this rather baffling since I don’t want to fly every day, but the ‘fly your way’ was intended to get across the message that customers could tailor their flights to their own preferences such as booking allocated seats, choosing in-flight meals and paying for extra-leg room. Accompanied by a new livery for its fleet of planes, the intention was to create greater stand-out in this highly competitive industry. This attempt at gaining a competitive advantage might well have had an initial positive impact, however it is rare that these first-mover advantages last since competitors invariably copy the innovator.
Recently, the brand has been damaged by a number of stories in the media. During the Summer of 2012, a range of mishaps occurred, including passengers hearing a ‘mayday’ call as the cabin de-pressurised mid-air on a flight to Palma, a plane breaking down in Tenerife stranding passengers, and a plane skidding off the runway at Birmingham airport. These stories reached a head in September when it became public that Monarch had been ‘wet-leasing’ planes, a practice common in the airline industry and which involves sub-contracting other-branded planes and crew. Presumably Monarch did this because it did not have immediate capacity to service routes with its own planes and crew. Either way, it backfired spectacularly when it was revealed that some aircraft, from airlines such as Small Planet Airways (Norway), Air Italy, Aurelia Airlines (Lithuanian), and Air Explore (Slovakian) were over 25 years old, in poor condition, and dirty. These older planes and non-Monarch crews were clearly the cause of the ‘mishaps’. The damage to the brand must have been considerable.
Whilst it could be pleaded that ‘wet-leasing’ incidents were much out of control of Monarch (but not its responsibility), there has been the odd unwelcome story in the media this year that has been self-inflicted, such as ‘Monarch hits flyers with credit card fee hike’, and ‘Airline cabin crew told cold passenger they could not give her a blanket because of health and safety reasons… but they would sell one for £5’. This is the kind of publicity that only Ryanair would relish, but very damaging for other airlines.
Advertising: In terms of advertising, the airline seems to have used posters and press as its preferred media, and at times these ads have even used sexual double entendres which doesn’t seem ‘on brand’. The account was put up for review in January 2011, resulting in the re-launch described above, but it was in July 2012 that a major change occurred when the airline aired its first TV ad for 45 years. The ad, by Iris Worldwide, has rings of ‘Little Britain’ to it and has a clear call to action to go on holiday. But as a creative piece of work it doesn’t really stand out and I wonder how many extra bookings they got as a result?
What is more interesting is a recent professionally-made quasi-soap opera that has just gone live on Monarch’s YouTube channel. Winter Blues has a ‘Neighbours’ feel about it and the first episode, entitled ‘Cold Flan’, features a doctor’s surgery where a ‘Dr Day’ and ‘Dr Rain’ battle for supremacy over treatment methods. Of course ‘Dr Day’ wins because he prescribes holidays to get rid of winter blues (although why not ‘Dr Sun’ instead of ‘Dr Day’?).
It must have cost a lot of money, not least because it uses professional actors including Tristan Gemmill, the star of BBC’s Casualty. I really like it and as a light-hearted bit of fun I think it works at getting the ‘go on holiday’ message across. To date over 38,000 views have occurred in the 7 days since posting on 1 November which is impressive, and there is clearly an intention to produce more ‘episodes’ if it is judged a success. This kind of clever marketing is, I am sure, the way forward for an airline brand such as Monarch. It won’t get stand out on TV unless a campaign has a creative breakthrough (such as the meerkats of Comparethemarket) – this is very hard, even pot luck – and I doubt they could afford the number of spots required anyway. Monarch is probably already planning on making more use of online marketing using social media and viral marketing as much as possible, although press and poster activity should be retained.
Website and Digital activity: As for any airline, the website is at the centre of Monarch’s marketing. It’s a good-looking site with nice colourways and if you click on one button in the nav bar (Insurance) the masthead colour also changes, a nice touch but a pity this isn’t done for other buttons for consistency and added dynamism. There are some minor functionality issues – for instance, when you sign up for the newsletter you have to set up a password (unusual and inconvenient) and when you log in to manage your flight, if you click to go back to the main page you get logged out.
The site search function is also poor, not picking up content when it is there – a common oversight with many sites. For instance is you search for ‘Winter Blues’ there are no search results! Interestingly, Monarch has also got a separate iPhone-optimised website but this isn’t obvious on their main site and I only discovered this when browsing the Blog (October 2012). This is something to shout out about, not only because Monarch’s iPhone customer base has grown by 150% and makes up the majority of its mobile traffic, but because it presents Monarch as forward-thinking and up-to-date.
The site offers a multitude of expected services such as car hire (with Avis only, which in many ways is a smart move – some companies take the user to a brokerage of unfamiliar car hire companies), transfers, hotels, car parking and travel money. It also offers added-value in the form of useful content such as copious information on every destination, including useful videos of hotels and locations. Clearly some care has been taken here although the Reviews are not authenticated and are too short and have been pasted in from somewhere. The link to the TripAdvisor doesn’t work either. The Blog is covered below in Social Media but overall this is a good site that promises and delivers to the customer.
As with many brands, there is a constant effort to improve SEO and reduce the need to use pay-per-click ads – over 40% of traffic to the site comes from search engines. But paid online advertising remains a vital part of the mix.
Social Media: Monarch seems to be at the ‘Talking’ phase of social media strategies, using Facebook and Twitter to engage with consumers but with a vague presence on Google+ and Pinterest, whilst using a YouTube channel as portal for its video content.
Being a low-budget airline, it is not surprising that a lot of the topics dealt with by the social media team at Monarch are complaints, mainly about delays. The complaints are handled as well as might be expected but one wonders whether the sincerity, whilst genuine, is misplaced. Promising to pass on a complaint to Avis about insurance not being included in the car hire price is one thing, but being able to take action to solve the customer’s dilemma is another. It seems fairly obvious that the social media team has little leverage whether with Avis, the airports that cause the delays, the wet-leased aircraft that break down, the fact that cabin crew charge £5 for a blanket, or indeed Monarch’s own customer relations department.
Of course, Monarch uses Facebook and Twitter as a means of pushing out content e.g. competitions and encouraging a two-way dialogue, but Twitter and Facebook are probably seen as a double-edged sword internally – a means to engage positively with the customer but also a place where the customer can publicly – and inconveniently – voice his or her dissatisfaction with an aspect of the service. And there are of course other sites such as Skytrax where customers complain about airlines and where Monarch cannot respond or moderate criticism. I would suggest that the conditions are not yet right for Monarch to go out there and find advocates in social media.
The Blog is another social media channel which seems to be added to on a weekly basis by Monarch. Whilst some content is just news, other content such as discussing après ski activities or Halloween is perfect for this medium and is another useful tool for engaging the customer and assisting in SEO.
In Conclusion: This analysis of Monarch Airlines arose out of my flight delay, not the fault of Monarch, when returning from a break in Gibraltar. Investigating the airline and examining its corporate and marketing strategy has been a fascinating exercise. The airline was making a loss a year ago but is expanding its hubs and routes aggressively in a bid to capture market share and it is concentrating on short-haul routes, which are more profitable.
There is no reason to question its corporate objectives, but its strategy for doing this partly via wet-leasing has rebounded on the airline and the brand has suffered a lot of recent, negative publicity. Is it guilty of hiring ‘cheap’ airframes and crew in order to meet its expansion targets, and is the ‘trade-off’ – brand damage – worth it? Could hiring British planes and crews have been a better solution? My own view is based on Ryanair’s experience – people hate the airline but continue to use it because it provides a service they need. I have no doubt the same applies to Monarch and this damage can be repaired but does it want to be hated like Ryanair does? I think not.
However, I suggest that where Monarch might be in difficulty is in its positioning in the market. Promoting itself as a cut above low cost rivals is one thing – it can be done with superior customer service and added value (although it is questionable whether this is happening at present). But if it is going to be a cheaper alternative to full-service carriers like BA then it has to be almost as good as them in terms of punctuality, reliability and service – and currently it is patently not.
There is therefore a disconnect between Monarch’s customer promise, and what it actually delivers. With hindsight it is a good thing that it changed its strapline from The Low Fare Airline That Cares. Whereas we all understand that ground services are contracted out these days by many airlines, the lack of human presence of any Monarch representative at Gibraltar airport during my delay is a good example of this. So too are the well-meaning replies and promises of action to complaints on Facebook and Twitter which one can almost guarantee will seldom be resolved to the customers’ satisfaction when referred up the line.
So as well as addressing the above disconnect, my advice to Monarch would be to seek to provide added-value wherever possible. It can be inexpensive, such as plain, good customer service – and it makes good business sense too. Sometimes it requires additional investment, such as the iPhone website, but it will help give a competitive advantage. Finally, I’d urge Monarch to innovate. I think the Winter Blues soap opera viral video is a great example of this in the area of marcoms, but much more is required, and in other areas.
Many companies are embracing open innovation as a means of generating ground-breaking ideas, and perhaps Monarch could do the same. It would not be wrong to say that innovation will be crucial to its long-term survival. As an immediate action however, I would recommend the airline begins crowd-sourcing ideas from its customers using social media. Now there’s an idea.
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As well as administering New River Marketing, Richard Fullerton is also a Business Partner for MCS, an independent marketing services agency. This article has also been published at Marketing:Blogged.