There’s A Challenger Brand Breeze Blowing

April 12, 2022 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Of all the business sectors where you’ll find challenger brands (and that’s all of them), few are more fascinating or more populated with underdogs than the airline industry. Prior to the deregulation of the airline industry in 1978, only “10 major groups controlled 90 percent of the market with eight smaller, regional firms operating the majority of the other services.” Since that time, hundreds of airlines have been started, including more than 90 just last year. But where there’s growth, there’s also retraction. Growing up, we saw major carriers like PanAm, Braniff, TWA, and Eastern go out of business. Thanks in large part to COVID, in 2020 alone, more than 40 airlines went out of business or suspended operation.

Competing in the airline industry is not for the faint of heart. As Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, once quipped, “if you want to be a millionaire, start with a billion dollars and launch a new airline.” Aviation has clearly had some spectacular failures. But there have also been some outright Master Classes in how to succeed as a challenger brand.

Three routes and a pack of peanuts.

Regardless of category, Southwest Airlines is without a doubt one of our favorite challenger brands of all time. There have whole books written on the history of Southwest and legendary founder Herb Kelleher who famously drew out Southwest’s “Texas Triangle” business plan on the back of a cocktail napkin. But what makes the airline a challenger brand stalwart is that in the 55 years since its founding, the brand has never ceased operating like an underdog.

Southwest started out to be the best, most efficient airline in Texas (much to the chagrin of other 1970s carriers flying in Texas who took Southwest to the Texas Supreme Court to keep them from flying). In the six decades since, they have never lost their focus on being the best at taking care of their passengers and their people.

When others zig, Southwest zags. Cheap fares. No bag fees or assigned seats. Advertising you actually look forward to seeing. Even their pre-flight announcements are entertaining.

When you look at why Southwest has been successful, what can’t be underestimated is the brand’s focus on company culture, their commitment to integrating that culture into every facet of the company and curating it through good times and bad.

When underdogs are facing category leaders, there’s a lot they can’t control. But the brand culture they build is the one thing that’s completely in their hands. Southwest has always understood that and now there’s another airline gaining traction by adopting the same mindset.

A strong breeze in aviation.

Blame it on the pandemic, but over the past 36 months, airline travel has lost nearly everything that made it enjoyable in the first place – most especially the civility of passengers. In the midst of thousands of canceled flights, late arrivals, untold change fees and having to wear masks for hours on end, airline passengers have gotten downright surly, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Since January 2021, more than 6,500 incidents with unruly passengers have been reported to the FAA with more than 80 being referred to the FBI for possible criminal prosecution.

Enter Breeze – “the Seriously Nice Airline.”

Against the backdrop of massive passenger angst about air travel, Breeze is trying to make air travel enjoyable again. Said Angela Vargo, Breeze’s VP of Marketing in Adweek, “We like to say we are nice people flying nice people to nice places. That’s very deliberate wording, because our people are nice, and we expect our guests to be nice, and we will take you to nice places, and the world would be a much nicer place.” That’s a lot of nice. But you get her point.

Admittedly, there’s no shortage of airline challenger brands like Allegiant, Spirit, Frontier, and others fighting it out for market share. But there seems to be something different about Breeze. Founded by David Neeleman, the creator of JetBlue and WestJet – two other noteworthy challenger brands, Breeze seems to have taken the Southwest model to heart and is building a culture and passenger experience that’s the antithesis of the ugly, frustrating, inconvenient, expensive experience most other carriers seem to be offering.

A breath of fresh air.

While major airlines were cutting countless flights over the past year, Breeze added thousands of new flights. And while the norm during the pandemic has been to increase fares and fees for flight changes and cancellations, Breeze has countered with low fares (many under $100), passenger flexibility and free changes or cancellation up to 15 minutes before the flight. There really only seems to be one rub. Breeze doesn’t utilize a phone system. To communicate with the airline, passengers have to contact customer reps via email, text, or Facebook Messenger. Breeze says that allows its customer service team to handle multiple issues at once without ever having to put anyone on hold. Does that frustrate certain people? Sure. But here’s why it’s also the perfect challenger brand orientation.

Successful challenger brands understand they are not for everyone. They know who they are for, and even more importantly, who they are NOT for.

Breeze knows they’ll never get 100 percent of the markets they serve, and they don’t need to. According to Lukas Johnson, Breeze’s Chief Commercial Officer, “95 percent of the airline’s routes have no nonstop competition.” By creating a foundational culture of kindness, helpfulness, and respect in a smaller footprint now, like Southwest, Breeze can use that foundation to build on in the future. Challenger brands strive to be the best at something and, in their limited market, Breeze can be.

Presently, Breeze flies more than 40 routes to 18 U.S. destinations including Charleston, South Carolina, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Norfolk, Tampa, West Palm Beach and Akron/Canton, Ohio. Those collective metro areas represent more than 15 million potential passengers.

An airline could carve out quite a business being a nice alternative.

MIKE SULLIVAN is president and CEO at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top Dallas advertising agency for digital, social, mobile and user experience. For more about challenger branding, advertising, and marketing, leadership, culture, and other inspirations that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on all of our posts.

For more about LOOMIS, or to discuss how we can help your company succeed, CLICK HERE

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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