Rules-based branding: Spirit Airlines vs. the Spirit of the Brand.

7 05 2012

I am an avid reader of IBD Monday editions and have been doing so for more than 20 years. One of the sections I enjoy is called Managing for Success. In the May 7 IBD, there was an article called “Spirit Airlines Gets a Lift from Edgy Ad Campaigns.”

In that article, the author recounts a story where the CMO for the airline endured negative press because a cancer-stricken veteran bought a non-refundable ticket and then requested a refund because he found out his cancer has become terminal. And his doctor said he could not fly. The airline refused to give a refund! According to the article, the CMO stated “if you think it’s deplorable, and you think we should have given his money back, then you’re probably not the right customer for us.” Further, he said that if you play by the rules and don’t want to pay for others who don’t play by the rules, you are the right customer for us. Certainly, the CMO and the airlines can brand the company in this way. Their brand is one of innovation and value- based. But to me, their “rules based” branding did not support their overarching brand and is a direct affront to my sensibilities.

The incident took me back to my tenure as head marketing officer for US Cellular where I faced a similar incident. An older gentleman in his 80s called our customer service line and requested a refund for a newly purchased phone bought by his wife. The phone, in an unopened box, was to be returned because right after the phone was bought, this gentleman’s wife found out her cancer was terminal and they needed to conserve cash and focus on the last days of her life. The call came to me as the last resort- our customer service group denied the request- and I found out that we would not grant a refund because our rules were clear about purchases and returns. Yet, out brand was based on a concept of customer intimacy and our tag line was “the way people talk around here.” I felt a) it was the right thing to give the gentleman a refund- the phone, after all, was unopened and not used and b) that action would support our brand.  Regardless of the rules, the brand to me trumps the rules and it is my (our) guiding light). The incident at US Cellular also served as an example to many of the right actions that could be taken while still preserving the intent of the rules.

When I wrote this blog, I had a bad vibe for Spirit Airlines. And then as I was Googling more information about Spirit, I found the following news release by their CEO:

MIRAMAR, Fla., May 4, 2012 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) –

 “At a time of ever-rising airfares, Spirit Airlines makes commercial air travel affordable for many Americans. A very important part of keeping our airfares reasonably priced is our refund policy.
“Every day we seek to balance customer service with customers’ demands for the lowest airfare possible. But sometimes we make mistakes.
“In my statements regarding Mr. Meekins’ request for a refund, I failed to explain why our policy on refunds makes Spirit Airlines the only affordable choice for so many travelers, and I did not demonstrate the respect or the compassion that I should have, given his medical condition and his service to our country.
“Therefore I have decided to personally refund Mr. Meekins’ airfare, and Spirit Airlines will make a $5,000 contribution, in his name, to the charity of his choice, Wounded Warriors.
“We have worked hard to build a great company that makes air travel affordable while making our employees proud and customers satisfied. All of us at Spirit Airlines extend our prayers and best wishes to Mr. Meekins.”

I applaud Mr. Baldanza for rectifying this problem, granting a refund, and donating to Wounded Warriors. It would have been better though for this unfortunate incident and reaction never to have happened. I trust Spirit will review its policies but more importantly how they will treat customers. I believe this is a good first step to redemption.