A Trump-ian approach to airline marketing and pricing

Big data and analytics is the conventional path to airline success, but contrarian behaviour can be underestimated, writes Tom Bacon

Much of the discussion at airline forums is focused on use of big data analytics. This includes new personalised offers, personalised booking paths, and personalised content. Complex algorithms dictate ‘the right offer at the right time’. Pricing, already highly sophisticated based on forecast models and optimisation, now includes a variety of ancillary fees, each of which, potentially, can be dynamically priced. Teams of statisticians and data scientists develop and maintain models to maximise revenue for major airlines.

In the US political forum, Donald Trump has broken most rules in political campaigning in becoming the Republican nominee for President.  He has specifically challenged use of Big Data Analytics in political campaigns – he supposedly eschews use of big data. In fact, his approach has beaten challengers with much more sophisticated campaign analytics.  Since most airlines now rely so heavily on big data analytics – for pricing and marketing in particular – it may be helpful to see how they, too, might be vulnerable to a Trump-like, contrarian approach.

Arguably, Spirit Airlines, an ‘Ultra Low Cost Carrier’ in the US is an example of a contrarian airline that has used a Trump-like approach to compete against more established carriers. Let’s review elements of Trump’s non-big data analytics strategy and compare it to Spirit.

1. Media spend

Big Data allows airlines to spend marketing dollars wisely on commercials that resonate with target audiences and with refined campaigns that move the needle in predictable ways with certain segments. A Trump-ian approach is to be so outrageous that one gains free media exposure on a massive scale – not targeted at all. Spirit has created controversial commercials that are news on their own; Spirit labels fare promotions with provocative tag-lines to get attention. Spirit, too, has proven that free media can compete effectively against targeted, sophisticated media spend.

2. The right time

Big data drives sophisticated airlines to market ‘the right product at the right time’. Repetitive messaging over multiple channels can drive overexposure – which often means wasted spend and potential customer ill-will. But over-exposure does not seem to be an issue for the contrarians. Trump and Spirit strive to be in the news every day, all the time.

3. Nuanced messaging

Politicians are famous for nuanced messages, with each word selected carefully based on surveys and focus groups. ‘We need to enforce immigration laws while showing compassion for families’ conveys a balanced message which offends no one. Sophisticated campaigns test all elements of a message; they quantify potential voter response before speaking. On the other hand, Trump makes broad, bold statements (‘wipe out ISIS’, ‘eliminate the deficit’) that are short on specifics; the message is simply ‘Make America Great’. Spirit advertises a low base fare – and is less specific about its many ancillary fees. Legacy airlines, on the other hand, often resist price-based messaging. The established airlines aspire to offer a differentiated product that will have customers select their flights based on their frequent flyer programmes, their more comfortable product, their inflight entertainment options, or their more extensive network.

4. Superlatives

Similarly, Trump likes superlatives: ‘the best’, ‘the strongest’, ‘the smartest’. 
Spirit touts its ‘lowest fares in the industry’ and ‘lowest costs in the industry’ and ‘fastest growing airline’.

5. Dumb like a fox

Most importantly, Trump was not viewed as a threat when he appeared on the political scene last year. Everyone saw his unconventional approach – many regarded it as ‘dumb’ – as non-threatening; they almost universally underestimated his appeal. Trump called Hispanic immigrants ‘rapists’ – directly ignoring the Republican conventional wisdom that winning Hispanics would be necessary to winning the White House.

Spirit grew rapidly as an airline with poor frequency, low seat pitch, and worst dependability. The legacy airlines did not really see Spirit as a threat since, essentially, Spirit positioned itself as the worst on most customer-oriented measures. 

What did big data analytics miss? Why is the sophisticated approach vulnerable – in politics and in airline marketing?

  • Free media: Free media coverage is increasingly a tool sophisticated marketers need to understand: it’s not just allocating marketing spend most effectively but generating PR that can be passed on – by the media, by social media ‘followers’, or by other customers.

  • Simple messaging: Despite all of the investment in differentiation and personalisation, low fares are still of utmost importance to many customers. A simple, blunt message is effective in cutting through the bombardment of travel messaging many of us receive.

  • Other: Even with big data, there is a huge audience that often isn’t well represented. Trump has brought new people into the political process that are not the normal, politically engaged voters.  For airlines, American reported last year that many of their passengers fly one or less flights annually – and are therefore not likely in their big data databases. These customers are viewed as more susceptible to Spirit’s low fare promotions.

  • Humility: Most of all, users of big data need to avoid underestimating the potential appeal of contrarian approaches. Delta, American and United have all been slow to respond but are now offering – or developing – ‘Spirit-match’ fares that allow them to offer low fares – but with heavy restrictions.

Could more conventional Republican candidates like Cruz and Rubio have stopped Trump had they not underestimated him for so long?  Could the legacy carriers have halted Spirit’s growth had they responded more aggressively earlier? Big data is still the conventional, recommended approach, in politics and airline marketing. However, those who rely heavily on big data should recognise the threat from contrarian approaches. Free media, simple messaging, and understanding customers less well represented in our big data are all tactics sophisticated airlines need to include in their marketing strategy.

Tom Bacon has been in the airline industry for 25 years and is now an industry consultant in revenue optimisation. Questions?  Email Tom at or visit his website

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