MIAMI — Generally, companies that intend to promote a publicly friendly image to customers stray away from comparisons to McDonald’s, noted for its lacking customer service and the brunt of many jokes. However, Spirit Airlines embraces its similarities with the infamous fast-food chain, presenting itself as the McDonald’s of the skies to support its low-cost image. McDonald’s houses a plethora of restaurants around the world. But Spirit controls less than one-percent of the domestic market share, not to mention the international sphere, constituting a striking difference between the two companies. Why, then, does Spirit attract as much attention (and often venom) as it does?
While a number of factors contribute to the public discussion about Spirit, the airline’s relatively daring marketing strategy significantly contributes to its publicity. Recently, Spirit has pursued running provocative ads particularly online in an attempt to better communicate the differences between its product and that of other airlines. This position accomplishes its goal of directing a lot of focus to the Spirit brand, but also stirs up considerable backlash against the airline, with many criticizing it as indecent and crude. Furthermore, its ads may ultimately fail to adequately highlight the features of Spirit’s “Bare Fares,” with the presentation of the ad distracting many from the message. The company has previously identified better informing consumers of the nuances of an ultra-low-cost carrier (ULCC) as a top priority; a number of Spirit’s ads may ultimately fall short of that aim.
Spirit recently celebrated the delivery of its sixty-ninth plane by making a number of $69 fares available for sale. Its announcement of the promotion, mainly playing off the number 69 with intentionally dirty language, exemplifies the company’s willingness to run provocative ads to garner attention perfectly. “We’ve been waiting to hit 69 planes for years,” the company’s website read. “It’s our favorite number — ever since we were twelve and found that magazine under our brother’s bed (the one with the fantastic articles). Use your mouth to spread the word: Spirit is in an even better position to get you where you’re going.”
To be fair, a few key elements work in Spirit’s favor with the marketing strategy it adopts. For one, as a carrier controlling such a tiny slice of the market, Spirit really wants to attract attention to its brand. Public awareness of Spirit, while still disproportionately high for the airline’s size, falls well short of that the legacies (United, Delta, and American) enjoy. Spirit plans to grow by 30% in 2015, meaning it will need some new customers to fill its planes. Running suggestive ads definitely accomplishes Spirit’s goal of increase brand awareness, at the very least, as evidence by the ample media coverage devoted to its ads.
Spirit’s relatively small size also minimizes the risk that it will isolate some of its current customers. While the company assuredly understands that it may distance some people who find its ads offensive, Spirit must believe that it can tap into the pool of fliers who currently board competitor’s planes in a more significant manner. Spirit’s hope that it persuades enough new fliers to offset any lost revenue seems reasonable given its currently narrow customer base.
As an ULCC, Spirit predominantly aims to undercut competitors on the basis of price, offering lower fares than legacy carriers can match. Fliers who hop aboard one of Spirit’s bright yellow planes likely do so mainly because Spirit offered them the lowest price. Those desiring the best experience or the most eloquent service would not have considered Spirit regardless. If its travelers make choices nearly exclusively based on price, as Spirit thinks, the airline stands to gain far more than it loses by featuring its low fares in a way that will generate the most publicity.
But Spirit risks a far greater danger than being labeled as indecent with its marketing approach. One pitfall with which the airline combats is a general unawareness of its product, even with a more familiar brand. According to Department of Transportation (DOT) data, Spirit easily draws the most complaints of any airline, partly resulting from misaligned expectations on behalf of the consumer. Spirit’s low “Bare Fares” capture the attention of many travelers, who book tickets expecting a similar experience to that they would experience on a legacy carrier. Fliers who show up at the airport without a grounded understanding of the conditions underlying their ticket are subjected to a slew of ancillary fees, fueling frustration with Spirit.
Although the company readily admits that it needs to better educate its fliers, clearly explaining its product to avoid disappointment, Spirit’s provocative marketing campaign falls short of this end. In one of its ads, the company depicted a male and female stripping several layers of clothing to communicate the idea of “unbundling,” which strips all elements but the right to a seat itself from the ticket. Spirit eagerly wants to convince fliers that its model, in which travelers pay only for what they consume, beats that of other airlines (a genuinely compelling argument by itself).
Despite its clever design, the ad loses too many viewers with its seductive presentation. The broader message conveyed by the ad is lost on those distracted by its provocative nature, which detracts from the company’s intention of better educating its customer base. Suggestive advertising may in fact direct some attention, as well as potential customers, toward Spirit. But this strategy also conflicts with the goal of customer retention, as fliers dissatisfied by untamed expectations probably will not bring return business to the airline.
If Spirit intends to capture and retain some new fliers with its advertising, it needs to communicate the nuances of its brand very clearly. Ads that stir attention only due to their suggestive nature miss the mark, failing to alleviate and potentially exacerbating the problem of misinformation plaguing the company. While other companies have succeeded by adopting rather daring marketing, ULCC’s like Spirit demand a more straightforward approach due to the complexities of their pricing schemes.
Even without injecting a moral stance on running these type of ads into the conversation, Spirit should consider revising its advertising approach if it ultimately wants to keep fliers and reduce the number of complaints filed with the DOT. The company stands to bear the weight that critical publicity and angry customers impose, even before considering the more subjective ethical qualities of ads promoting crude humor.
While Spirit loves to embrace its daredevil reputation, the airline needs to choose its ads a bit more judiciously for its own financial and reputational health. If the airline really wishes to liken Spirit’s yellow planes to the seemingly omnipresent golden arches, Spirit needs to settle down and start focusing on winning customers with its most effective weapon – low prices.