This weekend I had the opportunity to fly on Spirit Airlines for the first time. My assessment: the company has a terrific strategy, but the branding needs some work. I hadn’t planned on flying Spirit, but last week I spent a few days skiing with my family in Breckenridge, Colorado (and dislocated my shoulder in the process, but that is another story). We were supposed to return on Saturday but decided to come back on Friday so the kids wouldn’t miss their Saturday activities. United was willing to change my flight for a cool $800 per person. When I found that I could get a one-way ticket on Spirit for $70, I changed plans. Spirit, of course, is the top deep discount airline in the United States. It is the U.S. equivalent of Ryan Air, now Europe’s largest airline. Spirit charges exceptionally low fares and then works very hard to up sell people. Like most airlines, Spirit charges people to check a bag. Unlike other airlines, Spirit also asks people to pay to put a bag in the overhead bin, print a boarding pass, get an assigned seat or have a cup of water. When I learned that Spirit offers coffee refills I exclaimed, “Wow, something on Spirit is free!” Hearing that, the flight attendant frowned at me and responded, “Free. We aren’t supposed to use that word.” So how did it go? It was perfect. The flight was on time. The plane was new. The flight attendants were friendly. My $2 cup of coffee was respectable (and the refills were, dare I say it, free). I paid a fair bit to check some bags and had to stop at the local library to print my boarding passes in advance but I anticipated all that. Spirit has a clear and powerful strategy. The airline’s value proposition is very tight: it is cheap. Spirit isn’t an airline for business travelers. It is an airline for people who are price sensitive and willing to make some trade-offs. If you have to get to an important meeting, you shouldn’t be flying Spirit. There aren’t many flights a day on each route and customer service is minimal. I suspect with a bit of bad weather things really go haywire on Spirit. United struggles with weather delays, too, but a premium flyer can talk to an agent and find an alternate flight. I spoke with a number of passengers on my flight, doing a bit of research. There were two groups. One group of people, like the fellow from New York sitting next to me, found the experience intolerable. These people were disturbed by the constant up sell and lack of service. The other group of people didn’t like Spirit, either, but they planned to fly the airline again. For them, low prices were the priority. As long as Spirit delivered on the price, they would keep flying. The only problem is that Spirit is struggling with its branding. The Spirit website delivers a compelling brand experience. It is bright yellow with a real personality. The value proposition shines through. Take a look. The actual experience of flying Spirit is very different. The planes are red, white and blue (apparently there are yellow ones on the way). The flight attendants are pleasant but deliver none of the personality promised by the website. The check-in and boarding process lack any flair or humor. The entire enterprise feels a bit half-baked. What is this brand, anyway? If Spirit can sort out its branding, the airline could well become one of the largest players in the U.S. market, just as Ryan Air has flourished in Europe. The strategy is sound and difficult for competitors to match.