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.
Agree that they could improve their branding at little to no cost with a few creative ideas. For now they remain laser focused on the low cost experience (listen to Planet Money’s recent podcast episode: “The Fastest Growing, Least Popular Airline in America”, linked below). However, this focus comes at the cost of the experience, and as a result they are providing a sub-optimal experience.
I believe a large problem for them to solve is a behavioral one–the benefit and product experience are painfully decoupled. Consumers experience the Spirit advantage right at the beginning of the process: cheap ticket purchase. From there, it’s all downhill as consumers are nickel-and-dimed to death. Your co-passenger from New York likely spent dramatically less to buy his ticket, but forgot all that when he had to pay for his carry-on. As Aldo Gucci said: “Quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten”.
I wonder if Spirit offers simple-to-purchase upgrade packages at the time of buying the ticket, so that you can pre-buy your water, and your carry-on bag, and whatever else, thereby improving the actual flight experience while still getting an overall low price. Additionally, communication that playfully owns their super low-cost position would reinforce the choices they’ve made, choices that right now just make them look like another crappy airline.
I love a focused low-cost strategy. ALDI does this well in the grocery space. But ALDI also pays some of the highest wages in the industry, thereby ensuring a better experience with employees who are highly motivated to deliver clean stores and friendly experience.
If Spirit can create brand advocates and not just begruding brand acceptors, the sky’s the limit.
Tim, This is the FIRST positive customer experience I have ever heard from a Spirit user. Every person I know goes out of their way to verbally trash their experience and the airline (most on the Minneapolis to Chicago route). This is true for leisure and business flyers. I think their issues go way beyond branding. The customer experience is critical and they have a long way to go from what I here. And I have heard so much I would have to be is the position you were in to even try them. But glad it worked for you.
Nicely written piece with good insights.