Last week, I did what marketers want consumers to do on social media:
I asked my friends and family for a recommendation.
I asked folks if they’ve ever flown Spirit, and what their experience was. I was considering Spirit for a family trip this summer.
The response I got was less than stellar.
Just look these comments below. Damning. The opposite of what PR folks paid to build positive brand reputations want to see.
Conclusion: Do not fly Spirit. Check that: Never, ever fly Spirit. Unless you don’t mind flying with goats and getting charged for breathing (commenters’ words, not mine).
How could Spirit have such a negative reputation and still be in business? How could their PR team still be employed? We’ve seen negative comments about airlines and brands before, but nothing like this (outside of maybe Comcast).
I was curious. After a little digging around it became clear what’s going on:
Spirit doesn’t care about a positive brand reputation.
What they care about is staying true to who they are (the bare-bones airline offering the lowest fares) and making money.
And, make no mistake, business at Spirit is good.
Profits are up.
Flight numbers are up.
And, they’re hiring 1,500 people in the next few months.
I’d say they’re doing all right. Pretty much any company in the history of business would take those results.
And yet they seem to have a horrible brand reputation.
You want to know how far Spirit is willing to take this? It orchestrated an “Unleash the Hate” survey that asked customers and potential customers what they HATE about airlines (not just Spirit). In exchange, they offered up 8,000 miles.
You can imagine what they heard. Have you ever heard of a company doing anything like this? Pretty amazing, if you think about it.
Let’s recap, shall we?
Spirit has a horribly poor brand reputation in the marketplace (see my Facebook above). There are several Facebook pages dedicated to disparaging Spirit. (See below).
Spirit asks customers why they hate airlines like Spirit.
Spirit is almost mocking customers on Twitter with its auto-pilot response to criticism and sending most to a simple contact form for more information.
Yet, Spirit continues to enjoy profits, growth and a healthy stock price.
This begs the question: Does brand reputation even matter to Spirit Airlines?
The answer: Of course it does, just not the way you’re probably thinking.
For Spirit positive brand reputation doesn’t matter. If it did, they would be doing more to improve it. They would have a Facebook page. They would be more proactive on Twitter (they just direct people to their customer service page—not a best practice in Twitter customer service). They would be more aggressive in media relations.
They’re not doing any of those things (as far as I can see). Translation: They’re not interested in a positive brand reputation in the way we think about it.
What they are interested in is this: Helping customers and potential customer better understand who Spirit is and what they offer (and WHY).
This is clearly the Spirit PR strategy.
Let’s look at what they’re doing:
* CBS This Morning story featuring the Spirit CEO focuses heavily on educating people about Spirit.
* The Spirit website is full of information that explains WHY they offer low fares and what customers can expect once they’re on the plane.
* They don’t waste time promoting cheap fares on Twitter and Facebook (again, they don’t even have a FB page) since people have little trouble finding the low fares.
The reputation play for Spirit is increasing understanding about their model.
And, if you go back and look at my initial Facebook post last week, it appears to be working!
Look at these comments:
The comments are negative, sure, but look more closely. People understand. They get there’s a trade-off. That’s a Spirit win. They don’t care if you label them “The Walmart of the Skies.” All they care about is you understand WHY, and you buy a ticket.
Allow me to play devil’s advocate: Maybe positive brand reputation isn’t everything, contrary to what most PR counselors (like me) might tell you.
Now, THAT is interesting.
Look no further than Spirit Airlines.
A version of this article first appeared on Arik Hanson’s blog, Communications Conversations.