In a quintessentially Pacific Northwest way (think Voodoo Donuts), Alaska Airlines has made the case for its newly blended brand with the official close of its Virgin America acquisition. The magic, they argue, is in the whole.

The new ‘Different Works’ campaign launched today on multiple channels including the airlines YouTube page and (really very good) corporate content blog.

“Like bacon on a donut, electricity and guitars, or Labradors and poodles, we’re an odd couple that works well together. Together, Alaska + Virgin America will accomplish our mission to continue to challenge the status quo, and make flying better for everyone. Because that’s how different works,” the airline states.

‘You got peanut butter on my chocolate! No. You put your chocolate in my peanut butter!’ The classics play well.

These new blended brand concepts argue the benefits of the new capacity created through the completion of the purchase, which now makes Alaska Airlines the 5th largest airline in the U.S.. As stated by Alaska Airlines in their announcement:

  • An expanded route network with nearly 1,200 daily flights to 118 destinations across the United States, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica and Cuba
  • More nonstop destinations served from the West Coast than any airline
  • A global network of partner airlines that, together with Alaska, fly to more than 800 destinations worldwide
  • New daily flights to Orlando, Florida; Minneapolis; and Orange County, California from its San Francisco hub starting summer 2017 – service will be available for sale Dec. 21.
  • Starting Dec. 19, Virgin America Elevate members and Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members can earn rewards on each other’s flights; elite members will receive priority check-in and priority boarding on each other’s flights
  • Starting Dec. 19, customers can purchase Virgin America tickets at alaskaair.com
  • A fuel efficient fleet of 286 aircraft with an average age of 8.1 years, the youngest of the top five U.S. airlines
  • Corporate headquarters in Seattle (where you can get chili in your cocoa as the gods of the Aztecs intended).
  • Hubs in Seattle, Portland (Hello Voodoo), Anchorage, San Francisco and Los Angeles – the most West Coast hubs of any airline.

“Alaska Airlines and Virgin America are different airlines, but we believe different works—and we’re confident fliers will agree,” said Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Air Group. “Together, we’ll offer more flights, with low fares, more rewards and more for customers to love, as we continue to offer a distinctive travel experience. The two airlines may look different, but our core customer and employee focus is very much the same.”

The airline argues the case for Virgin America’s loyal customer base by pushing the benefits of a larger network and improved schedules. They also got the Governor to lend his blessing to the marriage.

“This partnership is positive for California air travel consumers and demonstrates an investment in our state,” said Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor of California. “Both airlines boast a strong history, and we look forward to seeing their innovative spirit magnified with their global international network of partner airlines.”

BUT:

The catch is ever the catch with this union, Alaska has not yet decided what will happen to the Virgin side of the blended brand pairing. Shall this remain two opposites attracting and coming together to create something new and unexpected, or will the larger Alaska partner ultimately overpower Virgin America’s brand to extinction?

“No decisions regarding the Virgin America brand have been made. Alaska plans to continue to operate the Virgin America fleet with its current name and product for a period of time while it conducts extensive customer research to understand what fliers value the most. Virgin America will continue to fly under its brand with no immediate changes to the onboard product or experience,” the airline states.

Tiden adds, “We appreciate that there is great interest in the future of the Virgin America brand among customers and employees alike. This is a big decision and one that deserves months of thoughtful and thorough analysis. We plan to make a decision about the Virgin America brand early next year.

This is the same message Tiden has consistently delivered: we like them very much, we can learn a lot from each other, maybe we’ll keep the brand, maybe we won’t.

For the People, By the People

The focus remains on people, on building teams, which is certainly a priority when bringing two disparate corporate cultures together.

“Culture has been a real challenge in many mergers, so we’re working to do things differently,” said Ben Minicucci, Alaska’s president and COO who will also become CEO of Virgin America today. “We are being very thoughtful about culture and are working to create an environment that reflects who we are and where we’ve been, that also enables us to work together, be bold, and succeed in a rapidly evolving industry.”

It is right and proper to focus in this direction, without the support of their people even the strongest brands fade away to nothing.

The question is whether Alaska Airlines will be able to capitalise on all the assets of this purchase: the equipment, the routes, the team which built the mystique, and of course, the mystique of the Virgin America brand itself. Brand value is something of an alchemy more than a science, but no less precious and should not be readily disposed of. As Alaska Airlines credits in its own announcement today:

“Known for its mood-lit cabins, three beautifully designed classes of service and innovative fleet-wide amenities — like touch-screen personal entertainment, WiFi and power outlets at every seat, Virgin America has built a loyal following of flyers and earned a host of awards since launching in 2007 — including being named the “Best U.S. Airline” in Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards and ‘Best Domestic Airline’ in Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Awards for the past nine consecutive years.”

Those laurels and that loyalty are difficult to achieve, and once you own that you can’t just toss it out. If you break the culture which built that, you’ll lose it anyway. If you keep the culture in tact, you’ll have duplication of duties and inefficiencies built-in.

It’s not impossible by any stretch, but it is delicate and it is difficult, which is why it makes sense that Tiden avoids answering questions on exactly what he will do, no matter how often that is asked.

Of course, Alaska Airlines is no mean company. It too has a valuable and carefully nurtured brand, and a corporate culture akin to family. If any company could carefully weave together these “different” threads into a lovely tapestry, then Alaska is the airline to do it.

Let’s hope they get it right.

I’ve never had a Voodoo maple bacon donut, but I’m fond enough of home-made pancakes with maple syrup and crispy bacon to appreciate that the Alaska and Virgin combo might be delightful. And chili in cocoa, my oh my!

 

 

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