Why would a pilot buy pizza for the stranded passengers of a competitor?

Posted on Posted in Beloved Brands in the Market

Airline delays are a reality. If you travel enough, you have experienced some painful ones. Most times they are outside the control of the airline. My best story was showing up at the Paris airport at 8am to be told the flight had been delayed 12 hours. I checked my bags in and spent the day walking around in Paris. None will ever live up to that one.beloved brands customer experience consumer brand culture

Delays are a pain. The passengers get all cranky, which causes the employees to get cranky. The two clash. Then anxiety causes the drama to flare up one more level. The reality is that most delays are outside the control of the airlines, especially with snow storms moving up the east coast. I think passengers know this, but they have to get mad at someone. One of the things that separates the great airlines from the bad is how they handle a crisis. This is a great story how one airline (WestJet) was able to demonstrate how their culture is different, while the other airline (Air Canada) just stood still and watched.

This week, an Air Canada flight had to be diverted due to the snow storm. They landed at another airport at midnight. The first thing the Air Canada employee at the airport told the passengers that because it was just after midnight, it was not possible to get any food delivered. One more reason for passengers to be upset. And hearing this, a pilot from a competitive airline–WestJet–stepped up to the rescue. As I like to describe the difference between a product and a brand. A product solves small problems we did not even know we had, while a brand heroically beats down the enemy that torments us. This WestJet pilot stepped up as a hero, offering to buy pizza for everyone.

Here’s how one of the passengers described it to the local TV station. “Out of nowhere, a WestJet pilot emerged and said, ‘Hey … I am from WestJet and we do things differently. Who wants pizza?’ Within 20 minutes  the pizza had arrived and I think he paid for it out of his own pocket.”

Now, what might sound like a random story to passengers, was not at all. It was a perfect storm of the opportunity for the WestJet challenger brand to step up and deliver the brand message. Air Canada was completely ambushed and ridiculed with one simple act that cost the pilot around $60. Air Canada said in a statement the next morning, “Clearly we should have done better for our customers.”

I have had the luxury of traveling on both airlines. WestJet employees bring an energy and a smile to the experience, while many of the Air Canada employees bring a pained misery to their job. The true difference is not just in the advertising that says “we are friendly” but in the cultures behind the brand. As the smaller player in the market, WestJet has clearly figured out their only way to win is by creating amazing consumer experiences. You have to win through your people, and that means sending brand messages internally.

How to communicate to the corporate culture behind your brand

With most brands I meet up with, I ask “What is the Big Idea behind your brand?” I rarely get a great answer. When I ask a Leadership Team, I normally get a variety answers. beloved brands customer experience consumer brand cultureWhen I ask the most far-reaching sales reps, the scientists in the lab or their retailer partners, the answers get worse. That is not healthy. Everyone who touches that brand should be able to explain what it stands for in 7 seconds, 60 seconds, 30 minutes or at every consumer touch-point. They should always be delivering the same message. There are too many Brands where what gets said to the consumer is different from what gets said inside the corporate walls. The Big Idea must organize the culture to ensure everyone who is tasked to meet the needs of both consumers and customers, whether they are in HR, product development, finance, operations and experience delivery teams, must all know their role in delivering the Big Idea. And in this case, the pilot.

Too many brands believe brand messaging is something that Advertising does. The more focus we put on delivering an amazing consumer experience, the more we need to make sure the external and internal brand story are aligned. It should be the Big Idea that drives that story. Every communication to employees, whether in a town-hall speech, simple memo or celebration should touch upon the brand values that flow from the Big Idea, highlighting examples when employees have delivered on a certain brand value.

The Big Idea should drive everything and everyone

Brand Management was originally built on a hub-and-spoke system, with the Brand Manager expected to sit right in the middle of the organization, helping drive everything and everyone around the Brand. However, it should actually be the brand’s Big Idea that sits at the center, with everyone connected to the brand expected to understand and deliver the idea. Aligning the brand with the culture is essential to the long-term success of the brand. The best brands look to the overall culture as an asset that helps create a powerful consumer experience. The expected behaviors of the operations team behind the consumer experience should flow out of the brand values, that flow from the Big Idea. These values act as guideposts to ensure that the behavior of everyone in the organization is set to deliver the brand’s promise.

beloved brands customer experience consumer brand culture

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Ritz-Carlton Training session, and as a Brand Leader, the thing that struck me was the idea of meeting the “unexpressed” needs of guests. As highly paid Marketers, even with mounds of research, we still struggle to figure out what our consumers want, yet Ritz-Carlton has created a culture where bartenders, bellhops and front desk clerks instinctively meet these “unexpressed needs”. Employees carry around note pads and record the expressed and unexpressed needs of every guest and then they use their instincts to try to surprise and delight these guests.

Employees are fully empowered to create unique, memorable and personal experiences for our guests. Unique means doing something that helps to separate Ritz-Carlton from other hotels, memorable forces the staff to do something that truly stands out. And personal is defined as people doing things for other people. Is that not what marketers should be doing? So what is getting in your way?

Ritz-Carlton bakes service values right into their culture

The Ritz-Carlton phrase they use with their staff is “Keep your radar on and antenna up” so that everyone can look for the unexpressed needs of their guests. These could be small wins that delight consumers in a big way, showing the hotel is thinking of ways to treat them as unique and special. But like any hotel, things do go wrong. When a problem does arise they quickly brainstorm and use everyone’s input. The staff is encouraged to surprise and delight guests so they can turn a problem into a potential wow moment.


This was not a random move by a pilot. This was the WestJet culture delivering their brand. 

Here’s a workshop that we run on how to create a beloved brand.

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Beloved Brands Graham Robertson