Spirit Airline’s Million Dollar $197 Branding Blunder

Spirit Airline’s Million Dollar $197 Branding Blunder

Imagine I’m holding a check for $197 with your name on it.  This check will buy you guaranteed exposure on all the major national news outlets for five days straight.  For this investment, you’ll get to go on the air multiple times to say exactly what you want your customers to know about your business. So what will you choose to do with this little windfall of awareness-building opportunity?  Will you use the money to connect with your key demographics in a deeply inspiring, uplifting way? Or will you use it to stomp on their feet and spit in their eye? Hmmm. Which one to choose? 

If you paid attention to the news of this past week, you’ll know that the CEO of Spirit Airlines inexplicably chose the second option.  By refusing to refund a dying Vietnam vet’s ticket price when his doctor told him that his terminal condition made flying impossible, CEO Ben Baldanza told the world that he’d rather pocket the cash than make a stand for human kindness (and maybe a little patriotism).  With that announcement he disconnected his airlines from millions of customers who otherwise might have chosen Spirit over, say, that other low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines: military veterans, military families, even police departments across the country that vowed to boycott Spirit in protest.

Millions of others who may not have ever heard of Spirit Airlines sure know about the company now.  Even after Baldanza reversed his decision late on Friday night, not only refunding the ticket price but also donating $5,000 to The Wounded Warrior Project, the damage was already done. And, in terms of long-term image impact, this investment of $5,197 has probably bought Spirit Airlines little more than a place in the What Not To Do PR Hall of Fame.

In the interest of balance, let me paraphrase Baldanza who said that it wouldn’t be fair to those customers who bought trip insurance (the vet did not) in anticipation of their trips being cancelled, forget getting a terminal diagnosis.  Or that Spirit keeps its costs so low through its pricing policies, including no refunds.  I get all that, and he has a point, but isn’t this a rather extreme circumstance and given the poor guy his money back?  And, if not for humane reasons, couldn’t Spirit have foreseen the negative backlash?

Let’s say Baldanza could turn back the clock and do it all over again.  I think it’s a fair bet that for a mere $197, he would prefer the more uplifting storyline that would tighten attachments with customers. Chance are, granted, that the happy story wouldn’t have made it on all the news shows. (But isn’t $197 a cheap enough price to prevent such a negative hit on the company’s public image?)

Still, stories of case-by-case kindnesses spread through word-of-mouth marketing (which is much cheaper than any paid advertising campaign, I assure you).  Our honored vet would have shared this with his family, who would have shared it with their friends. (You want to see a tight word-of-mouth marketing community? Check out the military families all over the world who support each other like no one else.  Take it from the daughter of a Navy doctor.)

But just as valuable, by empowering his employees to make kind exceptions to rigid refund rules, he would be attracting and keeping empowered people who thrive on caring for his customers.  Isn’t that so much better than keeping employees who are okay with being mean to dying vets?

Kindness is one of the most powerful points of connection that you can ever develop with all the people associated with your business, whether they’re your employees or your customers. It’s entirely within your control and absolutely within anyone’s budget.

And it gives you such great word-of-mouth!

Photo Credit: Spirit Airlines