There’s been talk of late of “The Decline of Brands” — with consumers being seen as fickle and thus disloyal. Or that through things like customer reviews, all that matters are things like price and quality, not brand name.
One area where brands are under attack is in the travel industry. With intermediaries like Expedia, Orbitz, Hotels.com, etc., showing us side-by-side comparisons on airline tickets, hotel rooms, and car rentals, it’s easy for the consumer to ignore brand and simply opt for the best deal.
That’s what happened on this past trip to Dallas. Through Orbitz, I was booked on America West, and given a Budget car rental. Through Hotels.com, I was put up at a Wyndham. It would seem that disintermediation worked in their favor, informing me of deals they offered that I would have never found had I gone straight to individual travel providers.
And perhaps it did work in their favor… this once. But I can say I will never again:
– fly America West
– Rent with Budget
– stay at a Wyndham
As written earlier, America Worst has no clue how to run an airline (For another view, read here.). I can only imagine them surviving if Southwest doesn’t compete on their routes, because the experience one has with those two airlines is pretty much the opposite. I’ve flown Southwest a fair amount this past year, and flights are on time, the staff is friendly, and, most importantly, the trip is uneventful. Whereas, with my colleague and I flying America Worst, our flights were delayed, our connections nearly missed, and my colleague ended up getting in at 4am on his last flight, when he was supposed to be in by 1:30am.
At first it seems that all rental car companies are pretty much alike, and so, hey, why not rent with Budget? I’ll tell you — the gouging they administer through insurance. After my car accident, I returned the car to the airport. Being in Dallas, it’s pretty much impossible to get around without a car, so I got another one from them. Renting a car for a single day ended up costing $96. And this was a Chevy Monte Carlo. While Budget might appear cheap when lined up side-by-side with other rental agencies on a web page, they’re heap of hidden fees really end up adding up. I never recall Enterprise acting so mercenary.
The only time before I that I stayed at a Wyndham was three years ago in Salt Lake City, when we weren’t given our non-smoking requests, and we’re given a hard time by the people at reception when we complained about it. But someone else booked this travel, and I ended up in the Wyndham again. While this experience wasn’t as bad as the prior one, it was still poor enough for me to never want to stay there again. Starting with the drab decor, continuing to the $12.95/day wireless internet gouging, and continuing to the mediocre buffet breakfasts that you have to pay extra for. I don’t see a long future for Wyndham when they compete with the likes of Marriott, particularly Courtyard by Marriott, who typically offer excellent customer service, free wireless internet, and free breakfast buffets (it’s fine to serve mediocre food… just don’t charge extra for it!)
Surowiecki, when he wrote about the decline of brands, focused on physical products, and he probably has a point in that space. But in the world of services, brands and “brand experiences” are increasingly crucial. As a colleague said the other day, “Why can’t every airline be like JetBlue?” As savvy entrepreneurs figure out how to better serve their customers, people will drift toward them and away from legacy providers that assumed “lock-in.”