Failure to Launch: Delta Delivered Bad News And Did It Poorly

What other brands can learn about having difficult conversations with consumers

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As any journalist would, I should make my conflict of interest clear before you read on: I’m an absolute Delta Air Lines fanboy. I’m a Delta Million Miler and Diamond for about seven years running. When Delta is in the headlines, my community comes to me for comment.

Last week was no different when Delta announced the forthcoming changes it’s bringing to the SkyMiles program. But what is most concerning isn’t that Delta made these changes, it’s the way it fumbled the roll-out.

The dust has settled and here are a few takeaways on what marketers can learn from communicating tough business decisions.

Empathy should not be a disappearing act

In 2020, Delta chief marketing and communications officer Tim Mapes issued the following statement at the ANA Masters of Marketing Conference: “[Delta] is a brand that very much believes in empathy. It believes in humanity. It believes in connecting with people on an emotional basis…”

A noble aspiration. But that empathy, that humanity, was missing when Delta delivered the news that the program would be overhauled. A tangible outcome of Delta’s program changes would be the effective end of elite status for a plethora of loyal Medallions. Knowing that, it was shocking to see the lack of consideration for the way these loyalists would receive this information.

By the simplest definition, empathy means understanding and sharing the feelings of others. The brand held no space for those who would be on the receiving end of this news. Instead, it treated the announcement as a victory for all Delta passengers. But a more empathetic approach would have been as simple as saying, “We know these changes might not be what everyone wants to hear, but in order to keep delivering the premium product and reliable experience you have come to expect from us, we have to make some adjustments.”

Nobody likes radio silence

Sept. 13: Program changes leak across the travel blogosphere.
Sept. 14: Delta issues its official announcement to SkyMiles members.
Sept. 15: Crickets.

When people receive bad news, they have questions. When a doctor tells you that you might need surgery, she doesn’t just leave the room—she stays to answer your questions. When you find out you’re being laid off, the representative across the table from you is there to answer questions (even if you don’t like those answers) and hold space for your responses.

Delta delivered bad news to some of their most loyal customers and went MIA.

At the time of this writing, the brand’s last original post on the platform formerly known as Twitter came on Sept. 13 (though they’re very active in replies), posted once to LinkedIn, hasn’t addressed the issue on its Instagram feed and the Delta News Hub features two updates since, neither about SkyMiles.

While its social team is working around the clock with a carefully crafted (and likely vetted) response to customer complaints (and let’s remember to treat them with kindness), corporate has abdicated its responsibility to deliver on the values it claims are so central to the brand.

Avoiding the conversation only further entrenches the negative sentiment brewing amongst those customers who are displeased. It also leaves brand loyalists (though soon to be free agents) to fill the void, which they are very passionately doing.

Live by the FYP, die by the FYP.

The importance of taking accountability

“We have heard your feedback…”
“I’ve read your letters…”

In messaging these changes, Delta is patting itself on the back for listening to customer complaints and feedback. The brand’s position is that these changes are a response to customer comments regarding the confusing nature of earning status, concern over SkyClub crowding, a desire to be rewarded for “total engagement” with Delta and other such issues.

The implication of these communications: Delta is trying to earn a halo by claiming to be customer-responsive, stating that these changes are simply the manifestation of consumer demand. The reality is that it’s not. Customers are not in the boardroom—the decision-makers are.

Additionally, in its public comments on these program changes, Delta fails to mention the impact of program modifications it made during the pandemic, the effects of its partnership with American Express or any of the other business practices that can, and did, lead to an inflated and crowded SkyMiles program.

Businesses will make bad decisions. Businesses will make great decisions that have unexpected, adverse outcomes. But when a business blames the consumer for these outcomes rather than acknowledging their role in it, that’s a level of inauthenticity that many can see right through. This failure of accountability erodes any existing credibility and goodwill. Suddenly, an entire communications plan can be hijacked by a narrative no longer about the course of action, but about the messaging around it.

Up in the air

It’s important to consider what Delta could have done differently, especially because every decision a business makes is going to have winners and losers, advocates and attackers. It’s how we message them that can make these decisions a success or failure.

  1. When making a decision that’s going to frustrate a vocal and/or significant segment of your customers, don’t avoid discussing that outcome. Being seen and heard is a human need. Oftentimes simply acknowledging their experience is enough to ratchet down the emotion behind their response. Delta should have done more to acknowledge the Medallions who would be adversely impacted by these changes.
  2. Nature abhors a vacuum. Even if a brand misses the opportunity to pre-empt a negative response, a simple “we’re listening and we’ll have more to say soon” is worth more than silence.
  3. Take ownership. Even if a brand claims to be customer-driven, it is still senior leadership that is responsible for making decisions. Don’t deflect that. Choices can be informed or driven by customer feedback, but they should ultimately be communicated as coming from the brand.

One of the most tempting things for a brand to do is to live on the sunny side of the street. People are smiling, the grass is growing and everything’s coming up branded.

But in business, as in life, reality is a complex picture of outcomes. The more brands claim to be human-centric, empathetic and authentic, the more critical it becomes that a brand embraces what it actually means to be human: make mistakes, own failures, act with humility and speak honestly. When actions and words diverge, expect to see the type of consumer outrage Delta was on the receiving end of last week.