How Artificial Intelligence Is Reviving the Airline Industry’s Approach to Experiential Marketing

It's about creating experiences for passengers

The airline industry is adding experiences into their brand strategies. Getty Images
Headshot of Dave O

Since the birth of commercial air travel, airlines have always been defined by the experiences they create for passengers.

Those experiences haven’t always looked and felt the same, of course. From the golden era of the 1950s–60s (where flying was for the well-off and the well-dressed) to today’s dominance of low-cost carriers, the industry has been in a state of almost constant change.

Amidst all this change, however, one thing has remained the same: the role of marketing. Whether luxury, comfort or compromise, marketing has traditionally been there to sell experiences. It has been campaign-heavy, designed for the masses and, until recently, led by one-size-fits-all messages.

But now all that’s changing, too. Marketing that works today is no longer about promoting experiences—it’s about creating them. Gartner research suggests that 89 percent of marketers recognize the switch and expect to compete mainly on the basis of customer experience.

Redefined customer travel journey

As marketers move from experience promoters to generators, technology will be their most important weapon and will empower a new, refreshed customer journey. It will look and feel entirely different to what we all experience today.

Marketing that works today is no longer about promoting experiences—it’s about creating them.

Imagine this. You book your flight through Amazon’s Alexa. With the confirmation email safely in your inbox, you pick your seat based on who you want to sit next to—and who you don’t—because your airline has integrated your social media contacts with their website.

That’s just the beginning. At the airport, an AI-powered robot collects your baggage as you climb out of your taxi and checks in your bags for you. You sail through the terminal and onto the plane without once flourishing a passport or boarding pass because facial recognition has removed the need for them (and the frantic searching through bags and pockets as a result).

Safely in-flight, super-fast internet access helps you work, rest and play at 35,000 feet (including enjoying that show you started watching on Netflix last night). The experience at the end of the journey continues in the same vein when your luggage isn’t lost, thanks to an RFID tag, your airline’s chatbot helps you make an early dinner reservation at your hotel and your room’s lights are set to the exact brightness you enjoyed when you last stayed.

This isn’t all future-gazing. Some innovative airlines are leading the way and stretching the limits of today’s customer experience. United Airlines have introduced a United Skill for Alexa. Delta is testing facial recognition-powered bag check-ins, KLM integrates social media connections at seat selection and SITA has sent their baggage check-in robot, Leo, on a round-the-world tour.

The value in taking one step at a time

Improving customer experience and delivering value from the latest marketing technology doesn’t have to be about reaching for the most futuristic applications straight away. Certain airlines are striving for leadership on customer experience by making investments to make sure they have access to the right data and AI to make their marketing truly intelligent.

For airlines like these, AI can make sense of the browsing patterns of unknown website visitors and decide how to talk to them. It can make intelligent recommendations on destinations and other products (for example, in-flight services or rental cars) and set fares according to passenger demand. It can create new lists of target customers who share characteristics with existing passengers. And it can enable chatbot or robot functionality to work for marketers autonomously, analyzing vast quantities of data to deliver faster, more accurate customer service.

Whether powered by a human or digital brain, data and AI is set to give new ammunition to tomorrow’s marketers. It will help them deliver the interactions demanded in tomorrow’s experience economy and deliver greater commercial value for their airline.

It’s priming them to take the lead and, when they do, it won’t just be marketing that works. It’ll be the whole business.

@daveof Dave O'Flanagan is the founder and CEO of Boxever.