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Although many people must have thought that vinyl music records are long gone, record sales have actually been rising again in the past decade. This is not just about sales of used records but also of new albums and new editions of albums from past years. Moreover, not only veteran artists return to publish a vinyl edition of their new albums but also contemporary younger artists choose to publish their albums also as vinyl records. Not to be mistaken by any illusion however about this comeback, vinyl records are not returning to be a dominant format — they are still occupying only a marginal share of the recorded music market. Nonetheless, the revival of vinyl records is conspicuous vis-à-vis the newer technologies that have taken hold in the market since the 1990s.

In fact, this revival is not really ‘news’. The sales of records nearly died out in 2006. Yet soon after they have started climbing again — 2016 was the 10th consecutive year of growth in the US and the 8th consecutive year in the UK, mostly at a double-digit rate of growth. The renewed rise of records is catching attention because it happens to be the only format whose sales are increasing while other formats (e.g., CDs and even downloads of digital albums) are in decline. In a development that has attracted attention to this phenomenon more recently, in early December of 2016 weekly sales of records (£2.4m) for the first time surpassed revenue from digital downloads (£2.1m) in the UK. In the same period of 2015 sales of records reached £1.2m compared with revenue from digital downloads that was as high as £4.4m (The Guardian, 6 December 2016). Digital downloads are not losing indeed so much to vinyl records but primarily to streaming services — downloading or streaming digital content are closer substitutes, both more distinct from vinyl.

During 2016 unit sales of vinyl albums in the UK have risen by 52% to a volume of 3.2 million LP records, a record by itself. It was not the strongest year of growth (previous two years have seen a rate of ~65%), but that rate was nonetheless respectable, and over a span of four years the sales volume quadrupled. CDs remain the dominant format for albums: over 47 million units were sold in 2016, but that was 12% lower than a year earlier. Notably, downloads of digital albums fell 30% to 18.1m in 2016. Vinyl records account for 4.7% of album sales, physical and digital; while that is a modest share, it has mounted from 2.6% in 2015 and 0.8% in 2013 vis-à-vis a decline in sales of CDs and digital albums. (Source: British Phonographic Industry association, BPI, with Official Charts Company)

  • A metric of ‘Album Equivalent Sales’ (AES) attempts to accumulate digital and physical album sales together with album-equivalent content accessed by streaming (subscription). Out of the total volume of AES, physical albums accounted in 2016 for 41%, and vinyl LPs alone accounted for just 2.6% (up from 0.7% in 2013).

In the US the year 2016 overall was relatively poor in terms of growth rate (1.8%), nearly stagnant considering that since 2009 unit sales increased annually at rates between 20% and 40%. One might question thereof if the resurgence of vinyl LPs has reached its peak already or this is no more than a temporary halt. The better way to see this is to realise that after all the sales volume of vinyl album records has risen from a bottom level of about one million units in 2005-2006 to a level of 17 million units in 2015-2016, rising without a break throughout this period. (Source: Recording Industry Association of America, RIAA).

Even today CDs in the US (as in Britain) remain the more frequent album format purchased by consumers (99m in 2016), more than digital albums downloaded (86m). The sales volume of CDs was actually greater than digital albums all the time since the latter entered the market in 2004. However, CDs are no longer the strong force they used to be, far from it — in the late 1990s-early 2000s they reached levels around 900m, slide down to about 250m by 2010, and came below 100m last year. Yet, sales of digital albums (by downloading) that followed CDs got only as high as 116-118m (2012-2014) and are already coming down as well. Vinyl records constitute 15% of physical albums (up from 2% in 2011). Against this background the resurgence of vinyl record albums is at the very least intriguing.

The following chart shows the shifts between three main physical formats of albums followed by the digital format, based on the statistics of RIAA.

Vinyl LPs return as a small niche; since it constitutes less than 5% of the ‘album market’ it is difficult to discern the revival of vinyl records in the chart above (on the right-end). The next chart shows more clearly the new build-up of sales of vinyl after a long ‘silent’ period.

  • To maintain a common basis for comparison, ‘single’ editions in vinyl, CDs, cassettes and digital downloads are not listed here. Other formats covered by the RIAA include music video, DVD audio, download music video, and ringtones; notwithstanding, streaming (represented in ‘paid subscription’) is also omitted here (see detailed chart of RIAA).

Somehow it seems that digital albums never managed to replace the physical formats as in their primes. First, when it comes to downloads, it could be misleading to focus on albums because the major activity is in ‘single’ tracks. Unlike in the physical formats, downloads of ‘singles’ contributed from start much greater a volume than albums. Second, music listeners relatively quickly moved to on-demand streaming services, paid or free (e.g., Apple, Spotify — we can add to this video music clips viewed on YouTube). At the peak of digital albums four years ago (2013), 32.6m albums were downloaded in the UK — now listeners prefer to rely on streaming services (BBC, 3 Jan. 2017). The free services generate their revenue from advertising. Whether by downloading purchased tracks or by streaming, music listeners reveal stronger preference to create their own compilations or play-lists of songs (especially if one has grown up into the age of the Internet and mobile).

  • Notice the differences in the lists of artists leading the charts of 2016 in the UK in sales of vinyl albums (Top 10), most streamed artists, and combined sales and streams of albums (Top 10)(go to BBC).

The statistics of Nielsen Music for the US are somewhat different from RIAA though they indicate similar patterns. As reported by music magazine Billboard, 13.1m album units were sold in 2016 in vinyl format (making 11% of physical albums). Vinyl sales grew by as much as 10% over 2015 though at a lower rate than in previous years. It is also shown that CD album purchases are leading (104.8m) even compared with digital downloads (82.2m). However, the drop in sales of physical albums overall (-14%) is attributed to CDs alone (-16%). A press release by Nielsen Music suggests that listening to music through on-demand streams (audio & video) increases at the expense of digital sales.


Patrons of music stores in recent years could not ignore the re-appearance and spreading of larger displays of vinyl records — they became once again an integral part of the scene in store. This has emerged particularly as the domain of independent music stores following the demise or downscaling of large music and entertainment retail chains (e.g., Virgin Mega Store and Tower Records on the one hand and HMV on the other). While music fans started to return to independent stores, that was not enough for keeping-up their business. In 2008 American independent stores initiated the Record Store Day, celebrated on the third Saturday of April, to encourage music fans to visit and buy in their music stores; they accompanied this special day with new and renewed album special editions. Over the years the UK, Europe and more countries elsewhere have joined-in. The record store day has done miracles for reviving vinyl records: it helped to broaden the audiences interested in them and boosting their sales to new highs (Fortune, 16 April 2016). Records can now be found on sale in a larger variety of chain stores and are also purchased more frequently from online retail platforms. Vinyl records owe much to the independent retailers for their revival, but of course multiple parties benefit — producers, retailers, artists and consumers.

The segment first to be drawn by the comeback of vinyl records were music listeners in their 50s and 60s who have known records so well from their youth years. However, they are expanding from devout music fans of genres such as rock, pop, punk and electronic (‘New Wave’) into a wider audience of listeners (Baby Boomers and X-generation) with a feel for LP records.

Parents acquaint their children with this ‘old’ format and come with them to the store on record store days. People also return to buy record editions of albums they used to have but dumped them because they thought they were obsolete and will not be possible to play. Some buy them just for nostalgia or as collector items and may not actually listen to them. Yet BPI reports in its blog that over 300,000 new turntables were purchased in the UK in 2016, an increase of more than 60% — so more music listeners who return to vinyl do listen to the records again. Furthermore, Millennials show increased interest in vinyl records (Forbes, 12 January 2017), joining the original listeners to records.

On the latest record store day in Israel, an interesting mix of patrons was encountered at “The Third Ear”, one of the independent record stores in Tel-Aviv. As one might expect, there were mostly shoppers in their 40s+, but there was also a group of young guys who must have been in their early 20s at most. The latter were not browsing just CDs but gathered for a while at a display of records. Indeed, shoppers differed in genres and periods of albums they were browsing — whereas older shoppers were seen largely looking into albums of previous decades or newer albums of veteran performers, the youngest group focused on a collection of more contemporary music styles. Nevertheless, everyone seemed very busy, and more than a few appeared to know well what kinds of albums they were looking for. In an interview to business newspaper TheMarker, an owner of “The Third Ear” commented that in the past few years at least fifty new vinyl albums were issued in Israel — no one thinks that it is a great business, but things accumulate and it has built a mass not so bad (TheMarker, Hebrew, 26 October 2016). No vinyl records were pressed in Israel for twenty years, until about four years ago. A music store like this one can succeed by selling also CDs, music and film DVDs, and even turntables.

Vinyl records represent something different to music listeners from later formats of digital technology. From the early days of CDs there has been an argument about differences in the quality of sound between media formats and which has become even more intense with the transition to ‘file’ formats (e.g., MP3). In addition, the black records also feel differently as a physical medium — they signify tangible music, even better than CDs. Perceived similarities and dissimilarities are playing in shaping relations of substitution and preferences — analogue vs. digital and physical vs. virtual.

Proponents of vinyl records seek them for warmth and depth in the sound of music. It is widely accepted that the digital sound is cleaner than on records. But the sound on records is perceived more natural and authentic, even though a track may include blips and hisses once in a while. Note that misses can happen also on CDs, and if a digital file is damaged the whole track is often lost. Vinyl fans also prefer the records as souvenirs or artworks (including covers and booklets)(BBC). They may further carry an appeal of fidelity, romanticism and the ritualistic nature of the experience (Forbes). That is, records are carrying a sentiment missing from later formats. Another aspect not to be neglected is the ritual act that accompanies playing records — lifting the record carefully, wiping the dust, and putting it gently on the turntable before bringing the needle arm closer to the record and sitting to listen. Whether this a nuisance or a matter of bonding through touch with the music medium is a completely subjective matter. Yet, this bonding seems to have worked better with vinyl records than with metallic CDs. It is completely absent with virtual digital files.

Audio tape cassettes indeed are left forgotten. A great advantage of the cassettes was the ease of carrying them around and being able to hear music away from home on portable devices (e.g., Sony’s Walkman and compatibles) or in the car. They had, however, several technical flaws of working with a magnetic tape. It was a perfect fill-in that was just bound to fade away with the introduction of CDs and later portable media players (e.g., Apple’s iPod) for ease of handling and quality of sound.

As a digital medium, the CD could be more fluently substituted by virtual digital formats, files that can be downloaded from the Internet or listened to (and viewed) by streaming, as opposed to vinyl records. Nonetheless, streaming may actually contribute to purchases of physical albums in stores, particularly vinyl records. Music listeners search songs or other music pieces in streaming services, experiment with and experience them, get ideas, and after learning what they like look for the ‘original’ record album in a music store. Moreover, especially the younger listeners tend to continue their enquires online on their mobile smartphones while in the store. For senior fans, a shop owner in Brooklyn commented, it lacks some of the adventure and surprise of the old-fashioned shopping style for music (CNBC, 17 April 2017). Even so, adaptive changes in shopping styles can be tolerated if they happily lead to buying albums in music stores or shops. In the bottom line, it is acknowledged that vinyl records are desired for their tangible feel but with a warm sound, imperfect as it may be — “it’s highly personal” (CNBC).

Vinyl record fans emerge as a niche of music listeners. It is legitimate to question whether the rate of growth of record sales over ten years is sufficient for developing into a substantial and solid market segment. On the other hand, the way record sales have mounted is extraordinary given the conditions of technological evolution and competition in the music market. Vinyl records offer genuinely different, missed qualities of tangible feel and pleasure of listening to those who appreciate them. More marketing effort will be required to fuel continued growth — building on qualities of vinyl that make it special and encouraging more music listeners to join the niche (e.g., events, new and renewed editions, advertising in streaming services, and prompting more word-of-mouth and conversations in social media). Expansion of the vinyl niche can additionally benefit other sections of the recorded music market.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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A shopper may well know what types of products he or she is planning to buy in a store, but what products the shopper will come out with is much less sure. Frequently there will be some additional unplanned products in the shopper’s basket. This observation is more often demonstrated in the case of grocery shopping in supermarkets, but it is likely to hold true also in other types of stores, especially large ones like department stores, fashion stores, and DIY or home improvement stores.

There can be a number of reasons or triggers for shoppers to consider additional products to purchase during the shopping trip itself — products forgotten and reminded of by cues that arise while shopping, attractiveness of visual appearance of product display (‘visual lift’), promotions posted on tags at the product display (‘point-of-purchase’) or in hand-out flyers, and more. The phenomenon of unplanned purchases is very familiar, and the study of it is not new. However, the behaviour of shoppers during their store visit that leads to this outcome, especially the consideration of product categories in an unplanned manner, is not understood well enough. The relatively new methodology of video tracking with a head-mounted small camera shows promise in gaining better understanding of shopper behaviour during the shopping trip; a research article by Hui, Huang, Suher and Inman (2013) is paving the way with a valuable contribution, particularly in shedding light on the relations between planned and unplanned considerations in a supermarket, and the factors that may drive conversion of the latter into purchases (1).

Shopper marketing is an evolving specialisation which gains increasing attention in  marketing and retailing. It concerns activities of consumers performed in a ‘shopper mode’ and is strongly connected with or contained within consumer marketing. Innovations in this sub-field by retailers and manufacturers span digital activities, multichannel marketing, store atmospherics and design, in-store merchandising, shopper marketing metrics and organisation. However, carrying out more effective and successful shopper marketing programmes requires closer collaboration between manufacturers and retailers — more openness to each party’s perspective and priorities (e.g., in interpretation of shopper insights), sharing information and coordination (2).

In-Store Video Tracking allows researchers to observe the shopping trip as it proceeds from the viewpoint of the shopper, literally. The strength of this methodology is in capturing the dynamics of shopping (e.g., with regard to in-store drivers of unplanned purchases). Unlike other approaches (e.g., RFID, product scanners), the video tracking method enables tracking acts of consideration, whether followed or not by purchase (i.e., putting a product item in the shopping cart).

For video tracking, a shopper is asked to wear, with the help of an experimenter, a headset belt that contains the portable video equipment, including a small video camera, a view/record unit, and a battery pack. It is worn like a Bluetooth headset. In addition, the equipment used by Hui et al. included an RFID transmitter that allows to trace the location of the shopper throughout his or her shopping path in a supermarket.

Like any research methodology, video tracking has its strengths and advantages versus its weaknesses and limitations. With the camera it is possible to capture the shopper’s field of vision during a shopping trip; the resulting video is stored in the view/record unit. However, without an eye-tracking (infrared) device, the camera may not point accurately to the positions of products considered (by eye fixation) in the field of vision. Yet, the video supports at least approximate inferences when a product is touched or moved, or the head-body posture and gesture suggest from which display a shopper considers products (i.e., the ‘frame’ closes-in on a section of the display). It is further noted that difficulties in calibrating an eye-tracking device in motion may impair the accuracy of locating fixations. The video camera seems sufficient and effective for identifying product categories as targets of consideration and purchase.

Furthermore, contrary to video filmed from cameras hanging from the ceiling in a store, the head-mounted camera records the scene at eye-level and not from high above, enabling to better notice what the shopper is doing (e.g., in aisles), and it follows the shopper all the way, not just in selected sections of the store. Additionally, using a head-mounted camera is more ethical than relying on surrounding cameras (often CCTV security cameras). On the other hand, head-mounted devices (e.g., camera, eye-tracking), which are not the most natural to wear whilst shopping, raise concerns of sampling bias (self-selection) and possibly causing change in the behaviour of the shopper; proponents argue that shoppers quickly forget of the device (devices are now made lighter) as they engage in shopping, but the issue is still in debate.

Video tracking is advantageous to RFID  and product scanners for the study of unplanned purchase behaviour by capturing acts of consideration: the RFID method alone (3) enables to trace the path of the shopper but not what one does in front of the shelf or stand display, and a scanner method allows to record what products are purchased but not which are considered. The advantage of the combined video + RFID approach according to Hui and his colleagues is in providing them “not only the shopping path but also the changes in the shoppers’ visual field as he or she walks around the store” (p. 449).

The complete research design included two interviews conducted with each shopper-participant — before the shopping trip, as a shopper enters the store, and after, on the way out. In the initial interview, shoppers were asked in which product categories they were planning to buy (aided by a list to choose from), as well as other shopping aspects (e.g., total budget, whether they brought their own shopping list). At the exit the shoppers were asked about personal characteristics, and the experimenters collected a copy of the receipt from the retailer’s transaction log. The information collected was essential for two aspects in particular: (a) distinguishing between planned and unplanned considerations; and (b) estimating the amount of money remaining for the shopper to make unplanned purchases out of the total budget (‘in-store slack’ metric).

237 participants were included in analyses. Overall, shoppers-participants planned to purchase from approximately 5.5 categories; they considered on average 13 categories in total, of which fewer than 5 were planned considerations (median 5.6). 37% of the participants carried a list prepared in advance.

Characteristics influencing unplanned consideration:  The researchers sought first to identify personal and product characteristics that significantly influence the probability of making an unplanned consideration in each given product category (a latent utility likelihood model was constructed). Consequently, they could infer which characteristics contribute to considering more categories in an unplanned manner. The model showed, for instance, that shoppers older in age and female shoppers are likely to engage in unplanned consideration in a greater number of product categories. Inversely, shoppers who are more familiar with a store (layout and location of products) and those carrying a shopping list tend to consider fewer product categories in an unplanned manner.

At a product level, a higher hedonic score for a product category is positively associated with greater incidence of unplanned consideration of it. Products that are promoted in the weekly flyer of the store at the time of a shopper’s visit are also more likely to receive an unplanned consideration from the shopper. Hui et al. further revealed effects of complementarity relations: products that were not planned beforehand for purchase (B) but are closer complementary of products in a ‘planned basket’ of shoppers (A) gain a greater likelihood of being considered in an unplanned manner (‘A –> B lift’).  [The researchers present a two-dimensional map detailing what products are more proximate and thus more likely to get paired together, not dependent yet on purchase of them].

Differences in behaviour between planned and unplanned considerations: Unplanned considerations tend to be made more haphazardly — while standing farther from display shelves and involving fewer product touches; conversely, planned considerations entail greater ‘depth’. Unplanned considerations tend to occur a little later in the shopping trip (the gap in timing is not very convincing). An unplanned consideration is less likely to entail reference to a shopping list — the list serves in “keeping the shopper on task”, being less prone to divert to unplanned consideration. Shoppers during an unplanned consideration are also less likely to refer to discount coupons or to in-store flyers/circulars. However, interestingly, some of the patterns found in this analysis change as an unplanned consideration turns into a purchase.

Importantly, in the outcome unplanned considerations are less likely to conclude with a purchase (63%) than planned considerations (83%). This raises the question, what can make an unplanned consideration result in purchase conversion?

Drivers of purchase conversion of unplanned considerations: Firstly, unplanned considerations that result in a purchase take longer (40 seconds on average) than those that do not (24 seconds). Secondly, shoppers get closer to the shelves and touch more product items before concluding with a purchase; the greater ‘depth’ of the process towards unplanned purchase is characterised by viewing fewer product displays (‘facings’) within the category — the shopper is concentrating on fewer alternatives yet examines those selected more carefully (e.g., by picking them up for a closer read). Another conspicuous finding is that shoppers are more likely to refer to a shopping list during an unplanned consideration that is going to result in a purchase — a plausible explanation is that the shopping list may help the shopper to seek whether an unplanned product complements a product on the list.

The researchers employed another (latent utility) model to investigate more systemically the drivers likely to lead unplanned considerations to result in a purchase. The model supported, for example, that purchase conversion is more likely in categories of  higher hedonic products. It corroborated the notions about ‘depth’ of consideration as a driver to purchase and the role of a shopping list in realising complementary unplanned products as supplements to the ‘planned basket’. It is also shown that interacting with a service staff for assistance increases the likelihood of concluding with a purchase.

  • Location in the store matters: An aisle is relatively a more likely place for an unplanned consideration to occur, and subsequently has a better chance when it happens to result in a purchase. The authors recommend assigning service staff to be present near aisles.

Complementarity relations were analysed once again, this time in the context of unplanned purchases. The analysis, as visualised in a new map, indicates that proximity between planned and unplanned categories enhances the likelihood of an unplanned purchase: if a shopper plans to purchase in category A, then the closer category B is to A, the more likely is the shopper to purchase in category B given it is considered. Hui et al. note that distances in the maps for considerations and for purchase conversion of unplanned considerations are not correlated, implying hence that the unplanned consideration and a purchase decision are two different dimensions in the decision process. This is a salient result because it distinguishes between engaging in consideration and the decision itself. The researchers caution, however, that in some cases the distinction between consideration and a choice decision may be false and inappropriate because they may happen rapidly in a single step.

  • The latent distances in the maps are also uncorrelated with physical distances between products in the supermarket (i.e., the complementarity relations are mental).

The research shows that while promotion (coupons or in-store flyers) for an unplanned product has a significant effect in increasing the probability of its consideration, it does not contribute to probability of its purchase. This evidence furthermore points to a separation between consideration and a decision. The authors suggest that a promotion may attract shoppers to consider a product, but they are mostly uninterested to buy and hence it has no further effect on their point-of-purchase behaviour. The researchers suggest that retailers can apply their model of complementarity to proactively invoke consideration by triggering a real-time promotion on a mobile shopping app for products associated with those on a digital list of the shopper “so a small coupon can nudge this consideration into a purchase”.

But there are some reservations to be made about the findings regarding promotions. An available promotion can increase the probability of a product to be considered in an unplanned manner, yet shoppers are less likely to look at their coupons or flyers at the relevant moment. Inversely, the existence of a promotion does not contribute to purchase conversion of an unplanned consideration but shoppers are more likely to refer to their coupons or flyers during unplanned considerations that result in a purchase.  A plausible explanation to resolve this apparent inconsistency is that reference to a promotional coupon or flyer is more concrete from a shopper viewpoint than the mere availability of a promotion; shoppers may not be aware of some of the promotions the researchers account for. In the article, the researchers do not address directly promotional information that appears on tags at the product display — such promotions may affect shoppers differently from flyers or distributed coupons (paper or digital via mobile app), because tags are more readily visible at the point-of-purchase.

One of the dynamic factors examined by Hui et al. is the ‘in-store slack’, the mental budget reserved for unplanned purchases. Reserving a larger slack increases the likelihood of unplanned considerations. Furthermore, at the moment of truth, the larger is the in-store slack that remains at the time of an unplanned consideration, the more likely is the shopper to take a product from the display to purchase. However, computations used in the analyses of dynamic changes in each shopper’s in-store slack appear to assume that shoppers estimate how much they already spent on planned products in various moments of the trip and are aware of their budget, an assumption not very realistic. The approach in the research is very clever, and yet consumers may not be so sophisticated: they may exceed their in-store slack, possibly because they are not very good in keeping their budget (e.g., exacerbated by use of credit cards) or in making arithmetic computations fluently.

Finally, shoppers could be subject to a dynamic trade-off between their self-control and the in-store slack. As the shopping trip progresses and the remaining in-store slack is expected to shrink, the shopper becomes less likely to allow an unplanned purchase, but he or she may become more likely to be tempted to consider and buy in an unplanned manner, because the strength of one’s self-control is depleted following active decision-making. In addition, a shopper who avoided making a purchase on the last occasion of unplanned consideration is more likely to purchase a product in the next unplanned occasion — this negative “momentum” effect means that following an initial effort at self-control, subsequent attempts are more likely to fail as a result of depletion of the strength of self-control.

The research of Hui, Huang, Suher and Inman offers multiple insights for retailers as well as manufacturers to take notice of, and much more material for thought and additional study and planning. The video tracking approach reveals patterns and drivers of shopper behaviour in unplanned considerations and how they relate to planned considerations.  The methodology is not without limitations; viewing and coding the video clips is notably time-consuming. Nevertheless, this research is bringing us a step forward towards better understanding and knowledge to act upon.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) Deconstructing the “First Moment of Truth”: Understanding Unplanned Consideration and Purchase Conversion Using In-Store Video Tracking; Sam K. Hui, Yanliu Huang, Jacob Suher, & J. Jeffrey Inman, 2013; Journal of Marketing Research, 50 (August), pp. 445-462.

(2) Innovations in Shopper Marketing: Current Insights and Future Research Issues; Venkatesh Shankar, J. Jeffrey Inman, Murali Mantrala, & Eileen Kelley, 2011; Journal of Retailing, 87S (1), pp. S29-S42.

(3) See other research on path data modelling and analysis in marketing and retailing by Hui with Peter Fader and Eric Bradlow (2009).

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‘Disruption’ has become a highly accepted concept in business and management, an event one can only expect to happen at some point in time, whether in production, marketing, distribution and retail, or in other functions of business. Disruptive innovation, mostly technological and digital, can be helpful in fixing market weaknesses due to lack of progress in methods and processes applied by ‘legacy’ companies; operational inefficiencies; and insufficient competition in a market. A disruptive innovator may also succeed by capturing consumer needs hidden or left ignored by existing complacent competitors. But disruptive innovation is not a magical cure; actually, it tends to be quite a radical form of cure. Innovations of this kind have the potential to destabilise a market, create disorder and confusion, and cause dysfunction if the transformation is spiralling out of control, a matter of real concern to all parties involved.

Disruptive innovations have been introduced in various industries or categories of products and services. It often occurs when a technological company imports a method or a tool developed in the hi-tech community into a specific product or service category, whose agents (e.g., providers, customers) are mostly unaccustomed and unready for. Yet the innovation can hit roots if it meets a large enough group of innovative or tech-orientated consumers who welcome the new solution (e.g., a way of acquiring or using a service). Thereafter, incumbent competitors find themselves obligated to adopt, if capable, similar or comparable methods or tools in their own operations. High-profile examples include: (a) Uber that expanded the concept of taxi-rides and ridesharing; (b) Airbnb that disrupted the field of hospitality and short-term lodging (‘home-sharing’ vs. hotels and guest houses); (c) Netflix that altered the habits of television viewing. Also, companies in a new sector of financial technology (‘fintech’) offer digital tools (mobile app-based) for consumers to manage their banking accounts, budgets and investments, challenging ‘legacy’ banks and financial service providers.

Certain technological innovations turn out, however, to be disruptive across-the-board. For instance, online social media networks and digital marketing methods (reliant on Big Data and analytic techniques) have been influencing dramatically how companies approach customers and interact with them in many product and service categories (beyond technological goods or information and communication technology services). Furthermore, developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics promise to introduce even more significant changes, from manufacturing to marketing and retail, and in the functioning of various products (e.g., smart home appliances and devices, the ‘upcoming’ driverless car).

Much damage may be caused if the innovative alternative solution is incomplete or the planning of its implementation is flawed. Overall, everyone should be prepared for a turbulent period of resistance, adjustment and adaptation that may extend until the ‘new-way-of-doing-things’ is assimilated in the market, or rejected. The story of an episode regarding taxi transportation at the international airport near Tel-Aviv exposes how wrongful introduction of a disruptive innovation in this service domain can lead to blunder and service failure. Mistakes made because of flawed planning in a highly sensitive process of market transformation may turn the disruption into a mess-up instead of improvement of the service.

The management of the Israel Airport Authority (IAA) launched earlier this year (2017) a new bid for taxi service operators to ride passengers into and from Tel-Aviv (Ben-Gurion) International Airport. In the end of May the 10-year permit of the primary taxi company licensed to provide service in terminals at the airport expired; the IAA wanted to open the service to competition in expectation that it will lead to fare reduction and perhaps other improvements (e.g., availability, time keeping of taxi journeys).

  • The competition is concentrated in fact on picking-up passengers from the airport; if prohibited, taxi cars will have to return empty after dropping off their former passengers at the flight departure terminal. A primary taxi company was given the advantage.
  • Note: Shuttle or minibus service providers are allowed in addition to take passengers  to more distant cities like Jerusalem and Haifa.

Only two companies responded and participated in the bid: the incumbent service provider (“Hadar-Lod”) and the mobile app company Gett that mediates taxi service. The veteran taxi company has been riding passengers to and from the airport for 40 years. It has definitely developed proficiency in riding air travellers over the years but there were also misgivings about its practices, linked to its status as mostly an exclusive taxi service for individual passengers (alone, family and friends). A few years ago the Ministry of Transport intervened by publishing and issuing a calculator of recommended fares to help passengers ensure they pay fair prices.

Gett (originally GetTaxi, founded in 2010) is managing a network connecting subscribed taxi drivers with passengers through its mobile app. The company is now operating in over 100 cities in four countries (Israel, United States, United Kingdom, Russia). The location-based app facilitates matching between a passenger and a driver, from service ordering, through journey planning and pricing, and concluding with payment via Gett. Unlike Uber, Gett is working only with professional licensed taxi drivers and is not involved in supporting informal ridesharing journeys by unauthorised drivers (e.g., UberPop). The app of Gett is focused on benefits of convenience of ordering (no street hailing, no phone call), efficiency of matching through the network, and of course promising a lower journey cost.

Still, the company hires its subscribed taxi drivers but is not their employer — they divide the fare income between them to the will of Gett. The company is commending itself on its website for higher pay to drivers, in-app tips and 24/7 live support, motivated by the idea that if Gett treats drivers better, they will reciprocate by treating their riders better. However, the arrangement has repeatedly emerged as a source of friction. Gett has changed its name, removing ‘Taxi’ from the title, to allow for extending its brand into a variety of delivery services (e.g., food, parcels) to domestic and business clients.

  • Taxi cars of member drivers in Gett’s network are marked by a label with its logo on the car’s side. Taxi drivers that belong also to a traditional local taxi company (‘station’) may carry its small flag on top of the taxi. However, in recent months taxi cars can been seen more frequently in Tel-Aviv area carrying only a flag of Gett.

The absence of more traditional taxi companies from the bid could be the first sign of a problem. Those companies may have found it not worthwhile for them to commit to provide regular service at the airport. But as a replacement, Gett is not truly a ‘physical’ taxi company and has unique characteristics. It leaves the operation of taxi service by Gett open to much ambiguity. Drivers subscribed with Gett can ‘double’ by riding passengers either via Gett’s app or with a standard taxi meter installed in the car. Are traditional taxi companies ‘hiding’ behind drivers also associated with Gett? But if Gett had the permit, would it allow drivers in its network to take passengers also without its app? (i.e., leave money on the table from such journeys.) Yet, Gett’s drivers have to choose in advance in what periods they act as standard taxi drivers or as taxi drivers riding passengers on call from Gett’s app. This situation could lead to confusion: under what ‘hat’ are the drivers allowed to get in and out of the airport and at what time are they allowed to choose what type of passenger-customer to ride.

Furthermore, the service could be binding and unfairly restrictive for passengers who are not subscribed customers of Gett, especially when arriving from abroad. There could be several reasons for passengers to find themselves in an inferior position: Passengers may not have a mobile phone that supports software applications; they may not feel comfortable and skilled in using mobile apps; or passengers may not be confident in paying through a mobile app (e.g., prefer to pay taxis in cash). It may be hard to believe but such people do exist in our societies in different walks of life. It is also known that smartphone users are selective in the number and sources of apps they are willing to upload to their devices. It could be futile to try to force consumers to upload a particular app, but it would be especially unfair to require users to upload an app of Gett so they can be driven away from the airport. The IAA should have not allowed from start an outcome in which a company of the type of Gett becomes a single provider of taxi service at the airport, primarily for riding returning residents or visiting tourists (the latter may not even be aware of Gett beforehand). The ‘disruption’ would have actually become a distortion of service, leaving customers either with no substitute or with confusion and frustration.

But something else, awkward enough, happened. The two companies reached an agreement to bid a joint offer in which they committed to lower fares by 31% on average from the current price level. It is unclear who initiated the move, yet it is reasonable that Gett was about to offer a much lower price for taxi rides affordable by its model and platform, and probably the management of the Hadar-Lod taxi company was alerted and in order to secure its stay in business felt compelled to match such an offer or simply join hands with Gett. The drivers belonging to Hadar-Lod thought otherwise and started at the end of May a spontaneous strike. The two bidders tried to reach a new agreement but eventually the veteran company had to retreat. One cannot be certain that drivers with Gett would have co-operated — the new price level may have been affordable for Gett but not necessarily worth the ride for the drivers. Apparently, the recommended official price was already or about to go down 7%, and with the further reduction committed in the bid offer, the taxi fare would drop on average by 38%. One would have to work many more hours to fill the gap. The cut was too deep — it may have worked well for the companies and their management but could never work for the drivers. (Note: An explanation from a taxi driver with Gett helped to describe the situation above.)

  • Having taxis from both companies in service would have provided some remedy with a transportation solution for every type of customer-passenger. But a certain mechanism and a person to supervise would be needed to keep order on the taxi platform. For instance, travellers subscribed with Gett may schedule their ride while in the luggage hall, and there would be Gett taxis waiting ready to pick them up. One would have to make sure there are enough taxi cars available for the other passengers.

That bid is now cancelled. The IAA declared that it would soon publish a new bid, and until its results are known, any licensed taxi driver can arrive and leave the airport with passengers as long as they register with the IAA. Are the official recommended prices still in place? Who will regulate the operation and watch that taxi drivers respect consumer rights of their passengers? Who will supervise in particular the allocation of passengers to authorised taxis at the arrival terminal (i.e., dispatching)? Answers will have to be found on ground. It is no surprise that the new situation has been received with apprehension by consumers-travellers and taxi drivers alike.

Consumers will have to learn from experience or relatives and friends what are acceptable price ranges for rides into and from the airport, and form anew their references for a fair price and the highest (reservation) price they are willing to pay. They may also set a low price level under which the reduced price may be suspected as “too good to be true”. A discounted price by a single driver to attract passengers, which deviates too much from a ‘normal’ price, should alarm the customer-passenger that something could be wrong with the service, or else there is a logical reason for the reduction. For example, the taxi driver may suggest ridesharing a few arriving passengers to a common destination area in Tel-Aviv — some passengers may be happy to accept, but the terms must be stated in advance. It is unclear how long the interim period will last, but the notions about pricing described above may remain valid even afterwards in a new service regime.

Making changes like adding competition, and especially by involving a disruptive innovation in the service domain, can improve matters. However, the process must be handled with care and watched over to avoid the system from derailing during the transformation. In this case, the IAA could and should have planned and managed the bid and implementation of its plausible outcomes more wisely. At this time, there must be at least one traditional taxi service operator allowed in addition to an innovative service mediated by a company like Gett at the airport, and rules have to be set and respected. Rushing into any drastic and innovative transformation of service will not do good for its chances of success, just invoke confusion and resentment — sufficient time and support must be given for the customers-passengers and taxi drivers to accommodate and adapt to the new service settings at the international airport.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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One of the more difficult and troublesome decisions in brand management arises when entering a product category that is new to the company: Whether to up-start a new brand for the product or to endow it with the identity of an existing brand — that is, extending a company’s established brand from an original product category to a product category of a different type. The first question that would probably pop-up is “how different is the new product?”, acting as a prime criterion to judge whether the parent-brand fits the new product.

Notwithstanding, the choice is not completely ‘black or white’ since intermediate solutions are possible through the intricate hierarchy of brand (naming) architecture. But focusing on the two more distinct strategic branding options above helps to see more clearly the different risk and cost implications of launching a new product brand versus using the name of an existing brand from an original product category. Notably, the manufacturers, retailers and consumers, all perceive risks, albeit from the different perspective of each party given its role.

  • Note: Brand extensions represent the transfer of a brand from one type of product to a different type, to be distinguished from line extensions that pertain to the introduction of variants within the same product category (e.g., flavours, colours).

This is a puzzling marketing and branding problem also from an academic perspective. Multiple studies have attempted in different ways to identify the factors that best explain or account for successful brand extensions. While the stream of research on this topic helpfully points out to major factors, some more commonly agreed upon, a gap remains between the sorts of extensions predicted to succeed according to the studies and the extensions performed by companies that happen to succeed or fail in the markets in reality. A plausible reason for missing the outcomes of actual extensions, as argued by the researchers Milberg, Sinn, and Goodstein (2010), is neglecting the competitive settings in categories that are the target of brand extension (1).

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of a presumptuous brand extension has been the case of Virgin (UK), from music to cola (drink), airline, train transport, and mobile communication (ironically, the origin of the brand as Virgin Music has since been abolished). The success of Virgin’s distant extensions is commonly attributed to the personal character of Richard Branson, the entrepreneur behind the brand: his boldness, initiative, willingness to take risks, and adventurism. These traits seem to have transferred to his business activities and helped to make the extensions more credible and acceptable to consumers.

Another good example relates to Philips (originated in The Netherlands). Starting from lighting (bulbs, now more in LED), the brand extended over the years to personal care (e.g., face shavers for men, hair removal for women), sound and vision (e.g., televisions, DVD and Blue-Ray players, originally in radio sets), PC products, tablets and phones, and more. Still, when looking overall at the different products, systems and devices sharing the Philips brand, they can mostly be linked as members in a broad category of ‘electrics and electronics’, a primary competence of the company. As the company grew with time, launched more types of products whilst advancing with technology, and its Philips brand was perceived as having greater experience and good record in brand extensions, this could facilitate the market acceptance of further extensions to additional products.

  • In the early days of the 1930s to 1950s radio and TV sets relied for operation on vacuum tubes, later moving to electronic circuits with transistors or digital components. Hence, historically there was an apparent physical-technological connection between those products and the brand’s origin in light bulbs, a connection much harder to find now between category extensions, except for the broad category linkage suggested above.

Academic research has examined a range of ‘success factors’ of brand extensions, such as: perceived quality of the parent-brand; fit between the parent-brand and the extension category; degree of difficulty in making an extension (challenge undertaken); parent-brand conviction; parent-brand experience; marketing support; retailer acceptance; perceived risk (for consumers) in adopting the brand extension; consumer innovativeness; consumer knowledge of the parent-brand and category extension; the stage of entry into another category (i.e., as an early or a late entrant). The degree of fit of the parent-brand (and original product) with the extension category is revealed as the most prominent factor contributing to better acceptance and evaluation (e.g., favourability) of the extension in consumer studies.

Aaker and Keller specified in a pioneer article (1990) two requirements for fit: (a) the extension product category is a direct complement or a substitute of the original category; (b) the company, with its people and facilities, is perceived as having the knowledge and capability of manufacturing the product in the extension category. These requirements reflect a similarity between the original and extension product categories that is necessary for successful transfer of a favourable attitude towards the brand to the extension product type (2). A successful transfer of attitude may occur, however, also if the parent-brand has values, purpose or image that seem relevant to the extension product category, even when the technological linkage is less tight or apparent (as the case of Virgin suggests).

  • Aaker and Keller found that fit, based especially on competence, stands out as a contributing factor to higher consumer evaluation (level of difficulty is a secondary factor while perceived quality plays more of a ‘mediating’ role).

Volckner and Sattler (2006) worked to sort out the contributions of ten factors, as retrieved from academic literature, to the success of brand extensions; relations were refined with the aid of expert advice from brand managers and researchers (3). Contribution was assessed in their model in terms of (statistical) significance and relative importance. The researchers found  fit to be the most important factor driving (perceived) brand extension success in their study, followed by marketing support, parent-brand conviction, retail acceptance, and parent-brand experience. The complete model tested for more complex structural relationships represented through mediating and moderating (interacting) factors (e.g., the effect of marketing support on extension success ‘passes’ through fit and retailer acceptance).

For brand extensions to be accepted by consumers and garner a positive attitude, consumers should recognise a connectedness or linkage between the parent-brand and the category extension. The fit between them can be based on attributes of the original and extension types of product or a symbolic association. Keller and Lehmann (2006) conclude in this respect that “consumers need to see the proposed extension as making sense” (emphasis added). They identify product development, applied via brand (and line) extensions, as a primary driver of brand growth, and thereby adding to parent-brand equity. Parent-brands do not tend to be damaged by unsuccessful brand extensions, yet the authors point to circumstances where greater fit may result in a negative effect on the parent-brand, and inversely where joining a new brand name with the parent-brand (as its endorser) may protect the parent-brand from adverse outcomes of extension failure (4).

When assessing the chances of success of a brand extension, it is nevertheless important to consider what brands are already present in the extension category that a company is about to enter. Milberg, Sinn, and Goodstein claim that this factor has not received enough attention in research on brand extensions. In particular, one has to take into account the strength of the parent-brand relative to competing brands incumbent in the target category. As a starting point for entering the extension category, they chose to focus on how well consumers are familiar with the competitor brands vis-à-vis the extending brand.  Milberg and her colleagues proposed that a brand extension can succeed despite a worse fit with the category extension due to an advantage in brand familiarity, and vice versa. Consumer response to brand extensions was tested on two aspects: evaluation (attitude) and perceived risk (5).

First, it should be noted, the researchers confirm the positive effect of better fit on consumer evaluation of the brand extension when no competitors are considered. The better fitting extension is also perceived as significantly less risky than a worse fitting extension. However, Milberg et al. obtain supportive evidence that in a competitive setting, facing less familiar brands can improve the fortune of a worse fitting extension, compared with being introduced in a noncompetitive setting: When the incumbent brands are less familiar relative to the parent-brand, the evaluation of the brand extension is significantly higher (more favourable) and purchasing its product is perceived less risky than if no competition is referred to.

  • A reverse outcome is found in the case of better fit where the competitor brands are more highly familiar: A disadvantage in brand familiarity can dampen the brand extension evaluation and increase the sense of risk in purchasing from the extended brand, compared with a noncompetitive setting.

Two studies performed show how considering differences in brand familiarity can change the picture about the effect of brand extension fit from that often found without accounting for competing brands in the extension category.

When comparing different competitive settings, the research findings provide a more constrained support, but in the direction expected by Milberg and colleagues. The conditions tested entailed a trade-off between (a) a worse fitting brand extension competing with less familiar brands; and (b) a better fitting brand extension competing with more familiar brands. In regard to competitive settings:

The first study showed that the evaluation of a worse fitting extension competing with relatively unfamiliar brands is significantly more favourable than a better fitting extension facing more familiar brands. Furthermore, the product of a worse fitting brand extension is preferred more frequently over its competition than the better fitting extension product is (chosen by 72% vs. 6%, respectively). Also, purchasing a product from the worse fitting brand extension is perceived significantly less risky compared with the better fitting brand. These results indicate that the relative familiarity of the incumbent brands that an extension faces would be more detrimental to its odds of success than how well its fit is.

The second study aimed to generalise the findings to different parent-brands and product extensions. It challenged the brand extensions with somewhat more difficult conditions: it included categories that are all relevant to respondents (students), and so competitor brands in extension categories are also relatively more familiar to them than in the first study. The researchers acknowledge that the findings are less robust with respect to comparisons of the contrasting competitive settings. Evaluation and perceived risk related to the worse fitting brand competing with less familiar brands are equivalent to the better fitting brand extension facing more familiar brands. The gap in choice shares is reduced though in this case it is still statistically significant (45% vs. 15%, respectively). Facing less familiar brands may not improve the response of consumers to the worse fitting brand extension (i.e., not overcoming the effect of fit) but at least it is in a position as good as of the better fitting brand extension competing in a more demanding setting.

  • Perceived risk intervenes in a more complicated relationship as a mediator of the effect of fit on brand extension evaluation, and also in mediating the effect of relative familiarity in competitive settings. Mediation implies, for example, that a worse fitting extension evokes greater risk which is responsible for lowering the brand extension evaluation; consumers may seek more familiar brands to alleviate that risk.

A parent-brand can assume an advantage in an extension category even though it encounters brands that are familiar within that category, and may even be considered experts in the field: if the extending brand is leading within its original category and is better known beyond it, this can give it a leverage on the incumbents if those brands are more ‘local’ or specific to the extension category. For example, it would be easier for Nikon leading brand of cameras to extend to binoculars (better fit) where it meets brands like Bushnell and Tasco than extending to scanners (also better fit) where it has to face brands like HP and Epson. In the case of worse fitting extensions, it could be significant for Nikon whether it extends to CD players and competes with Sony and Pioneer or extends to laser pointers and faces Acme and Apollo — in the latter case it may enjoy the kind of leverage that can overcome a worse fit. (Product and brand examples are borrowed from Study 1). Further research may enquire if this would work better for novice consumers than experts. Milberg, Sinn and Goodstein recommend to consider additional characteristics that brands may differ on (e.g., attitude, image, country of origin), suggesting more potential bases of strength.

Entering a new product category for a company is often a difficult challenge, and choosing the more appropriate branding strategy for launching the product can be furthermore delicate and consequential. If the management chooses to make a brand extension, it should consider aspects of relative strength of its parent-brand, such as familiarity, against the incumbent brands of the category it plans to enter in addition to a variety of other characteristics of product types and its brand identity. However, the managers can take advantage as well of intermediate solutions in brand architecture to combine a new brand name with an endorsement of an established brand (e.g., higher-level brand for a product range). Choosing the better branding strategy may be helped by better understanding of the differences and relations (e.g., hierarchy) between product categories as perceived by consumers.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

1. Consumer Reactions to Brand Extensions in a Competitive Context: Does Fit Still Matter?; Sandra J. Milberg, Francisca Sinn, & Ronald C. Goodstein, 2010; Journal of Consumer Research, 37 (October), pp. 543-553.

2.  Consumer Evaluations of Brand Extensions; David A. Aaker and Kevin L. Keller, 1990; Journal of Marketing, 54 (January), pp. 27-41.

3.  Drivers of Brand Extension Success; Franziska Volckner and Henrik Sattler, 2006; Journal of Marketing, 70 (April), pp. 18-34.

4. Brands and Branding: Research Finding and Future Priorities; Kevin L. Keller and Donald R. Lehmann, 2006; Marketing Science, 25 (6), pp. 740-759.

5. Ibid. 1.

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The digital transformation of customer service in retail banking is changing the depth and form of relationships of banks with their customers. The increasing shift to direct digital self-service channels re-shapes how consumers interact with retail banks. As explained in the first part of this article, the effects of this transformation can be seen and felt at physical bank branches and away from the branches through remote online channels (including web-based service platforms and mobile apps). Furthermore, ‘customer service’ practically entails the customers’ operations of regular account maintenance but also their acquisition of various banking services and financial products (e.g., deposits, loans, equity and bonds). Hence the digital transformation is affecting broadly and simultaneously retail banking service as well as marketing to customers.

The focus of the first part of the article was a review of the ways in which the five main banks in Israel approach the digital transformation in the domain of retail banking, and especially how the banks choose to balance between the digital and human modes of interaction and service in their relations with customers. It considered the observed forms and methods of implementing their approaches and discussed their implications regarding the digital-human balance. Particular attention was awarded nonetheless to the effects that digital channels of interaction may have on the premises of retail bank branches — their organisation, interior design, and functions.

The approach taken by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot may be seen as surprising to digital advocates because it is ‘going against the stream’, yet it is tapping on some sensitive nerves of  consumers. The advertising campaign of the bank — carrying the title “On the things really important, there is no substitute to humanity” — commits not to sacrifice contact with human bank representatives in the sake of digital self-service. This is a promise of reassurance for many bank customers who still do not feel comfortable and confident with over reliance on supposedly self-sufficient digital channels. But a question remains to address: Does the campaign stand on a solid strategic ground? One would want to know if there is substantive managerial commitment behind the campaign and a plan to execute it.

A declaration of the bank on its latest strategic plan offers an affirmative answer. According to a press release published by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot in November 2016, the strategic plan for the years  2017-2021 stands on three legs: (a) intensifying the focus on business sectors and expanding activities directed to them; (b) sustaining and solidifying the bank’s stature as a leader in the retail domain; and (c) being a central operator of financial assets in banking (22 Nov. ’16, origin in Hebrew). Regarding the second goal on retail that is of our interest here, the bank specifically qualifies its goal as “providing personal and human service supported by innovative technology”. In this statement the bank emphasises the order of priority between ‘personal and human service’ and technology, whereof the role of the latter is to facilitate and enhance customer service. As explained by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, the strategy is on the one hand service-driven and on the other hand aimed at reducing prices by applying a unique and advanced technological platform (i.e., the platform’s purpose is increasing efficiency in operating and delivering customer service).

The strategic statement clarifies that the bank is not about to put its technologies ahead of its customers, how it treats and serves them. It maintains that the role of the digital technologies is to increase efficiencies (e.g., saving time, facilitating processes) and not to replace human service. Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot is not shy on utilising customer-facing digital tools and facilities for interface and information processing, but it does so as a supplement to human service. Already six years ago the bank initiated a ‘hybrid banking’ programme designed to smooth communication between a customer and his or her ‘personal banker’ at the branch via phone, e-mail or SMS services (they called it ‘an ideal combination between personal and digital’). Lately the bank has recognized a need to highlight the connection between ‘personal’ and ‘human’ as contra to the increasing reliance on digital service channels in other banks. The intention declared by the bank to increase its number of branches also asserts that it does not intend to make itself more distant from customers and less physically accessible to them. It is perhaps not a ground-breaking attitude yet it offers stability, credibility, and confidence in bankers to be there in person for the customers.

However, there are still certain aspects the bank can further develop: For instance, applying digital technology is not just about efficiencies and prices, especially when utilised in direct customer-facing services; how customers experience the digital service is highly important (e.g., it should be visually fluent, easy-to-use, effective). Digital self-service should not claim to improve customer service overall by replacing human service, but it can contribute to improved customer service as a whole. The strategy statement is not clear about the experience of customers when applying digital technologies. Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot should also clarify how web-based and mobile app elements of its platform are integrated in its overall view of personal-human and digital customer service (e.g., enabling chats with human bank assistants and not with virtual assistants [chatbots]). Additionally, as suggested in Part 1, the bank can develop its own service model for combining digital self-service stations with human assistance and guidance within a branch.

Let us now take a brief look at the strategy in other Israeli banks:

Bank HaPoalim is seeking to reflect flexibility in its balance between human and digital banking. The bank’s Head of Retail Division said in October 2016: “we are not requiring the customers to choose between human and technological, instead providing them with a right combination between the two” (press release, 26 Oct. ’16, origin in Hebrew). The declared strategy of the bank is offering human, personal and technological banking. However, other expressions used by the bank suggest that the balance is weighed more heavily to the side of technology. For example, the bank uses  ambiguous terminology such as “more advanced and human technology“; its real priority or emphasis is revealed in the impressive expression “digital empowerment of the customers”. The new services the bank is taking special pride in, as presented in the press release, are a ‘virtual branch’ in a mobile app and human guidance in its new ‘Poalim Digital’ branches on how to use an iPad for banking services.

The senior bank executive is not insensitive to consumer concerns about the use of advanced technologies — he recognises that some customers perceive them as threatening, creating an emotional distance, and lacking in personal touch. Yet the bank appears to be pushing too hard to impose technologies that many customers may not be ready for yet, and implicitly pushes its human bankers to the sideline. Bank HaPoalim is trying to strike a difficult balance between the technological (digital) and human factors by attempting to be ‘human as well as personal as well as technological’ altogether.

In Bank Leumi digital banking (‘Leumi Digital’) is put at the centre, as manifest in its website-based platform, information ‘kiosks’ in physical branches, and its mobile app. More recently the bank added its ‘virtual assistant’ chat utility for customers to seek assistance in using the online and mobile account applications. In its strategy statement, Bank Leumi refers to “organizational and technological capabilities, efficient and innovative” (origin in Hebrew). It also commits to upgrading its service model and value propositions as part of a customer-centered culture. However. the bank does not make specific reference to integration between ‘technological’ and ‘human’ in its relations with (domestic) customers. As commented in Part 1, the mix between digital and human modes of service seems to be incomplete, as if working in separate compartments (‘silos’) of service.

The vision of Bank Leumi is accordingly to “lead initiating and innovative banking for the customer”. Overall, the key words most salient in the vision and strategy statements of the bank are technology, efficiency and innovation. There is no specific mentioning of the human factor. Bank Leumi must be credited for its consistent and prolonged support for providing banking services through direct channels that free customers from arriving to the branches. In the late 1990s this bank was a pioneer in Israel in establishing a ‘direct bank’ based on its telephony call centre. Later on a website was added. Whereas the initial entity was cancelled, the foundation was laid out, tried and proven for further development and assimilation in the main service operations of the bank. Advanced digital technologies, as they are better known these days, could come only natural to this bank. The next challenge of Bank Leumi would be to streamline its connections between human and digital modes of interaction and service to customers both in physical and virtual/remote domains. Admittedly, the suggestion made here may be contrary to the leading view at the bank; however, customer service should feel seamless and unified, not  like living in two different worlds of ‘digital banking’ and ‘human banking’.

Bank Discount is actually delivering a very clear message about the place it reserves for ‘humanity’ in its approach to customer service. Its actions on transition to digital banking seem to be more mild compared with the two leading banks. The strategic plan of the bank for 2015-2019 states: “We at Bank Discount have set before our eyes the experience of personal, human and professional service for all our customers. We believe that we should integrate humanity with professionalism, and to that aim we direct our actions every day” (launched in 2014, origin in Hebrew). The words are very positive: the bank is truly seeing the customer at the centre, not the technology, and the way to serve customers better is to do it professionally (possibly the bank’s sought competitive advantage).

Bank Discount is doing whatever is necessary to utilise up-to-date technologies in banking but not as proactively and forcefully as in Bank HaPoalim or Bank Leumi. Its direct banking operations include the TeleBank call centre, a web-based platform and a mobile app for account management; it also offers a personalised information app My Finance (providing market data etc.) and has recently introduced a ‘virtual assistant’ utility. Bank Discount may still be required to be more explicit about its view on the digital front, but foremost it can further clarify its approach to integrating digital and human modes of service and balancing between them.

Bank Benleumi is going along, combining traditional and digital banking facilities and utilities. Unfortunately, however, the bank does not disclose much information about its strategic plans, views or priorities. Hence it is difficult to tell where the bank is heading in implementing digital banking services nor how they would be balanced vis-à-vis human banking modes of interaction and service.

In its profile (Hebrew) Bank Benleumi states that it is “acting to increase its hold in the retail sector” with reference to its acquisitions of two smaller banks (and their branch networks) aimed at particular segments, and completing the merger of an upscale private banking business as a division within the bank. It also lists the general types of banking services and advanced digital channels that are seen as vital to strengthening its hold in the retail sector. As other banks it delivers direct digital banking services through a web-based platform and a mobile app, information ‘kiosks’ and a SMS update service; Bank Benleumi was early to launch a ‘virtual assistant’ utility (named ‘Fibi’ after the ‘mother’ holding company). Yet the bank remains vague about the nature of customer experience one can expect in future at the bank in its branches and in virtual digital domains, and specifically what place a digital-human balance will take in customer relationships.

Banks need to plan and configure carefully how to tie together the different advisory and operational (transactional) services they provide to their customers in human and digital modes of interaction, especially so when performed in the premises of a physical branch. These modes should not be just combined but integrated and complementary. It should be done both cleverly and sensitively.

A digital-reliant branch should prove what advantages it avails customers to patron such a branch as opposed to conducting their operations on the website or a mobile app: for example, it could be more convenient to work on devices and screens at the digital branch, offer value-added functionalities, be easier to find information or to complete successfully the required banking tasks. Nevertheless, a mixed human-digital branch can provide an important additional advantage: a customer who has just finished to search independently for product information on a work-station or watch an instructional video at the branch, can right away turn to one of the professional (human) advisors to clarify remaining issues and perform relevant actions with the help of the banker-advisor. That is an essential implication of a ‘digical’ (digital + physical) approach to retail banking (Baxter and Rigby, 2014).

It is not suggested in any way that branches of the future in every bank should look and function all alike. However, each retail bank can use a core model of a ‘mixed’ digital-and-human branch and adjust its design in every aspect according to a degree of balance its management sees fit and desirable between the digital and human modes of interaction and service, assigning more weight to the digital factor or the human factor. Moreover, a bank may choose its preferred balance in a typical branch, balance the human and digital factors across a few branch formats, and not least co-ordinate between services provided in a branch and away from the branch. Banks will undoubtedly find they have a lot of flexibility and room for creativity in setting the appropriate and differentiated strategy for each of them.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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The digital transformation of retail banking is clearly apparent by now. The way consumers manage their banking accounts (e.g., deposits, savings, investments) and run their finances keeps changing by relying on digital channels and tools to perform more and more account operations.  Most dramatically in recent years, the organisation, design and function of retail bank branches is going through re-conception and change.

Two fundamental dimensions of this transformation may be detected:

(A) Away from a branch: Account operations are shifted to digital channels of direct banking detached from bank branches. That is, banking operations are performed more frequently without requiring customers to visit a branch (e.g., using an online web-based account-management platform or a mobile app), and furthermore without interacting with human bank representatives (e.g.,  talking by phone with a representative at a bank’s call centre).

(B) At a branch: The physical environment of a bank’s retail branch is transforming by re-allocating space, facilities and human versus digital resources at the branch between banking activities. This means distinguishing between banking activities that are performed in self-service by the customers using digital working-stations or ‘kiosks’, and activities that involve human bank professionals. The transformation is affecting the site of a branch all around, within the branch and areas next to it. A salient implication of this process is the elimination of human tellers within a branch; many of the ordinary account operations will be performed with minimal or no interaction with a bank representative within a branch or in adjacent areas. Interaction with human bank professionals will be mostly reserved to consultation and for purchasing more complicated bank services (e.g., loans) or financial products (e.g., investments).

Obviously those changes are not wholly new — customers are familiar with and use various self-service, direct digital channels, as they add-up, for different lengths of time (e.g., ATMs, enhanced digital information kiosks , websites, mobile apps). The current change is in acceleration and extent of utilisation of digital technologies: the frequency in which customers are using them; the degree of customers’ freedom in choosing between digital and human modes of service for any particular activity; the types of services or products that will be diverted to digital platforms (e.g., certain loans will be arranged without meeting a bank advisor in person, perhaps by video conference); and re-shaping the environment and activity in banks’ branches.

The article explores the digital transformation by reference to the five main banks in Israel. It will especially discuss how banks balance between the human and digital factors in serving their customers. Some additional aspects of the transformation will be explained in the course of this review.

To remove any doubt, it must be emphasised that all five banks are engaged in implementing digital self-service platforms and facilities in serving their customers and offering them financial products (in addition to the now ‘classic’ direct banking by call centres). They differ, however, in how they propose and plan to balance between their digital and human channels and modes of service.

The two leading banks in Israel (Bank HaPoalim [‘workers’] and Bank Leumi [‘national’]) seem to take the transition to digital banking the most seriously and most extensively. These banks compete neck and neck for many years, swapping between them the first and second market positions occasionally, yet both are distinctively greater in scale and market dominance than the three other main banks. Both banks appear to follow more closely on the vision of digital banking transformation conveyed last year by Dr. Hedva Ber, Banking Supervisor at the central Bank of Israel, and her projection of how this ‘digital revolution’ should proceed. Nonetheless, these two banks differ on some issues in their approach to implementing the transformation.

Bank HaPoalim is advancing an initiative to establish digital-reliant branches — five branches already exist, two of them in the Tel-Aviv area. Customers utilise tablets (iPads) or larger screens on table-tops to perform their needed operations in self-service in principle; they may ask, however, for assistance from a bank representative in the branch. There are no visible desks for personal meetings with banking advisors for consultation. The branch in northern Tel-Aviv, for example, is one large open space with long white desks in the centre, a large screen on the wall, and a sitting area with personal ‘working stations’ on the left side of the branch. It has a look resembling an Apple store, elegant and flashy. One cannot find in this space the traditional partitions where customers can sit for more private and intimate consultations with banking professional advisors. This digital branch is built on site of the old-model branch.

This is a rather radical move that may precede too early the formation of mixed branches recommended and applied in other countries as the core model. Indeed most of the bank’s branches (more than 260 in total) are still more traditional; the bank plans to reduce the number of its branches and replace some of those traditional branches with new digital ones. Yet by doing so the bank could miss an important stage of preparing the public for the change.

Bank Leumi is going in a somewhat different direction, encouraging its customers to utilise mostly its direct channels that do not involve coming to one of its branches. At the branches, the bank is in major progress to eliminate all its counters of human tellers; customers are referred to enhanced information kiosks (‘Leumi Digital’) that also allow for some account operations, and to ATM machines. These stations are located in a separate interim lobby area before entering the main hall of the branch, which is dedicated only to personal sittings with banking advisors. The bank is working overall to reduce the number of its branches (currently about 250).

The bank is taking a positive move in the right direction, and yet it is not complete because the bank does not truly mix digital with human service resources in the branch. What Bank Leumi is doing is more of a re-arrangement than genuine re-modelling. Indeed it eliminates the function of human tellers, but it does not integrate the digital and human modes of service in a hybrid model and design.

Many bank branches in the country have three ‘service areas’: (a) A couple of ATMs and digital kiosks outside the branch (i.e., on street front); (b) A few ATMs and digital kiosks in a protected lobby area that customers may enter and use also outside working hours of the branch; (c) A main hall of the branch where customers can receive service or consult more privately with bank representatives and professional advisors. Some branches may have a ground floor for assistance usually with the more basic functions and a second floor for consulting on more complex issues. Bank HaPoalim created a new branch version primarily reliant on advanced digital facilities; Bank Leumi eliminated human service for basic teller functions but keeps the digital facilities outside the branch per se — it does not welcome customers using those stations to enter inside the branch.

However, the intention of a new model being developed for bank branches is to entail a combination of digital and human modes of service working next to each other. In a common hall customers can use one of the digital working stations or sit with an advisor on any specific issue more complex and financially significant. A customer may use the digital station while standing or sitting on a couch, read materials on products and perform operations. He or she may also watch instructive videos on a large screen. It should be a much more convenient and pleasant setting than using the information kiosk machine. A bank representative should be available for guidance and assistance with the digital self-service stations. But when more serious consultation becomes necessary the customer can approach one of the expert advisors sitting in partitioned meeting corners. Digital and human channels are thus in immediate access close to each other.

  • Best examples of layout, design and organisation of the new form of bank branches around the world can be found in the website of The Financial Brand: Branch Design (also see their latest Design Showcase from Fall 2016). Give special notice to the mixture of self-service stations and private zones for consultation with bank experts-advisors within the branch.

Banks may build in addition to mixed primary branches also secondary smaller digital branches (e.g., in shopping malls) to provide a convenient, quiet and pleasant place for customers to work on their bank accounts vis-à-vis using a bank’s app on their smartphones. Being similar to the model of the new “Poalim Digital” branches, they are not supposed to come in place of a cross-mode primary branch. Likewise, offering working stations in a lobby, to be used almost any hour, adjacent to the branch is not supposed to be in place of a self-service digital zone within the branch with a human assistant  (formerly a teller) ready to guide if needed. Bank Leumi should not confuse the two types of self-service by digital means. Moreover, the bank must have a digital zone integrated in the overall design of the branch that will be welcoming, visually pleasant, convenient and friendly.

Two of the smaller main banks (Bank Discount and Bank Benleumi [‘international’]) maintain at large the traditional branch format and offer in parallel a variety of digital channels with their facilities (e.g., information  kiosks) and applications (e.g., website, mobile app). They do not make yet any clear or particular stand on the balance they see fit between the digital and human modes of service. Hence, while they make sure to be up-to-date on the technological front of digital direct banking services, there is no apparent major move beyond that which would reflect a more strategic approach to a desirable human-digital balance.

But then there is Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot that has chosen to take a more distinct approach to the digital-human balance by assigning greater weight to the human factor — more precisely, committing not to sacrifice human interaction in favour of digital channels. The bank may have thus found an important dimension to differentiate its brand from the competing banks.

The bank is aiming to solidify its position as the third largest bank in Israel, climbing one position up by pushing back Bank Discount. Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot currently operates about 150 branches, and contrary to the leading banks it plans to increase this number towards 200 branches. In September 2016 the bank launched an advertising campaign, emphasising human touch, with a tagline (translated from Hebrew):

  • “On the things really important, there is no substitute to humanity.”

It purports to persuade prospect banking customers (as well as its own current customers), who still seek and prefer human interaction, that at this bank customers will continue to be able to find a human representative to talk to. Billboard ad posters, displayed until recently, proposed that the bank will cater to consumers’ concerns as they complain to their banks as follows (exemplar statements translated from Hebrew):

  • “Is it no longer possible to talk with a human in this bank?”
  • “Enough with apps, give me a human” [to talk to] — the ad “answers” that if you want to talk to a human, call a specific number.
  • “You closed the branch on [X] street. Is only the ATM left now? What is happening with you?” (the original Hebrew phrase plays on dual meaning in using the word ‘closed’)

The bank implicitly commits to maintain human reference for customers on banking issues that matter more or less. Indeed the bank does not fall behind in offering a variety of digital facilities, applications and tools for customers to manage their accounts. Yet the bank steps forward to assure customers that addressing a human representative at the bank will not be sacrificed in favour of the digital direct channels. For instance, the bank offers customers the possibility to talk by phone not only with a human representative at the call centre but also with one’s personal banker (account manager) or advisor at the branch where the account is held, reached through a direct (seamless) phone extension.

Without undermining their commitment for human reference, Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot may still modify the way it delivers certain services (e.g., teller-type) with human assistance at a branch. A new model may involve a zone equipped with digital self-service stations but supported with stronger human presence or qualifications of bank assistants for customers than what may be offered in other banks. The human resources dedicated to fulfill these positions and the tasks assigned to them should be planned anew.

Of course promises have to be tested in the reality of customer service at the bank. The bank has to prove it can deliver on its commitment to make human representatives available to customers when necessary. A critical reason banking customers turn to direct digital channels is being dissatisfied with either the long time customers feel they have to wait to reach a human representative or the level of assistance they get (e.g., professional, efficient, courteous). Nevertheless, there always remain the more complex and significant issues in which customers may need more serious consultation and human guidance in making a decision and completing a procedure (and sometimes being able to negotiate terms), help they cannot receive adequately through a self-service digital channel. Trust in customer-bank relationships is also dependent on that.

With regard to the advertising campaign of Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, an imminent question arises: Is the message delivered in this campaign backed by a more profound vision and strategic plan? In other words, one would want to know that the campaign stands on solid ground and is not only a marketing communication idea hanging-in-the-air. A second part of this article, soon to come, will address this question, and will also examine what strategic position and attitude take the other four banks on balancing between digital and human resources and modes of service.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

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Every once in a while air passengers are bound to suffer from disruptions to their travel plans because of strikes in airlines due to work disputes, primarily with their pilots. Disruptions mean they may get as bad as complete cancellation of planned and paid-for flights whereof passengers are left stranded in their home airport or in some foreign country (strikes mostly affect international flights). The painful outcome of those disputes and strikes is that everybody ends up bruised to some extent — the airlines and their management, employees, and obviously the passengers-customers — whether in the short-term or long-term, monetarily and non-monetarily.

The highest-profile strike of recent times relates most apparently to the German major airline Lufthansa. It is actually a dispute lingering since 2014, causing repeated waves of strikes by its pilots. But this blog article will focus more closely on another dispute and chain of strikes at the Israeli airline El Al because it has brought the airline too close to the brink of business collapse.  Incidentally, as in Lufthansa, this dispute is also going on-and-off since 2014.

Of course there have been strikes in other airlines (e.g., Air France, Korean Air, China Airlines [Taiwan]) but the disruptions at Lufthansa seem to surpass them all in scale. Most strikes, as in the cases listed above, are triggered by the pilots, and that is crucial because the whole operation of an airline depends on them, giving them a lot of power over the management and owners of the respective company. Moreover, the lives of so many people (passengers) are in the hands of the pilots, relying on their professional skills and resourcefulness. The hot public debate surrounding those strikes is usually whether the pilots are abusing that power or are they making justified claims towards their employers.

There are, nevertheless, other types of strikes, as in the case, for example, of British Airways where the latest dispute was called by cabin crew members, specifically those hired after 2010 in apparently worse terms than for their more veteran colleagues. The ensuing strike was particularly disturbing because it was declared on last Christmas and the following days running to New Year (a continued strike occurred in January 2017). But the strikes by pilots tend to differ from strikes by other airline employees in impact on the regular flight schedule and implications of the demands made.

  • Unfortunately for some passengers in Britain, that holidays strike at British Airways coincided with other sanctions by airport workers of a Swiss contractor. The article will refer later on to other sources of disruption to air travel versus strikes originated within the airlines.

The primary demand of the pilots of Lufthansa is for a pay rise at an annual average rate of 3.7% to be paid retroactively to 5,400 pilots over a period of five years since 2012. The pilots’ union claimed that their compensation has eroded with inflation due to a wage freeze, causing them “a significant loss of purchasing power”. Lufthansa offered a rise of 4.4% from now on to be paid in two installments and another one-off payment. Drastic disruptions to the airline’s flight schedule occurred most recently in November 2016 as no agreement was reached by that time.

On a single day starting the latest ‘wave’ on 23rd November Lufthansa had to cancel according to media reports around 900 flights, affecting about 100,000 passengers. That leg of the strike extended for four days, causing overall cancellation of nearly 2,800 flights, affecting 350,000 passengers. The strike resumed on 28th November for two more days, forcing the cancellation of 1,700 flights with around 180,000 passengers in total affected. It was planned to start with short-haul flights and then expand to include also long-haul ones. (Note: Only flights under the banner of Lufthansa were implicated, excluding  Brussels Airlines, Austrian Airlines and Swiss Airlines also owned by the  group). [Sources: The Guardian 23rd Nov.; Reuters 28th Nov. 2016.]

It is hard to put an exact figure on the financial damages from those strikes. Reports suggest that the airline’s cost accrued from each striking day runs in millions of euros; total cost to Lufthansa since 2014 is estimated at €500m. It is hoped the dispute is now coming to a close following arbitration; the airline agreed to a four-stage wage increase of 8.7% plus a one-off payment, awaiting final approval and confirmation.

The pilots in El Al have demands for pay rise and improvement of working conditions. The dispute over working conditions may tell even better how deep and bitter is the conflict between the pilots and the company’s management and owners. Two issues are most striking. First, the pilots complain of an unreasonable workload because the airline is adding too many flights to its schedule, including to new destinations, and which they cannot sustain — the pilots argue they risk arriving to flights too tired and unfit to perform them. The second issue concerns the terms of employment of pilots ages 65-67: Retirement age in Israel for men is currently 67 but recent global regulation (2014) determines that pilots of age 65 and above cannot fly passenger aircrafts. The last strike over the dispute as a whole took place in mid-November 2016. An initial agreement was almost signed when the second issue triggered an additional strike in the past month. To resolve the age gap El Al suggested the senior pilots will work as instructors and examiners and in other managerial jobs but their income will be reduced considerably. The pilots did not agree to this condition. Last week a draft agreement was signed that will hopefully put an end to the dispute and the annoying disruptions of flights — but no one yet is ready to assure passengers of no more surprises.

El Al’s passengers had to suffer from flight delays and cancellations during several strikes. Although there were not too many cancellations that El Al had to announce (certainly not anywhere near as many as for Lufthansa), the ‘surprise’ nature of disruption of normal schedule was hard to tolerate and resolve — pilots would simply inform El Al at the last minute that they are sick and cannot attend their flights. El Al would then struggle to find replacing pilots from within and outside the company, leading in the ‘fortunate’ cases to delays of up to 12 hours in flight departures and in worse cases to flight cancellations. This mode of action by the pilots threatens to destroy customer confidence in the service provider as disruption comes completely with no warning and no preparation — the passenger arrives to the gate for his or her flight, yet the pilot does not. El Al tried to hire other airlines to execute the flights in jeopardy, a reasonable reaction that angered pilots even more (they argued it was more of a routine by management to deliver flights added to the already-busy schedule). All this wrangling was fought on the back of passengers.

The pilots and the airline’s leadership were so embroiled in their dispute, publicly attacking each other with all sorts of allegations, that they may have not been able to see anymore how this conflict appears especially to customers, nor how it affects them. Of course each side apologised and claimed they cared dearly about the customers, but it became increasingly difficult to believe them. Some of the details that were revealed were rather bizarre and difficult to accept. For instance, the allegation that pilots are extending long-haul flights by up to an hour to exceed 12 hours (e.g., to North America) to gain a bonus. Or, the pilots’ requirement that they would return from long-haul flights in Business Class and be paid as if they carried out the return flight to Israel. These claims made it harder to support the pilots’ struggle.

The pilots were not doing too well in gaining the support of the consumer public. They have let their grudge with the employer to be targeted at passengers. For example, during a flight in last November from a European city to Tel-Aviv they refrained from talking to the passengers and giving them customary updates about flight progress, weather conditions and other information. The captain indeed gave a welcome message at the beginning of the flight but not at half-time or towards the end of the journey as in the normal conduct of rapport on El Al’s flights. Before landing there was only a standard recorded message. It has to be understood that the Israeli public holds the pilots at high esteem and credits them with making El Al one of the safest airlines globally. Hearing the voice of the captain or first officer giving their messages to passengers is an important part of the relationship — it goes beyond the information conveyed in carrying a voice of authority, reassuring and friendly. At the end of the flight, while passengers disembarked, the pilots also remained seated in their cockpit cabin, another irregular conduct. It is a sad mistake, just like a statement made on TV by the union’s representative in the last strike that El Al’s pilots “could not find the motivation” to attend their flights, an agitating statement and a poor display of disrespect.

However, the owners and senior management of El Al should not feel comfortable and content either about their performance.  It seems they were not listening close enough to warnings from pilots for months about the course of the company. El Al’s leadership has chosen an aggressive strategy of expansion at all cost in an effort to hold on in an open competition on airway routes. This expansion included addition of destinations, increasing the frequency of flights, and the launch of a low-cost subsidiary (“Up”). El Al is trying to do something it simply cannot — it cannot become Lufthansa and it cannot beat airlines like Ryanair or EasyJet. The airline’s leadership must re-consider  the range and number of its destinations with respect to its resources.

The alternative cost of the expansion is negligence of the quality of service on board its flights — over recent years the airline omitted benefits to passengers in Economy/Tourist Class such as drinks served (including personal servings of wine or beer), free Israeli newspapers on flights home, and failing to upgrade their entertainment systems on airplanes in medium-range flights (3+ hours). Creating tourist sub-classes nowadays from standard to premium may start to correct the existing deficiencies. El Al must re-instate a realistic focus on quality of service and regain a competitive advantage on assets it can support — service onboard in addition to security and safety.

Flight disruptions may result from events other than a strike at the airline: take for example terrorist attacks or threats, strikes of airport workers, and phenomena of nature such as heavy snow or the event of volcanic ash clouds created by the eruption in Iceland in 2010. Yet, on these occasions an airline can justifiably claim to be upset by a “superior force” not in its control. It does not have that kind of protection when the disruption originates within its organization. Travel customers purchase their flight tickets from the airline and hence they least expect the airline to be the source of disruption. Besides the legal terms, there is a contract of the airline’s brand with its customers to be consistent and reliable in serving them and providing them value for their money. That is also the essence of keeping a brand’s promise.

Passengers endure different types of cost due to a flight disruption, foremost in the case of outright cancellation: financial losses (e.g., flight fare itself if cancelled, continued flights missed, ground services in the destination country such as lodging and transportation, and business-related damages when applicable), inconvenience of making new travel arrangements or cancellations, and the anguish of going through the ordeal. In some cases being stranded in a foreign country may cause greater costs than if being still in the home country. Beyond the bad experience of dealing with the disruption itself, one should not underestimate additional less direct costs: (a) putting off the excitement of anticipation before leaving on a vacation or for a special event, causing deep disappointment and frustration; (b) spoiling the enjoyment of a trip at its end on return home, causing anger and sadness (happy or unhappy memories of an experience are affected by its peak-moment, up or down, and its ending).

The disruptions in El Al because of the pilots’ strikes may have not been as severe as in other large airlines, particularly in Lufthansa, but the dispute threatened to have  much more severe consequences for the airline:

  • First, because something basic in the trust and confidence of Israeli consumers in El Al, which is essential for its survival, was in critical danger of being broken.
  • Second, El Al does not have the financial backing of a company like Lufthansa and probably other “big players” and cannot tolerate the same level of losses and damages to its brand stature.
  • Third, El Al allowed the dispute to build-up with increasing animosity and disruptions until it was very close to a tipping-point of collapse — pilots in charge of divisions of its aircraft fleet have officially resigned and the final trigger would have been resignation of El Al’s chief pilot. Was it necessary to threaten to fire the last fatal bullet?

The Israeli public still perceives El Al as its national airline although it is now in private ownership.  All stakeholders within the organization should bear that responsibility and share the interest to act carefully and cleverly to maintain that position. It is highly important for preserving the loyalty of their core target segment of Israeli consumers, but no less vital, remaining a preferred airline for Jews around the world. This strength, and further measures of improved business focus, can also increase its attractiveness to any tourists visiting Israel for flying El Al.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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