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As the COVID epidemic rounds through its second year, Gen Xers, like me, are happy to avoid airplanes. On average, compared to younger travelers, our houses are bigger (so why risk leaving?), we have kids at home to be with and care for, we have the seniority at work (so who is going to tell me I can’t work from home?). While younger Millennials are itching to escape smaller apartments for warmer beaches with friends or conferences with colleagues, we are happy to stay put.

This creates a challenge for airlines. While air cargo reached an all-time high in 3Q 2020, US airline passenger volume is down by 60% compared to 2019. Not only has volume bottomed out, but the mix of customers flying has shifted. Gen X business travelers are out. Gen Y vacationers are airlines’ best hope of a recovery.

Now, as my analysis of industries’ vulnerability to the COVID crisis shows, airlines are in trouble. They have low profit margins and weak balance sheets. In the most optimistic case, experts project that US air traffic volumes may recover to normal levels in 2024. In a pessimistic scenario, by 2024 we may still be almost 20% below normal volumes.

Adapting your product 

Having the agility to adapt to such changes in demand could be the difference between life and death for airlines. But, over the long run, this skill is equally critical for every industry and every company, including your own.

Consider RIM, which failed to adapt to the “bring your own device to work” trend, making old buyers (IT managers) less important than new decision makers (workers), leading to the rapid demise of the BlackBerry to iPhones and Androids. Or, going back further, ask Sears, which was founded around the same time as Walmart but failed to adapt to shopping demand moving out of cities into suburbs and rural areas, which Walmart had designed itself to serve.

How can you more quickly adapt your product to shifts in demand?

A tool to adapt your product: the attribute map 

Popularized by HBR professor Frances Frei and her coauthor Anne Morriss in their book Uncommon Service, an attribute map is one of those easy-to-apply, powerful strategic tools that for some reason too few strategists use.

I have pulled this out in front of rooms filled with PhD mathematicians, chief marketing officers, chief strategy officers who all are accustomed to far more complex analytical tools, and found its simplicity and effect mesmerizing. It focuses you to think strategically, make smart choices, and clarify what must happen for you to rethink your product for the future.

The map presents your situation across two dimensions. On the vertical “Y” axis, list in rank order the attributes your core customer cares about. On the horizontal “X” axis, map how your product is perceived to perform across those attributes. Download this free Attribute Map template to guide you through the process.

Walmart outperforms competitors by understanding its customers base

Successful companies, you will see, outperform on the more important attributes. They pay for this by intentionally underperforming on less important attributes. Walmart, for example, knows its customers want selection across categories more than they value selection within categories – they want to know they can get ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise, for example, but don’t need five different brands of ketchup to choose from. So, you will notice that Walmart may carry only one ketchup brand in one or two sizes. Grocery stores, meanwhile, may stock an entire section of ketchup varieties.

This creates an advantage for Walmart because by focusing their purchases with one provider, they can buy greater volume, negotiate lower costs, and deliver better prices (which is another top attribute for its core customers).

The issue is when your core customer changes. Sometimes the new core customer ranks highly an attribute that has historically been unimportant to your customer base, putting you suddenly at a disadvantage. Imagine if suddenly the majority of customers entering Walmart were looking for banana mango ketchup or tamarind ketchup (yes, they exist!).

This is akin to what happened to airlines, practically overnight, thanks to COVID.

Gen Xers stopped flying. Millennials, after getting cabin fever, started flying again. Airlines that start offering banana mango ketchup will win. Those slow to adapt will fall behind.

How to adapt 

Figuring out how to adapt your product to a shift in demand is so easy, you’ll wonder why so many companies do it too slowly. Here are three steps, using airlines as a hypothetical example.

 Step 1: Understand who your new customer is
 Step 2: Create a new attribute map
 Step 3: Come up with an action plan

Step 1: Understand who your new customer is 

Millennials actually already were the generation that represented the largest portion of passengers before the pandemic, representing 25% of the 4.3 billion passengers globally in 2018. Today that proportion is likely significantly higher (for example, 48% of Millennials had traveled over the 2020 Memorial Day holiday weekend, compared to just 22% of Gen Xers and 27% of Boomers).

We know that Millennials differ from older generations across many dimensions:

  1. Less likely to use frequent flyer programs
  2. Less brand loyal
  3. Less interested in accumulating points
  4. More tech savvy
  5. Less concerned about the risks of COVID
  6. More likely to make leisure trips (v. business)
  7. More swayed by social influencers than advertising
  8. Prefer holistic brands (that play a greater role in customers’ lives) to functional brands

Step 2: Create a new attribute map 

It’s critical that you fairly quickly get your head around the prioritized list of attributes the emerging customer cares about. Here is an airline example. It’s not based in real research, but offered for illustrative purposes:

This exercise helps you objectively describe the new customer while avoiding lapsing into generalities. It gives you numerous points of differentiation to explore.

After creating the new attribute map, assess how your current product offering delivers on each of these attributes. You could simply assign a 1-10 ranking for each. For example, an airline that takes a personnel-driven approach to customer service might perform a 10 on “Experience with airline staff” but get a low score on “Technology convenience” because they have been prioritizing investments in people and culture over technology. Such an airline could be at risk as Millennials become a growing portion of the market.

Step 3: Come up with an action plan  

Finally, act on wherever you gave yourself either a low score on a highly ranked attribute or a high score on a low-ranked attribute.

Low score on a highly ranked attribute

Think about how to innovate to improve here. For example, recognizing that Millennials travel more with friends than business colleagues, Spirit Airlines introduced “mileage pooling,” which allows passengers to share miles with family and friends.

Recognizing that Millennials care more about technology-driven online services and perks, American Airlines introduced perks into its loyalty program like free e-book titles from Oprah’s Book Club.

Similarly, recognizing that Millennials care more for holistic brands than functional, American introduced perks like a subscription wine delivery service, called Flagship Cellars, that helps members accrue points while, more importantly I think, American stretches its brands from the airport into people’s homes every month.

High score on a low-ranked attribute

Think about how to reduce your investment here to pay for the investments you identified in Step 1. For example, to pay for technology improvements, maybe you reduce the number of on-site staff. Or to score higher on a personalized onboard experience, you invest less in your onboard food service, shifting that spend to digital experiences.

Making these kinds of choices, I’ve found, is tough for businesses because it cuts against the practices that made them successful until now. “How can we cut back on staff!?” they ask. “That has always been one of the most important drivers of success!”

It’s not until they see a more forward-thinking airline create a check-in and boarding experience that is completely void of people that they are able to start thinking differently.

Conclusion 

COVID has probably changed your customers’ needs. But have you changed your product in response? The ability to rapidly sense changings in customer demands and adapt your offering is critical for the long-term viability of any product, service, or business. To ensure you do this well, ask three questions:

  1. Who is my new (or my future) customer?
  2. How will they prioritize product attributes differently than my current customer?
  3. How should we adapt our product offering (by innovating in what is newly important and reducing investment in what now matters less)?

Photo by Egor Kamelev from Pexels