Sunday, December 31, 2006

Dennis, They're Trying to Kill Our Airline!

In the 90s, my colleagues and I had the pleasure of working with Dennis Nourse, who was then CEO and principal owner of Kelch Corporation. Kelch was a contract injection molder that primarily manufactured fuel tanks, caps, gauges and other plastic components for leading Lawn & Garden industry OEMs like Briggs & Stratton and John Deere.

Nourse believed that building a strong, clearly differentiated brand was an important part of increasing the value of his enterprise. So he enlisted our company to position Kelch’s brand in a way that captured the essence of what made the company special. He also wasn't afraid to invest in communicating that essence at every opportunity to all audiences, internal and external.

An Unparalleled Experience
A frequent business traveler, Nourse was an enthusiastic customer of a newer airline called Midwest Express. Back then, Midwest Express was a small, regional carrier attempting to gain share by offering direct flights from Milwaukee to a host of cities across the U.S.

The real story was what Midwest did to create an unparalleled customer experience. First-class seating at coach prices. Gourmet food. Free, hot chocolate chip cookies on every flight. And flight crews who actually seemed to enjoy their jobs. Over the years, these attributes have been support points for a masterful brand campaign featuring the tag line “The best care in the air.”

Once, Nourse had to cut a meeting short to catch the first leg in what sounded like a hellish itinerary. When I said as much, he replied “it’s okay—I’m on Midwest Express. And every time I know I’m going to fly that airline, I’m in a great mood about having to travel.”

Please Don't Go!
All of this is a long introduction to a story that’s been playing out in Milwaukee for the last month. People in our city know full well that our hometown airline—now called simply Midwest Airlines—is facing the threat of a hostile takeover from the airline formerly known as Value Jet (sorry...couldn’t resist that one).

I’ve flown AirTran a fair amount. And as the recently departed Lloyd Bentsen might have said, it’s no Midwest Airlines.

As a business traveler, I’m painfully aware of what I’ll lose if AirTran gobbles up Midwest. As a marketing professional, I’m clear that Midwest has done an exemplary job of building a brand. Indeed, Midwest’s focus on its brand has been instrumental in not only helping the airline survive tough times, but in allowing it to command a premium from suitors like AirTran. For proof, see Rich Rovito’s recent piece in The Business Journal, Steve Jagler's guest article at or the glowing references to Midwest's branding efforts in books like Differentiate or Die by branding legend Jack Trout.

In 1999, Dennis Nourse sold Kelch. A few years later, he moved his family to the California desert. Word has it he’s having a ball in his latest pursuits. I have Dennis to thank for some of the most important and enduring lessons I’ve learned in business—not to mention the chance to have a hell of a lot of fun along the way.

So I can’t help but think of Dennis as I think about the prospects of losing the airline that’s somehow managed to make business travel not only tolerable, but actually enjoyable.

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