What Qantas Will Learn from its Social Customers

Or an alternative title: What Qantas Will Learn from its Former Customers Because they are Social

I can still remember the smell of the lithographic duplicator machines that were used in my primary school. The light purple writing would hold that odour long after the ink dried. And one day – I think it was in 5th class – I remember learning about the Queensland and Northern Territory Air Service. What today we call Qantas.

Back then – in the 1970s – school children would learn about Qantas as part of the school curriculum. We would read the teacher’s notes and then write neatly formed sentences into our brown paper covered school books. I dutifully etched red and brown pencil lines into my book, showing the shop and the sign over the Qantas booking office in Longreach. I was proud. I’d done a good job. And with every stroke of the pencil, I was also marking this brand deep into my psyche.

But over the weekend I watched the Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce – with the full support of his Board – trash one of Australia’s most loved brands. In grounding the entire domestic and international fleet, Joyce threw the travel and business plans of thousands into chaos – and those passengers reacted by tweeting in record numbers.


A usually quiet social brand, mentions of Qantas spiked on Saturday as the news of the groundings spread around the globe. The graph from Trendistic, when extended back 30, 90 and 180 days barely rises off the base line. And while mentions tailed off on Sunday and earlier today, mentions of the name Qantas are still ranking well beyond its normal zone. Jenni Beattie from Digital Democracy tracked the Qantas conversations across a number of other social platforms – from a Facebook protest page to off-brand forums like Golf and Vogue Fashion.

CEO Alan Joyce doesn’t appear concerned, stating in the Wall Street Journal “I think the Qantas brand is an amazingly resilient brand and we've gone through very significant industrial disputes before”. But for the Australian public, this wasn’t a matter of industrial relations – it was a matter of national pride. The actions of Joyce and the Board severed a bond of trust.

Now, much has changed since the 70s. OK – maybe not the trade unions that Joyce is arguing with. But the ticket buying, holiday making, business travelling customer that contributes to Qantas’ record breaking profits is a whole different beast. These are “social customers” and they are different. And brands – even brands as big as Qantas – no longer operate in isolation.

Essentially, your customers pwn your brand – and if they can’t, they go to where they can. This is especially the case with emotionally charged brands (and travel/holiday related brands certainly are). In the days and weeks ahead, Qantas will learn more about the social customer, including:

  • The social customer is ubiquitous: it’s not just Facebook or Twitter. They write blogs, publish stories and photographs. They share these with hundreds – if not thousands – of friends with the click of a mouse and a glare of disdain
  • The social customer wields influence with a swagger: they have grown up with the internet and have more tools at their disposal than you let through your firewall. They move fast and do so with intent. If they can impact the decisions of others (to not purchase with you) they will do so.
  • The social customer is not your friend: they don’t want a platitude and they won’t go quietly. They will remember your words and your actions and they will choose their purchases carefully and with deliberation.
  • The social customer is the 99%: they can smell inequity at a hundred paces. You’ve just given them a reason to chose another brand who understands their lifestyle and their priorities.
  • The social customer is developing a social conscience: it’s taken decades, but it is forming. Just take a look at the Edelman Trust Barometer. Brands will be judged by their actions.

What impact will this have? Here are some thoughts:

  • Long term brand value is impacted, causing re-evaluation of the Qantas credit rating
  • Fed up customers move to other carriers such as Virgin – impacting short term and mid term advanced bookings
  • New customers, aware of the disruption, steer away from Qantas towards competitors – or avoid Australian destinations altogether
  • The angriest of travellers contact their superannuation fund managers to remove Qantas from their super portfolios
  • Companies, reliant on travel, strengthen relationships with Qantas competitors

What else? Is there another impact coming? What else do you see?

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