Great brands create stories, not just experiences

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above: the kind of gorgeous stuff you see from 35,000 feet, by the way

Just last week, I was lamenting on the sorry state of airlines in general and the effect poor service has on the way people treat each other. (If you missed it, take a few minutes to check it out.) Well, this week, I have to say that the hypothetical "airline that does it right does indeed exist.

I'm sure there are more than one, but so far, this is my first 100% pleasant experience with an airline I've had since 1991, when I last flew British Caledonian from the US to Europe. The airline in question is Alaska Airlines (a Delta Airlines partner), with whom I flew from San Francisco to Seattle, and then from Seattle to Atlanta. What did they do right? Everything:

- Boarded the flight intelligently (not front to back): Check.
- Left on time: Check.
- Pleasant, professional, and elegant flight attendants: Check.
- Making passengers feel at home and comfortable: Check.
- Seat design intended for normal human beings: Check (Yay to the old Boeing 737-700!).
- Pilot pointing out sweet landmarks: Check.
- Bringing glamour back to air travel by offering grown-up drinks in a classy way during flight: Check.
- Friendly and prompt personal attention from the cabin crew: Check.
- Landing on time: Check.
- Friendly farewells from the pilot and crew for passengers exiting the plane: Check.
- Luggage arriving at final destination: Check.
- Passengers being friendly, happy, and conversational upon arrival as a result of the way they were treated by Alaskan Airlines employees: Check.
People bumping into each other and not apologizing: Zero.

Nuff said.

So far, Alaska Airlines is hands-down the best airline I have flown with in the US since Y2K. The rest of the Delta organization could learn a thing or two from their Northwestern house brand.

More great brand experiences from my left coast trip:

above: Tea time @ The Slanted Door

The Slanted Door restaurant (SF):
This is the kind of restaurant that makes me realize how not so fresh food actually is in most fancy-shmancy restaurants that overcharge and under-deliver across the US. Everything about that busy, trendy, impeccably designed restaurant made me want to recommend it to friends - and more importantly - go back next time I am in San Francisco. The setting itself (right on the water) is enough of a story - as is the name - but the dining experience tops it all. Every dish looks and tastes like a work of art while managing to be gloriously simple. Genius. Bonus: The waiters actually had fun with the whole Flat Stanley thing we had going on, which earns them good tips forever.

above: The Bay Bridge @ night

San Francisco's Bay Bridge (SF):
$4 buy you a pretty spectacular way to enter San Fran after dark. Absolutely magnificent. This is the kind of experience you wish your friends or loved ones could be there to share with you. (Yes, more cities should flirt with the idea that the way you enter a municipality sets the stage for the entire experience.) In this respect, cities are no different from buildings, meals, concept stores, luxury hotels, movies, and art museums. Smart thinking. Bonus: The toll attendant was super friendly.

above: b.a.r.t. station underneath San Francisco's downtown

B.A.R.T. (SF):
San Francisco's rail transit system. Nothing spectacular, but well run, relatively clean, inexpensive, and supremely practical. Good stuff. I would gladly ride this system into work every day, which is more than I can say for most US transit systems. Strangely enough, people riding b.a.r.t. were cordial, and I even saw folks giving up their seats, proving that chivalry isn't quite dead yet. Once again, a pleasant environment breeds pleasant behavior. It never fails. Perhaps the most intriguing part of riding b.a.r.t. is how encapsulates the diverse, international community that resides in the Bay area. I was one of only four caucasian passengers in my completely packed car. The rest of the passengers hailed from all over the world: China, India, Korea, Iran, Japan, Philippines, Armenia, Africa, Vietnam, Pakistan... It was a very unique experience for a white man in America to suddenly feel like such an insignificant minority. Believe it or not, it was a beautiful experience. And pretty surreal. Very Blade Runner, except without the rain, the flying cars, and those pesky replicants.

Thrifty, Hertz & Enterprise: $18 per day to rent a compact car from Thrifty @ SeaTac. Sure, it's a POS Ford whatever, but $18 per day? I can't touch that kind of rate in any other first tier city in the US. Not even close. And the agents we worked with were top notch. Definitely a fun experience I intend to repeat next time I fly into LAX, SFO or SeaTac - although with a slightly better car this time. (Oh well, reducing our carbon footprint for 24hrs. earns us style points too - and those little Ford engines have more pickup than you'd think.) The process was easy, pleasant, and fast. Obviously, car rental companies seem to have figured out how to do things right - at least on the West Coast. Very nice. Story-worthiness: The rental agents' unique personalities and quirks, and Tokyo-Drifting with a Ford Focus on one of the I5's entrance ramps, for starters.

above: Seattle's Space Needle through the "weather" - shot from I5.

Cool city. No traffic issues. Complex interstate setup near downtown, but well designed nonetheless. Friendly people. Great food. Made me want to move there in spite of the weather in about twenty minutes flat. You can really sense that Seattle is a frontier town, on the edge of civilization in many ways, but it is also has an unusually quaint vibe that makes you instantly feel like you're home. Caveat: Buying a cup of java from the very first Starbucks store is pretty cool, but it's a little disappointing to order a Latte and end up with a cup of straight coffee. (Doh.) But you know what? Everyone was so friendly, it didn't really matter. I added my own cream, and there's nothing wrong with that. Enough stories in one day already to fill many a dinner conversation.

above: an unpronounceable Catalan-inspired dish of clams, ham, rice, peppers and all sorts of good stuff on Pike, which followed this.

Pike Place fish market (SEA):
The freshest seafood I've seen and tasted in the US so far. (Yep, even better than the stuff in NYC.) Shopping there (what with the fish throwing and the yelling and all) is a memorable and fun experience. Combine that with some of the freshest produce I've ever seen at an open air market, and you have yourself a recipe for scrumptiousness. (The local eateries most definitely benefit from this, which makes me salivate just thinking about my next visit.) When people are passionate about their job - whether it's selling the freshest food or preparing it, it shows. (Today's 5-second business lesson: Quality doesn't happen by accident.) As many stories as there are merchants, obviously. Good stuff.

* * *

With so many broken brands about, it is nice to string so many pleasant (dare I say remarkable) experiences together in just a few short days. Seeing the positive effect these experiences have had on me and others around me, I can absolutely tell you with one hundred percent certainty that smiles breed smiles, enthusiasm is infectious, and positive interactions are contagious.

If your business is suffering or stalling and you can't figure out how to get it jump-started, begin with your human touchpoints: Start with enthusiasm and good-will towards customers, and... slowly, methodically, empathically work your way backwards. It most certainly worked with every business I mentioned in this post.

At the very least, a friendly, helpful, enthusiastic human touchpoint can make up for an monster amount of otherwise business-killing problems.

At least for a while.

Beyond that, anything your business does to help customers take stories home with them (especially those they will tell for the rest of their lives) is absolutely pure 100% certified brand-building gold. More on that topic in weeks to come, I'm sure.

Here's to a brand new week - which is going to be crazy-busy for me - but what else is new.

Have a great Monday, everyone. ;)

all photos by me.

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