In our Brand Profile Series, we take a closer look at surging brands across the world. To celebrate our 20th Brand Profile, we took a trip with JOON, Air France’s new, “millennial-friendly” airline.
Founded in late 2017 as a new sister brand for struggling flag carrier Air France, Joon is a medium-to-long-haul company servicing European (Berlin, Istanbul, Lisbon, etc.) and intercontinental (Brazil, Seychelles) routes out of its Paris hub. Built as a hybrid low-cost airline (low-cost basic pricing with premium amenities on option), JOON has used its unconventional branding to differentiate itself from competitors, so far with generally positive reviews. In an increasingly commoditised industry, such a move is worthy of study and, hopefully, of inspiration
Form and function
Commercial flying is a ruthless industry. Fierce competition, high operating costs and even higher price elasticity make running a profitable airline a very tricky equation. In this context, functional variables like price, practical time slots and punctuality have become the key determinants of purchase, with comfort and amenities increasingly seen as optional perks for leisure and business travellers alike. Style, storytelling and other branding traits have largely been ignored by successful companies such as EasyJet or Norwegian.
This is where JOON comes in. JOON is Air France’s attempt at Blue Ocean Strategy, a way to use differentiation and lower costs to establish a new market within an existing industry. The company was built from the ground up, enabling it to short-circuit the union rules and difficulties that have plagued Air France as well as its low-cost offshoot Transavia for years. The lower operating costs allow the company to increase its margin without having to slash prices: prices for European flights to Porto or Berlin start at around €50 one-way.
But how does the company justify this higher price tag, when faced with competition from industry leaders such as EasyJet, or even sister brand Transavia? In typical French fashion, the answer is style. From the stylish crew uniforms to the craft beers and cocktails available onboard to innovative perks such as VR headsets for in-flight entertainment, the highly curated (and generally extra) list of amenities strives to elevate the travel experience from low-cost to lifestyle. A modern re-imagining of the strategy that led to the success of Virgin Airlines in the 1990s, it remains to be seen whether the company can scale up its offering to the same level whilst retaining its low-cost base and cool vibe.
Fly me to the JOON
Flying used to be cool. The “travel experience” would start at the departure airport, and the flight itself was seen as one luxurious stop on a usually luxurious journey. Today, flying is seen more as high-speed commuting (unless you fly first class or private), and style has largely been dropped as a variable when buying tickets. JOON’s bet is that it can change that by tapping into three very modern trends: lifestyle branding, in-app purchases and affordable luxury.
JOON markets itself as a “lifestyle-centric brand focused on design and digital technology”. Its tagline “also an airline” cleverly spins the negative preconceptions we have against airlines by shifting the focus away from the actual flying. Similar to how Rimowa is a travel brand, not a luggage brand, JOON is about enjoying yourself, trying out new flavours and technologies, and not about flying. This is coherent with its pricing, slightly above “traditional” low-cost airlines. The difference in price is large enough that travellers will feel superior to other users, part of a (marginally) more exclusive club, and small enough that they – or their accounting department – will still see it as a sensible purchase. This, more than the new – and admittedly cool – uniforms, is what differentiates JOON from its competitors.
The second trend is even more recent, and has everything to do with how we consume content today. If you have downloaded an app onto your smartphone recently, chances are that app was free. It is likely, however, that to unlock most of the cool content or functionalities of the app, some small additional fees will be required. JOON uses the same tactic by offering an adequate, no-frills basic experience (free water and juice for everyone, free in-flight entertainment on your own device, etc), and charging you small extras to transform that experience into something truly satisfying. The difference with competitors having adopted similar approaches lies with affordable luxury. Whereas EasyJet charges you extra for a bag of peanuts or a regular beer, JOON offers you the chance to try a cool new French craft beer, or to enjoy some lightly roasted, flavoured organic peanuts for just a small price increase. The result for many (but not all) travellers is that what feels like a rip-off on a competing airline feels more like drinks in a hip Parisian bar on JOON.
Engagement: on Airplane Mode
Brand engagement with JOON customers is currently a weak point for the very young company. During the flight, the company very cleverly created an app (YOUJOON) to enable free in-flight entertainment to all passengers on their own smartphone or tablet. This cost-saving gimmick is actually quite useful on short-haul flights where entertainment is scarce and laptops are not always practical to use. Sadly the lack of a JOON magazine (physical or in-app) is a wasted opportunity, even with the regular Air France magazine being present, but not necessarily relevant in content or form to the passengers. Off the plane, the company has yet to build a compelling social media or ad offering with under 45,000 followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter combined. The launch campaign was a muted affair, with Air France relying more on word-of-mouth, journalists and bloggers to spread the word than on ad spend. Still, these failings represent an opportunity to develop a real visual and content identity, which should happen if the company is successful in the next months and years.
For a company that has yet to blow its first candle, JOON has so far been successful in following the strategy by Air France. Though traffic figures are not available for the company, the announcement of new European and intercontinental routes last spring hint at its potential for growth. While reviews have so far been mostly positive, there is a clear gap between expectations and the real flight experience. Much like Air France, famous for its gorgeous and inspiring ad campaigns that don’t always translate well back into reality, JOON should be careful not to build unrealistic expectations for itself. As the company grows and traffic intensifies, JOON will also have to maintain its post-launch levels of customer service, a task made harder by a European shortage in well-trained flight personnel, increasingly poached by Middle Eastern and Asian mega-companies like Emirates or Singapore Airlines. But the hardest task by far for the fledging company will be to continuously feed new content, goods and services into its offering in order to maintain its lifestyle credentials, itss appeal with millennials, and to build a following among the new Generation Z-ers that are starting to come of travelling age.
Still, with air traffic set to nearly double to 7,2 billion passengers by 2035 according to IATA (International Air Transport Association), there is ample room for JOON to grow. At the very least, JOON proves that the bare-bones low-cost model championed by Ryanair and EasyJet is not the only option for the future of the industry. Let’s hope some other airlines take note.
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