In order to nurture profitability, businesses often deliberately cut down on certain physical dimensions of the brand experience hoping not to annoy customers significantly. As long as the diminishing does not affect the core value proposition, the impact is usually quite marginal but can still be notably damaging, especially in the hyper-sensitive world of social media. Such instances are commonly noticeable in the service standards of airlines which is exactly why this practice has been named the Skyfall Syndrome, representing the ‘fall’ in experiences not just in the ‘sky’ but every other arena as well.
Regular economy customers on Jet Airways would have noticed that in recent months, the fruit basket and the cloth napkin are missing from the breakfast tray; the first arguably a nutrition essential while the second inarguably a service identifier of the company. What is equally notable is the continued consistency of the main course, tasteful omelette with a chicken nugget, suggesting that this is indeed a thought-through exercise and not just mindless cost-cutting. A further evidence of commendable management intent is the reinstatement of the ‘Imly’ toffee, a memorable brand mnemonic that had been temporarily discontinued much to the dissent of the regular flyer. The advantage in aviation though is the cartelisation of both pricing and service, the latter in a subtle fashion, which means that the latest cut followed the vegetarian policy of Air India, thus restoring the state of profitable parity. When the Skyfall Syndrome is an action across players, like the reduced free baggage allowance for most of domestic aviation, it can actually be managed quite efficiently by effectively denying travellers a suitable alternative.
It can get distressing though if the reduction takes place on more fundamental parameters as is the case in the branded apparel industry, although in this case too, a truth across brands. Many will certainly agree that while styling and variety have improved dramatically, even expensive clothes do not last longer than a year or two, unlike for generations in the past. A sweater bearing the St. Michael’s label could be easily shared by a dozen cousins while today a similarly-priced product in India will enjoy a far lesser life, true for all other attire as well. What is helping the customer overlook this deliberate fundamental dip is the obsession for renewal as a result of greater affluence and attitude, helping brands get away with such concerted cost-cutting. If a larger socio-cultural insight can be the impetus, then the Skyfall Syndrome can become a visionary strategic move and not just a shallow tactical action.
The environment can also become a valuable alibi for such actions which can gain quick scalability as a consequence of its intended gravitas. Retail brands, especially in the supermarket trade, have systematically given up the habit of giving carry-bags for free and instead charging the customer apparently on actuals. While this has been bolstered by regulatory moves, it is quite illogical how the planet gets saved by charging ten rupees per customer for the same toxic content. Premium restaurants, using the logic of possible contamination, commenced the practice of not packing leftovers but that was quickly felled by the value-hungry Indian eater, preferring to risk food poisoning to wastage.
In the hotel industry, the Skyfall Syndrome can be witnessed most in the bathrooms with premium toiletries and even the innocent shaving kit becoming ‘on-demand’ from being a daily standard issue. The renewal of towels and bed-sheets too are coming under the scanner on the pretext of saving water but actually connected to the saving of laundering and electricity expenses. Even in premium bars, the memorable practice of high-end snacks given free with drinks, the legendary Firpo’s in Calcutta famously distributing cocktail sausages, has been progressively scaled down with packaged chips being the unhappy norm. Another pattern is the gradual quietening of customer anguish if the core, in this case the alcohol, is untarnished but in the case of Domino’s Pizza a different reaction was noticed. Customers fell out of favour with the Pepperoni Pizza since the meats were no longer imported and taste suffered as a result.
Uber in India deliberately manipulated a dip in customer satisfaction by simply replacing one set of delight variables with another, with early adopters ingeniously lured by BMW and Mercedes taxis to embrace and propagate the service. When they were steadily replaced by the Maruti sedans, there was initial dismay soon to be overcome by rocketing patronage as the cost and convenience benefits took over. It can certainly be a lesson for other categories as a catcher strategy, the plug to be pulled at the perfect juncture and a new impetus made top-of-mind.
In education and healthcare, however, a perceived erosion of quality can become a life-altering debacle, so proper care must be taken to ensure stability. While in real estate, smart builders have happily embraced the Open Shell concept to pitch customisation as an excuse for not even providing walls and doors, the most fundamental basics. Subsidised environments such as clubs, army canteens and even railways can possibly get away with palpable reduction as a justification for not increasing prices, in which case all will be well.
The Skyfall Syndrome may occur as a result of choice or compulsion but how we wish to manage it is entirely a matter of choice. If the dip is across the industry then customers are less hostile so cooperating with otherwise-rivals can become a clever approach. Also, if it is possible to connect the diminishing with a tangible enhancement, like stability in prices or betterment in experience, then customers are better handled. If, on the other hand, it is purely due to native cost-cutting reasons insensitive to customer expectations then trouble may be expected, damaging the equity of the brand, perhaps beyond repair. It has been known to happen in aviation, F&B, FMCG, construction and any other industry you can possibly imagine. Unless handled with appropriate sensitivity and extreme care, it can happen to your brand as well.
(Shivaji Dasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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