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The few. The proud. The pilots.The few. The proud. The pilots.

In the world of sales, nothing is theoretically harder than the job faced by the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marines are selling years of personal commitment, a major threat to personal safety, and strenuous physical exercise. In return recruits are paid a very modest salary, and a chance to defend their country. Against those odds the Marines are the only service to continually exceed recruiting goals. And rather than hide the risks, they do it by exploiting the difficulty of the lifestyle. The few. The proud. The Marines.

Learning to fly isn’t exactly signing up for four years of duty in the dessert, but it is a big ask. Students are expected to spend a bunch of money, fly as often as possible, and study for tests, all without a guarantee of success. Instead of shying away from the reality, we should be proud of it.

Some call this approach transformational marketing. Others might classify it as aspirational. The basic idea is that the seller is promoting to the buyer that he or she needs to work hard to achieve a goal, whether it be economically or socially. There’s evidence to support that the strategy would resonate. In AOPA’s research into the ideal flight training experience, respondents were asked to list the positive aspects of training in their own words. Simply learning how to fly, the challenge, being in the air alone, independence, and other words came up often. In fact, taken together, the achievement message can through on more than half of the responses.

The first solo is another step that affirms this approach. We rightfully celebrate it. And why? It’s hard to learn how to fly an airplane by yourself for the first time. Even if the student has a natural ability, it takes commitment. For some, it takes overcoming fear. For others it’s about a monetary sacrifice.

Your parents probably taught you the value of hard work. “Builds character,” they said. We learn this message as children. Things that take effort are worth doing. As adults these opportunities start to wane. We’re accomplished at work, our families are growing, and we already made it through high school, college, or post-graduate school. Flying is a rare opportunity to reopen that part of us that seeks out challenge.

That doesn’t mean we should all don uniforms and salute each other. But it does mean that a marketing strategy that points the exclusive nature brings an aspirational tone to your school. The message is that not everyone can be a pilot, but you can. You can be one of the .2 percent of Americans that can fly an airplane. There is power in knowing you are part of a select group.

The beauty of aviation is that once the prospect “buys” a message of exclusivity, they’ll discover a community that’s likely closer and more tight-knit than their own street. Not to mention, your messaging will be setting the proper expectation of the time, money, and commitment it takes to learn to fly—another important aspect of a flight school’s success.

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

"Flight Training" Editor
AOPA Pilot and Flight Training Editor Ian J. Twombly joined AOPA in 2003 and is an instrument flight instructor.

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