Gary Smith has run marketing programs at PepsiCo and its associated companies. He owns Big Red, the sixth largest soft drink company in the country. Oh, and he was responsible for marketing Red Bull in the United States. Despite these extraordinary credentials, his marketing advice is remarkably straightforward.
Know your product and know your customers. That’s it. Focus on those two targets and all the questions about who, what, when, where, and how will be answered. Smith’s simple philosophy says that you must first figure out who you are—your brand. This is much more than a logo. It’s a way of thinking, talking, and acting. It is the essence of your business, what it stands for, and what it offers. Obviously you sell flight training, but how, why, and to whom? Is your school serious and results-oriented, or approachable and fun?
Once you’ve figured out your school, turn to your customers. Who are they? Are they young, old, wealthy, male, female, or maybe veterans? Knowing who they are will help you understand what makes them tick. Will they respond to aspirational messaging or business logic? Do they want to fly with family or for the personal sense of accomplishment?
Smith presented his secrets of marketing at Redbird Flight’s annual Migration Flight Training Conference, and this pattern of knowing yourself, knowing your customer was his advice for everyone at the conference facing challenges. It sets the guidance for where to advertise (or not), and what to say. Other soft drink companies have dozens of people who do nothing other than analyze customer behavior, he said.
He stressed that gaining and retaining customers is a progression. It follows a predictable sequence of getting the potential customer to know the product, then try it, and then believe in it. All three are challenges for flight schools as they seek to draw people to the airport and then keep them there after an introductory flight.
The progression does provide insight into returning customers, however. Students who have finished a training program with your school are probably believers in what you offer. That means they will try anything you throw at them, whether it’s a full instrument rating course or three-hour blocks of proficiency training every six months.
There is one more thing, Smith said. “If you’re not marketing to millennials, you need to.” Unfortunately the secrets to doing that effectively still seem to elude everyone.
Ian J. Twombly is editor of AOPA Pilot and Flight Training magazines.