Friday, November 21, 2014

JetBlue: Stuck in the Middle?

My former student, Harris Roberts, asked an interesting question on Twitter yesterday:  Is JetBlue stuck in the middle?  In other words, are they stuck in a competitive position somewhere between an effective low cost strategy and a successful differentiation position?  The question arises because of the news that came out yesterday about the firm.  JetBlue announced that it would be charging baggage fees for the first time.  For certain types of low fare tickets, passengers will have to pay baggage fees.  In addition, the company will be reducing leg room and adding seats on certain jets that it will fly.  The announcements come after much investor pressure and a change in the CEO office.  Investors have clamored for JetBlue to improve its profitability, as it has lagged competitors in recent  years.  The moves, of course, represent a significant departure from JetBlue's past strategy.  If you have watched JetBlue's marketing in recent years, you know that more leg room and no baggage fees have been key elements of their message.  

Why do the moves suggest that JetBlue may be stuck in the middle strategically?  For years, JetBlue has tried to be the "Target" of the airline industry.  In other words, they have tried to differentiate themselves from the pure low cost players in the industry (Spirit, Southwest), while trying to operate more efficiently than the legacy carriers.  Target has tried to do the same for years, operating at a lower cost structure than traditional department stores or older discounters, while differentiating from Wal-Mart.  Such a strategy has been very successful for Target for decades, though the last few years have been challenging.  JetBlue's lagging profitability may suggest that it has not been able to achieve the efficiency of the low cost players.  At the same time, its efforts to differentiate (better service, TVs on the seats, more leg room) have not been sufficient to generate a price premium that offsets the higher costs associated with these amenities.  The moves to cut leg room and add baggage fees are not so much a sign that they are moving to become stuck in the middle... to me, they may indicate that JetBlue had already become stuck in the middle.   Now they are trying to find their way out of that challenging competitive position.   It's difficult, though, to make moves that contradict a longstanding marketing message.  It will be interesting to see how customers react. 

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