How Modern Marketing is Enabling Delta Air Lines to Revolutionize Travel

How Modern Marketing is Enabling Delta Airlines to Revolutionize Travel

On this episode of Marketing: Art and Science, I am joined by Delta Air Lines’ CMO Alicia Tillman for a conversation on how modern marketing is enabling Delta to revolutionize travel globally. Together, we explore the massive impact Delta’s MarTech stack is having on the business and dive into the emerging technologies Delta is deploying that are already profoundly influencing the personalized passenger experience.

Our discussion covers:

  • Alicia Tillman’s role as CMO of Delta Air Lines and the company’s recent recognition for innovation and customer experience at events like SXSW 2024.
  • A discussion on Delta’s transformation as a digitally and culturally progressive 99-year-old organization that emphasizes how technology is enhancing passenger and employee experiences
  • Delta’s MarTech stack and its influence on brand identity, sales pipeline optimization, and the integration of emerging technologies like AI and IoT to fuel a highly personalized passenger experience.
  • Insights into Delta’s future, including its commitment to global connectivity and the implementation of tech-driven initiatives aimed at enhancing passenger and employee experiences while influencing key business metrics.
  • Fail to Fab story, Tillman describes a marketing initiative experiment campaign that did not go according to plan and how Delta marketing transformed it into a fabulous marketing win.

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Disclosure: The Futurum Group is a research and advisory firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this webcast. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this webcast.

Analysis and opinions expressed herein are specific to the analyst individually and data and other information that might have been provided for validation, not those of The Futurum Group as a whole.


Lisa Martin: Hello everyone. Welcome to Marketing Art and Science. I’m CMO Advisor, show host, tech correspondent, Lisa Martin, and I’m so thrilled to be hosting this new weekly show that’s really going to explore this fusion of artistry and science that today defines modern marketing. On each show, my guest and I are going to dissect this ever-evolving landscape where each insight really opens doors to fresh opportunities for success.

Today’s guest is none other than Alicia Tillman, the CMO of Delta Air Lines, and to say Alicia has an impressive background is an understatement. Let me walk you through it in the next minute or so. As I mentioned, currently the CMO of Delta Air Lines, but she brings so much great and B2B and B2C experience to the marketing role and to brands in general. She’s a very dynamic C-suite leader with, if can believe it, with over 20 years of experience in global marketing, sales, customer success, strategy operations and digital transformation in both public and private companies. She’s a leader with proven success in optimizing marketing’s role in the commercial achievements of business, including SAP where she completely restructured the entire marketing organization and built this ecosystem of partners and cultural influencers to scale the brand. In fact, at SAP, Alicia led the company to become one of the 20 most valuable brands in the world with its brand value increasing with an 18.5 billion during her leadership.

She’s now at the helm of one of the world’s largest air lines. I’m sure many of you are Delta flyers SkyMiles members, and like I mentioned, she brings this really unique mix of B2B and B2C marketing and operating executive expertise and board experience. Please welcome Alicia Tillman to the program. Alicia, great to have you.

Alicia Tillman: Thank you so much for having me today, Lisa. I’m so excited to be here.

Lisa Martin: We’re going to have a great conversation over the next 20 plus minutes or so. What we’re going to do is really talk about how modern marketing is enabling Delta to revolutionize travel, which is what we all want. We’re going to do that by breaking that theme into four sub topics. The first is the about phase. We’re going to learn about Alicia. She just came from the stage at South by Southwest 2024. We’re going to talk a little bit about that and the huge impact that Delta Air Lines made there, even in the noise of entertainment and tech companies.

We’re then going to be talking about the MarTech in action at Delta Air Lines. What does it look like? How does it enable pilots, gate attendants, flight attendants, customer service to really deliver that personalized passenger experience that we all want? Thirdly, we’re going to talk about emerging technologies. There’s some very cool things Delta is doing with 5G, for example AI, that’s really going to drive this connectivity that we all want, whether we are on Terra Firma or in the air. And the last section of this show is called Fail to Fab, and that’s going to be a segment where Alicia is going to be talking about a marketing initiative experiment campaign that didn’t go so according to plan and what they were able to do with data and science to completely transform that into a very favorable and fabulous marketing and passenger experience.

Okay, with that said, Alicia, you were just on the stage a number of times at South by Southwest. I was so jealous. I wish I could have been there, but I wanted the audience to know something that you shared with me from the Wall Street Journal, CMO today, and guys get this, they said, “The hottest spot of the weekend didn’t come from a tech or an entertainment company. It came from 99-year-old Delta.” Is that awesome or what? “Lines to enter its multi-story lounge,” and grab this vintage style swag that I would love to get my hands on that they were handing out. The lines were around the corner for days. Alicia, talk about South by Southwest, the customer experience that this 99-year-old history organization created that was so impactful to the audience.

Alicia Tillman: Well, we live by the saying, go big or go home. So we really wanted to bring Delta. This is the first time that we were going to activate Delta at South by Southwest. Austin is such an important market for us. We’re continuing to grow our presence. We’ve been growing significantly year over year and South by, I mean, it’s just such a beautiful convergence of so many life experiences, be it music or film, comedy, interactive, which is the business aspect of South by. And when we think about the evolving nature of the consumer, these worlds are all colliding and consumers today, they want to invest in brands that have this ability to bring all of these experiences in life together. And so it felt like the perfect platform for Delta to activate. And so Ed Bastian, our CEO, he headlined the keynote stage just talking about the evolution of Delta over the past few decades.

And then our experience was a two-story lounge that we built and we wanted to bring the same level of experience that so many love when they fly with Delta into now an experience on their journey. And so we created this lounge experience that was only open to SkyMiles members, though you did have the ability to sign up for a SkyMiles member onsite. And over the few days that we were there, we welcomed over 5,000 SkyMiles members that had the opportunity to not only interact with our products and the experience that they’ve come to know and expect now in this lounge experience in the middle of South by, but we also had our people there. There were so many Delta greeters that we had at the entrance and throughout the lounge experience, and it’s really our people that make Delta as special as it is.

Lisa Martin: I love that. You mentioned two words I want to pivot on and that it’s evolution and people. Talk to us about your evolution. I mentioned to the audience in our introduction that you are an expert in B2B and B2C marketing. I mentioned SAP, of course now we’re talking about you as the CMO of Delta. Talk a little bit about you ascent to the role and your journey to the role of the CMO and what excites you about being a leader in these modern marketing times.

Alicia Tillman: To be able to have experience in both B2B and consumer, you rarely find that. Oftentimes you sort of go into a segment or into a particular function and you’re sort of pegged as that, if you will. But my ability to sort of lead marketing at the helm of both one of the largest enterprise B2B companies in the world with SAP and now the largest airline in the world with Delta. And then previous to that, I spent 11 years at American Express, so also a very, very significant both B2B and consumer brand. I feel very fortunate. I have always had this unbelievable curiosity and desire to sort of take really kind of complex ideas or ways in which you operate almost sort of like you think about it as a Rubik’s Cube, your ability to solve something and the reward that comes with that.

Companies, one of the biggest complaints often that they have internally is, “We do so much and our value proposition is super complicated. We have so many products, we have so many services.” The beauty in that, and I think of which marketing is at the helm of, is how do you actually take what I think is the beautiful nature of complicated value propositions and distill it into something that’s both relevant and understandable to the consumer and use it to help drive business success and customer loyalty. And when I had said early on in my career that that’s what was appealing to me, I had great sponsors and mentors that said, “You need to pursue a career in marketing,” because that’s really what marketing is all about.

Lisa Martin: Yeah, I love that, you’re speaking to my heart. Being able to take and dissect the complex and make it digestible, understandable, relatable, personalized is something that speaks to me as well. It’s so important to be able to do that. I love though looking at orgs like Delta, 99 years young, as I mentioned, massive along the way, digital transformation, but also cultural transformation. Something that I read about Delta that I love is that for the fifth time in recent years, it’s been recognized by the Fast Company as one of the most innovative companies in the world, taking spot number two, this is huge, for an organization that’s been around so long. First of all, because Fast Company recognizes organizations that are really transforming industries and shaping society through innovation. Talk about Delta’s appetites and what you are doing to really drive the cultural and digital transformation that are necessary for that superior passenger experience.

Alicia Tillman: Well, we’re humbled by the recognition from Fast Company. They often recognize almost startup organizations. If you see the companies that predominantly take up the awards in Fast Company, they’re startup, they’re organizations that have been in business for less than 10 years. And here you have nearly 100-year-old Delta being recognized as one of the most innovative companies in the world. And we’re moving into our centennial year next year. And the beauty of how… We have our brand rally cry is Keep Climbing, and keep climbing emerged from some really dark periods of Delta many years ago. And while at times we said, okay, “We’ve climbed out of that, let’s now pivot to a new rally cry.” We realized that we were never going to do that because Keep Climbing is more symbolic to this idea that you really can never stand still, and in a world of choice and change and evolving consumer needs and how loyalty shifts and the requirements of that, we always have to be entrepreneurial. We always have to be thinking with fresh ideas, modern ideas, relevant ideas.

And I spend a lot of time in my role really sort of studying often the changing dynamics of consumers because we have to be able to stay relevant. We have to anticipate customer needs, we have to be sure that we’re delivering product and membership benefits that are really going to in fact drive loyalty for life. And to believe that you can do all of those things once and not ever revisit when you live in a world where there’s constant change and challenge, which therefore then shifts what consumers expect out of brands. We would never find ourselves on a list like Fast Company if we didn’t have the mindset and the understanding that you’re never going to stop climbing. You may have to sometimes climb out of something, but it’s also about how to stay ahead of change and also be part of leading change at the same time.

Lisa Martin: Leading change. I love that, keep climbing obviously. I think that’s a metaphor for life as you’re talking about that, I think we could all use that in our personal lives as well. What’s your favorite, before we wrap up, this kind of background about-section, your favorite passenger story that just shines a light on Delta, its objectives to support the customer passenger throughout their journey and to help them keep climbing? Favorite story?

Alicia Tillman: Well, I have many, I’ll say two things. First off, whenever I am meeting someone new and I tell them that I work for Delta Air Lines, 10 out of 10 times, Lisa, immediately that person wants to launch into a story about Delta and they’re always fantastic. It’s usually a story about incredible experience that they had had with a product or with one of our people. And it’s always about our people. And I’ll share one story that we recently showcased at one of our leadership events. And anytime we have an event, Ed Bastian, our CEO, he always pulls out an email and wants to share the contents of the email that he read, which is usually about a customer wanting to share with us the just incredible experience they had with one of our people.

And this particular story was a very, very senior executive in the film industry, and he was sitting on the plane and he pulled out his laptop to do some work, and then the meal service came. So he took his laptop and he put it in the seatback pocket while he ate his meal. And I think you can maybe figure out what’s going to happen here. He forgot about his laptop when we landed, he de-planned. He had a quickly, and he had on his mind, he had a very, very quick connection to make. So he had a run multiple gates, and in fact, he described it as what felt like a “two-mile run from one gate to the next” in Minneapolis to catch his connecting flight.

And when he sat on the new flight, that was minutes from taking off, he realized he had forgotten his laptop on the previous flight. And within two minutes of him recognizing this, come running onto the plane was the pilot from his previous flight, who at the end of the experience, was walking through, saw the laptop peeking out of the seatback and said, “Oh my goodness.” Quickly found where he was going next. And this pilot proceeded to sprint nearly two miles, as what they both described, to try to meet that flight to give it back to this passenger. And here’s a pilot who didn’t know who he was. He knew him as simply a customer of Delta. And I tell you, Lisa, this is just one of countless examples we have of our people going above and beyond and so, so much that this customer wrote a letter to Ed and said, “Find this pilot and recognize him.” And we had the opportunity to actually do that on stage during this leadership event.

Lisa Martin: I love that. That is huge and fantastic. That’s a perfect segue into topic number two, which is MarTech in action. Talk about the marketing technology stack that you have and how it enables pilots to do what was just done in that scenario or gate agents or flight attendants or customer service to really personalize that passenger experience in good times and challenging times.

Alicia Tillman: It’s such a great question because listen, we live in a world where customers expect personalized experiences. They’re choosing brands that know them, speak to them, and are going to deliver an experience that just sticks with them and is so memorable. So we have a lot of… Number one, you’ve got to recognize the importance of that. And I don’t want to jump into the technology before saying technology is an enabler of a mindset and what you believe needs to happen, and there needs to be a really strong process that surrounds any technology that we have. And so we have a very healthy tech stack that is comprised of both industry-leading platforms as well as some custom-built solutions that we’ve designed as well, so that we can have this very seamless, highly personalized experience.

So for example, you may notice even in-flight, the flight attendants are carrying what looks like a handheld device. That handheld device is armed with a tremendous amount of passenger information that passengers have shared with us, but also information about milestones. So for example, if someone is just about to fly their million-miler or they’re celebrating a birthday or they perhaps shared with one of our agents that they’re flying on their honeymoon, we feed all of that data into the devices that our in-flight staff is carrying with the intention, and we train them on ways in which they can enable this data. And it can be everything from a personalized note to welcome someone if they’re a Delta 360 member. Oftentimes there’ll be personalized notes from either the flight attendant or even the pilot and certainly if they’re celebrating a birthday or a milestone event. So there’s technology that provides that information, and then we of course train our teams on how best to deliver that.

There’s so many other aspects of technology that exists as well that truly span the entire travel ribbon as we would say here. Underlying all of this is sort of a seamless platform that kind of connects that entire experience from when you’re searching, to your booking, to your in-flight, post-flight, or even touch points along your journey as well. There may be… There’s kind of a really strong tapestry of technology partners that we use to help enable that, but it’s all pulled from a really consistent foundational layer of data, if you will, that helps to feed that sort of seamless and very connected journey that we have across the travel ribbon.

Lisa Martin: The connected part is critical, and it’s there. You just did such a great job describing what we want this webcast to really deliver to our audience, which is the fusion of the science, the data about passengers, their experiences from searching to booking, to in-flight experiences, to landing, et cetera, with the artistry that is what those enabled employees can do with the data to make that experience even better and more relevant. I love that. What a great hybridization of artistry and science that Delta is actually delivering.

Alicia Tillman: Yeah, and I’ll say just a couple of things to build on the art and science approach a bit. The art piece in terms of how we think about it in marketing, it’s really we help to shape the mindset. It’s the creative and these sort of personalized experiences that we know we want to deliver to our customers. And it’s everything from in-marketing in particular, targeted media and email campaigns that we look to build, to interact and engage with our customers. And in order to do that, the science piece really revolves around this data-centric approach that we have. And so it’s data that enables us to target more effectively so that we are in fact appealing to this idea of personalization. And personalization in the way we think about it has a lot to do with relevancy. So the more relevant our content is, the more effectively our customers engage with it.

And it’s a very strong ingredient in our ability to not only anticipate customer needs, but to also create loyalty. And I spend a lot of time here talking about how to really drive loyalty and there are certain things that are associated with it. Number one, you’ve got to be consistent. You’ve got to make sure that as you communicate with customers, you’re doing that consistently and data helps to inform that, and our technology helps to deliver it. And then number two, you need to make sure that the message that you are communicating is in fact connected and relevant enough so that it is in fact meeting those sort of requirements around personalization that customers have today. And that’s another way in which, let’s say, the science or the data aspect of it is the most relevant.

And then it’s really then down to our superpower, which is making sure that our people are really accessing and using both the art and the science to really deliver that kind of core strength and as we would call our superpower, which is just this highly authentic and experience that’s anchored in technology and data, but also delivered by what we feel are the greatest people on earth, which is what we feel we have at Delta.

Lisa Martin: I love that, authenticity is so critical. No matter what the person is traveling for, the group is traveling for that authenticity being genuine is just… It goes so far and it seems like that’s part of the superpower at Delta as well.

Want to move into our third section here as we wrap up, and that’s looking at some of the emerging technologies. I mentioned some of the Lauding and the honors that Delta was recently recognized with by Fast Company. Another thing that it was recognized by is its Wi-Fi Revolution that’s working to ensure that travel is connected. I think we all have this expect when you’ve and I’ve talked about the personalization, the relevance, the connectivity, but we just need to be connected whether we’re on, we want to watch a movie going to our honeymoon or vacation or a birthday trip, or it’s a work trip and we need to access documents in the cloud and that sort of thing.

What I really value about what Delta is doing here is it’s really carrying out this industry-leading commitment to bring this fast Wi-Fi, that’s free, huge word there, presented by T-Mobile to all of its entire global fleet. And so this is what you guys are working on doing here is connectivity at a really scale that we haven’t seen before. And from what I’ve read, the technicians, the tech experts at Delta have really navigated this extreme in-flight complexity connectivity-wise to distribute satellite signals to customers so that, as they move about the aircraft, as the aircraft moves about the globe, they’re connected. Talk about the technology at a high level that’s driving that and some of the emerging technologies, maybe it’s AI, maybe it’s 5G, that are really catalysts towards making this connected experience a reality.

Alicia Tillman: Things that we realized a long time ago are what are these gateways, if you will, that enable people to feel at their best or to feel like they can be the most effective, most efficient self that they can bring forward? And Wi-Fi is probably, especially when you’re flying, it is the one thing that’s necessary to be able to help achieve this feeling of efficiency and effectiveness as much as possible, especially when you’re traveling on business. And so we took this approach and we introduced it at the early part of last year that said, you know what? If Wi-Fi is the gateway, what can it potentially unlock? And so we said, “We’re going to give it away for free,” because for us, it is what enables us to unlock what we would say is personalization at scale. The only requirement is you need to sign up to be a SkyMiles member, but signing up to be a SkyMiles member enables us to personalize content to you in particular.

And so we’re in process still of rolling out free Wi-Fi across our entire fleet, beginning to focus on not only finalizing all of our domestic fleet, but then also beginning to support it internationally as well. And then when you unlock SkyMiles through the introduction of free Wi-Fi, it then unlocks really unique and special content that we’ve curated with partners like T-Mobile, only for those that have signed up for free Wi-Fi through Delta. And so T-Mobile, the types of subscriptions that they offer to SkyMiles members. We also have a Paramount+ partnership, and Paramount+ is enabling access to special content that they have produced. And then you have New York Times Games, Atlas Obscura, Rezzy. We have all these beautiful partnerships. Walmart+ is one of our newer partners.

Lisa Martin: Fantastic.

Alicia Tillman: That if we can give you Wi-Fi, then we can give you this sort of unlock into content personalization, which is something that is top of mind for consumers, is give me something different, give me something unique, give me access to things that I can otherwise not get access to unless I’m a customer of Delta. And so that’s the real thinking behind it’s appealing to customer needs and giving them something unique that just appeals to them in ways that we know they’re most interested in.

Lisa Martin: I love that. And how technology is really a catalyst for that experience of really driving the unlocks. Last question in this section is, what are some of the emerging technologies, Alicia, that you’re eyeing next that you think are really going to impact the employee experience as well as the passenger experience?

Alicia Tillman: Yeah, it wouldn’t be a conversation on emerging technologies if I didn’t talk about artificial intelligence and generative AI in particular. The use cases around that are definitely still emerging. And Delta has had a really long history of leveraging AI, machine learning chatbots across various facets of our operations, that work in support of delivering customer experience as well as operational efficiency. So there’s some newer predictive models like Next Best Destination as an example, where we are looking at employing machine learning algorithms to really analyze a customer’s travel history, their preferences, their booking trends to be able to predict or suggest destinations that a customer is likely to be interested in next.

Because you think about it, I can speak to my own experience when I’m trying to figure out where to take my next vacation. We spend countless hours researching or talking to friends or family, but based on my history and what I’ve prioritized in past travel destinations, and kind of looking at similar offerings by destination to be able to serve up recommendations using predictive modeling that is fueled by AI and machine learning, these are amazing things that we can think about offering.

And talk about, really leaning into personalization at scale, driving engagement, driving incremental revenue. These are all just fantastic ways for us to connect with customers at a much deeper level, Lisa, and oftentimes I think people fear some of these emerging technologies that they’re going to be replacing human interaction, and it’s not the case in the way we see it. It’s about how do we augment and make the experience more meaningful by being able to help travelers more than we maybe has the ability to have helped them in the past by leveraging these technologies, which is really exciting for us.

Lisa Martin: Exactly. And you’re shining the light on how emerging technologies like AI and GenAI can be utilized for such amazing positive use cases, and I think the world needs to hear more of that. Last question for you and final section, Fail to Fab. Share a story, if you will, Alicia, of a marketing initiative that went awry. That you all saw, look at the data and actually transformed into a huge positive.

Alicia Tillman: Last year, we made some changes to our SkyMiles program, and the goal of that was really to improve the experience of our most loyal customers. And when we rolled out these changes, our members quickly let us know that they’re not expected changes, and it really felt like an erosion in a lot of ways of their trust and their loyalty in terms of the things that we changed. And so we had thousands of letters, Lisa, from members that we had received over a really short span of time. And so we said, you know what? Let’s go through and read every single letter. What are the challenges to help inform what we want to readjust as a result of this?

And so we scanned every single letter we really took to heart, I will say, this is an example where the emotion or the art of you, if you will, of thinking really needed to play center stage here because all the data would point us to your clubs are overcrowded, or you haven’t differentiated enough across the tiers because we relaxed a lot of things during COVID, as many companies did. And so any data model would point you to a lot of the changes that we made, but what it didn’t allow for was the emotional reaction. That is also a big part of how you make decisions in business.

And so as a result of that, we applied a lot of emotion against the data and we recalibrated and we made some really necessary adjustments and we were really transparent in our process and our approach and how we thought about this and how we worked to sort of in the next round of what we decided to do, we exercised a fair amount of both data and emotion this time around. And I will tell you customers applauded it. There were still changes that people didn’t like, but on the whole, they understood it more and they definitely felt that we responded more emotionally because that’s how our customers reacted to the change. And so they felt as though we operated more with our hearts when we went back and looked at this the second time. And that was rewarded quite significantly from our customers.

Lisa Martin: Data plus emotion, what a great concept and obviously what you were able to do there, leveraging the technology and the human side, which is I think how most folks should be thinking about AI an GenAI as them coming together to deliver this great experience, is just an understatement to what Delta has done culturally to transform, digitally transform, and ultimately to listen to the voice of the passengers that are its bread and butter. Alicia, thank you so much for joining me on the program today. It’s been outstanding. Hearing Delta’s story, I will never look at Delta the same again. I will look at it as a technology company that fuels personalized experiences with transparency and connected experiences. We thank you so much for your time being on the show. It’s been great to have you.

Alicia Tillman: Thank you. It’s been great to be with all of you today.

Lisa Martin: Excellent. We want to thank the audience for watching. This is Marketing Art and Science. I’m your host, Lisa Martin. We’ll be back next week with a new show. See you then.

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Author Information

Lisa Martin is a Silicon Valley-based technology correspondent that has been covering technologies like enterprise iPaaS, integration, automation, infrastructure, cloud, storage, and more for nearly 20 years. She has interviewed nearly 1,000 tech executives, like Michael Dell and Pat Gelsinger, on camera over many years as a correspondent.


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