CMO of the Week: Delta’s Tim Mapes

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Tim Mapes will celebrate his 31 year anniversary with Delta in May. Delta’s chief marketer since 2008, Mapes is a huge believer in branding from the inside out as a service business.

Tim Mapes will celebrate his 31 year anniversary with Delta in May. Delta’s chief marketer since 2008, Mapes is a huge believer in branding from the inside out as a service business.

“It really doesn't matter what our communications programs express, externally to customers or to the media or to investors, if it doesn't first really capture the hearts and the minds of the employees of this company, who bring our brand to life every day in the service business,” says Mapes.

Mapes knows that people can take any airline to get from point A to point B, so his mission with Delta is to make that experience better every step along the way with a service ethos. The company does this by listening – listening to customers, listening to customer service reps and front line employees who are talking to customers daily about how to make the Delta experience better. Delta has 90,000 employees –many with backgrounds in service– serving 200 million customers around the world.  

“We start with a great deal of listening internally to our employees,” he continues. “What's great about their roles, what's frustrating, what's challenging, what tools and inspiration or information do they need? We are doing the same thing with our customers, listening, responding and listening again. Did we get it right? Then once we have all of those insights, having created the customer experience and the products and the services and the policies that they need, then promoting and communicating that.”

Mapes spoke at Brand Innovators Marketing Leadership at CES last month. Brand Innovators caught up with Mapes from his office in Atlanta to talk innovation as hope, listening with the intent to act and close to 31 years at Delta. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Can you talk about what innovation means to you?

It means hope. Our tagline is keep climbing. This idea of never being satisfied with the status quo and constantly challenging to make it better. Innovation in our space as either an airline or as a service business is a necessity. We see the need for technological investments daily – making the app better, ensuring that we're listening to customers and learning what it is that they still find challenging or frustrating or disappointing. 

The key is listening with an intent to act and then actually following through and doing something about it. Innovation is just simply a byproduct of what we do on a daily basis. We're never satisfied with the status quo. We're constantly striving for better and greater depth of connection with our employees and with our customers, which just drives us forward and simply requires that we constantly find ways to do things better.

Can you talk about how you're thinking about loyalty in 2023?

We believe there is an opportunity for transformation. Which is transactional loyalty, you do this, and you think of it as membership, then as a result of your continued frequent patronage of us. How do we get to know you better, and in some ways, we take pages and learnings from other great companies and brands? 

How might membership really be the concept such that the more you engage with and interact with Delta, the more we're able to learn about you through that knowledge? We then take that learning and make your experience better. We get a very high return rate on those post flight surveys. We actually listen to all of that. Then we go through the data and say, How can we make this better? 

We're still in the early days of what membership can truly mean. In the past, it has been either fly this long and get this or spend this amount and get that but what we're talking about is quite different. Currency is the loyalty, reward and incentive. But why does that need to be confined to travel right to airlines to hotels to cruise or to car, Uber or Lyft? 

Why couldn't it be all these other components of your lifestyle? If you engage with Delta, you have an opportunity to then have a much richer sense of membership beyond the aviation category, whether that's The New York Times, American Express, Atlas Obscura, Paramount, Starbucks, Porsche. Truly the sky is the limit with regard to everybody else we can partner with. We carry runners. We carry golfers. We carry skiers. We carry brides. We carry honeymooners. We carry retirees. There's no limit to what membership could represent at Delta and therefore what SkyMiles could reward or incent in terms of consumer behavior.

You've been with Delta for more than 30 years. Can you talk about how your experience gives you perspective as CMO?

It will be 31 years in May. It's incredibly humbling. Thirty-one years means I've been here for 9/11 and Chapter 11. And of course, the things that have taken place recently COVID most notably. That's humbling. This is a business. If you start feeling arrogant or anything else, someone's going to come in and remind you of the power of being humble and listening. The longevity I have, has done more than anything else to humble me. This is really about the efforts of 90,000 people at this company serving 200 million people. It is not about the C-Suite and executives. It's a gate agent, a flight attendant, a reservation sales agent, a pilot, where those people are doing something that is entirely up to their discretion. Where does that inspiration come from? Do they feel a part of something bigger? 

I have been here a long time. It's actually taught me that it's not about our communications programs being at the top of the heap. A central promise that we have made is talking to all of our frontline customer service professionals. They tell us here's the bullseye, here is the diamond that needs to really be revealed in these comms. Because it's what our people are out there doing every single day that is so inspiring.

How are you telling those stories in your comms?

Internally and externally, it's all about this elevated notion of storytelling. Internally, it is trying to do everything we can to capture and convey the heroic things our people do every single day. There's no manual, no standard practice. Recently, the FAA shut down the airspace. We had flight attendants, pilots and people all over the world in 60 countries dealing with that. There's no training you can do for that. It's unforeseeable. That was equally true for the pandemic or 9/11. What you do is to ensure that your people have got an understanding that we have their backs? We have enormous respect for how demanding those jobs are. They are heroes. 

Our customers who go through these things are out there traveling again, as a means to an end. That Delta flight isn't the end result. Delta is getting you to the thing that you need to get to, we believe better than anyone else. It's still a humbling business.

Can you talk about Delta becoming the official airline of Team USA at the Paris 2024 Olympics? 

When you think about the Olympics, or the Masters or all of the other sports franchises that we sponsor, it's about world class performance done through people who commit themselves to excellence. There's enormous parallels between human achievement, human connectivity teams, this aspect of individuality in terms of commitment and contribution to a broader team, whether that's Team USA, or the world of golf, or baseball teams, or football teams. It's all about world class, performance, excellence and winning. That creates a sense of organizational pride and excitement and a community and optimism. The world needs hope. The world needs people who connect others and are good at giving people a sense that what we're all doing here as human beings is valuable. 

A lot of times, you wake up and you turn on your phone and you start doom scrolling. It's brutal. Where we might be able to play a role in being a true north is this aspect of hope, optimism and inspiration. Value and trust are words that a lot of people use, but a lot of people don't behave. This is really a key part of the Delta difference.

The world needs hope. We intend to do everything we can to instill that sense of hope by connecting each of us because through that connection, you have a greater degree of empathy for other people in other places, whether that's subject to a war or climate crisis. We are a network. We carry 200 million people. With screens in front of you and the mobile app and all these communications that we send your way, is an opportunity to really link all that together and hopefully bring us all closer. That would be the highest order of what we as Delta could do.

What predictions do you have for brands in 2023?

The world is increasingly coming to realize the value of diversity, the value of inclusion, the value of sustainability for those people who are committed to the belief that those things fundamentally make us better when we embrace them as a society, as a culture, as a company, as a brand, as a business. That stuff is accelerating. That is incredibly exciting. We'll see Wall Street reward brand value and loyalty. It is going to reward that upside revenue growth more holistically when you look around the world. 

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