The airline industry isn’t exactly easy to enter. But Devin Liddell and a team of designers are going to try and have created a new airline, Poppi, to disrupt today’s commercial aviation model. Having worked for big design firms like PhinneyBischoff and Fitch, Liddell now leads brand strategy for design consultancy TEAGUE where he works with clients such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, The Boeing Company, JW Marriott, and Microsoft to create research-driven brand strategies and consumer experiences. His work has been featured in Brandweek and Brand Strategy, and he teaches regularly at the School of Visual Concepts in Seattle, Washington. We reached him on a Tuesday morning in Seattle.
What in your background allows you to create an airline company?
I come from a traditional brand design background and one of the problems, if I can use that word, is its focus on communications and not on actions. I tend to be story-centric, I’m very interested in the story we are telling with the products, services, and experiences we’re creating and developing because stories need to be at the heart of what it means to be human. When we talk about creating better experiences for customers, so much of that comes down to how well told are our stories.
You’ve created a new airline but it feels like it’s really a new idea about customer service. Were you scarred by a certain customer service breakdown or did you learn something about customer service in your past jobs that you thought you could apply to air travel?
[Laughs] It wasn’t the negative experiences that intrigued us, though we’re certainly aware of them; we were actually more attracted to the purity of how we could make this better versus fixing what seemed to be problematic. We approached Poppi with a lot more love really. Air travel is amazing and it probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves. There are, to your point, some major annoyances within air travel which don’t have to be there. There are some problems but they need some design love, they need some design attention. And if we can do that, we can make air travel awesome again.
What’s the correlation between good design and good travel?
That’s a really good question. For us, it’s hard to separate design from the travel experience itself. In design, when you think about the experience a passenger has, our point of view is that every single touch point should be designed. The word we’ve used to describe those in between moments is seams. We really like to design for the seams. So what are the seams between when you get off an aircraft and the ground transportation, or that seam between check-in and the experience at the gate, or that seam between parking and when you arrive at the security check point. There are all those in between moments and unfortunately they haven’t been designed as well as they could be. If you do design them, then you have opportunities to create awesome experiences.
How do you expect the Poppi customer to differ from the customer of a legacy carrier?
I’m so glad you asked that. What we want is for the customer to feel a sense of belonging to Poppi in the same way they feel a sense of belonging to the other businesses they support. And there are precedents to Poppi in this regard. When you talk to customers of Southwest Airlines, they feel very tribally affiliated with Southwest. They feel like Southwest is there for them and we want the same for Poppi. I think the Poppi customer will feel very invested in the business and also I feel there are plenty of passengers out there who should not be on Poppi and that is OK too. We actually want that. The worst thing that can happen to a brand is to feel like it’s for everyone. We want Poppi to feel like it’s precisely for me, whoever that me is, and in doing so we understand that it might not be right for others. That’s one of the problems with modern air travel. Modern carriers are so fixated on losing their customers to their rivals. The reason they’re worried about losing their customers is because they’re not different enough.
Could you speak more to the type of customer Poppi isn’t chasing?
A super price conscious customer who religiously checks Priceline or Expedia to find the lowest fare is not who we’re after. I don’t blame that customer at all because airlines have not added enough value to the passenger experience to make it worth paying more. We pay premium pricing for other brands because those premiums are worth it for some reason. The ideal passenger is someone who feels a sense of belonging to the Poppi brand and is willing to pay a premium because we’re capable of delivering value that they’re not getting elsewhere and delivering a value that’s important to them. Whether we handle bags in a way that they love, or that we provide them with branded artifacts. Every year when they update their yearly membership to Poppi, they get an awesome mailer in the mail, a package with the latest and greatest cool Poppi stuff. In an ideal future, there will be highly differentiated airlines that serve the need, functionally and emotionally, for all kinds of passengers. That’s not the case right now, airlines are a bit homogenized if I can use that term. Airlines should be highly differentiated from one another and offer different ways of doing business different passengers can fall in love with.
How will Poppi react if established airlines start stealing your ideas?
To be totally clear, that’s exactly what we want. In all likelihood Poppi will never fly, it will never operate as an airline and that’s what we’re after. We created Poppi specifically as a provocation, and as a gift to existing airlines.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.