With a rising disposable income and a desire for luxury, millennials are giving a boost to travel brands—most notably airlines and cruise lines—according to new research from The Harris Poll’s 29th annual EquiTrend Study, which measures brand health over time.
The study also shows that millennials are behind the momentum for developing category sharing economy brands. Harris Poll’s study reveals the strongest brands across the media, travel, financial, automotive, entertainment, retail, restaurant, technology, household and nonprofit industries based on consumer response.
While equity among travel brands is stable overall, Harris Poll’s research shows that airline brand equity increased 4 points among millennials compared to the previous year, while cruise lines increased 3 points. Hotels saw a slight increase (+1.3) among millennials. Since brand equity tends to resist movement, the equity gains and declines among travel categories is significant.
“When we consider where millennials are in their lives, we can understand why they are having such a positive impact on brand health in the travel industry,” said Joan Sinopoli, vice president of brand solutions at The Harris Poll. “The oldest millennials are approaching 40 years old with their prime earnings years still ahead of them. They have the disposable income to indulge their desire to experience the world while exploring their aspirations for luxury.”
The EquiTrend Brand Equity Index is comprised of three factors—Familiarity, Quality and Purchase Consideration—that result in a brand equity rating for each brand. Brands ranking highest in equity receive the Harris Poll EquiTrend “Brand of the Year” award for their respective categories. This year, more than 100,000 U.S. consumers assessed more than 4,000 brands (including 100 travel brands) across more than 450 categories.
The 2017 Harris Poll EquiTrend Travel Brands of the Year
Award Category Brand
Full Service Airline American Airlines
Value Airline Southwest Airlines
Cruise Line Royal Caribbean
Economy Hotel Microtel Inn & Suites
Extended Stay Hotel Homewood Suites by Hilton
Luxury Hotel J.W. Marriott
Midscale Hotel Hampton Inn & Suites
Premium Hotel (TIED)
Hilton Hotels & Resorts and Marriott Hotels
Upscale Hotel Courtyard Marriott
Online Travel Service TripAdvisor
Rental Car Enterprise Rent-A-Car
Millennials Push American Airlines to its First Brand of the Year Honor
Propelled by millennials, American Airlines secured its first Full Service Airline Brand of the Year1 honor, jumping 7 equity points with this generation. American Airlines has a higher equity rating among millennials than Delta and Alaska/Horizon Airlines, both former Full Service Airline Brands of the Year.
“American Airlines’ completed its merger with US Airways with minimal hiccups, they managed a smooth transition of their frequent flyer program and expanded their onboard internet service — all standouts in the eyes of millennials,” said Sinopoli. “Keep in mind, however, that the race to the top of airline brand equity is tight and American’s brand strength is driven by Familiarity and Purchase Consideration, meaning they own the top brand position due to market penetration gained from the US Air acquisition. They will have to press forward with differentiating on quality to continue to improve their brand equity.”
Helped by Millennials, Royal Caribbean Reclaims Cruise Line Brand of the Year
Millennials pushed Royal Caribbean Cruises back into the top spot as Cruise Line Brand of the Year; the cruise line held the top spot in 2012 and 2015. Royal Caribbean boasts an equity score of 70 among millennials, compared to an equity rating of 63 among consumers overall.
“Millennials’ aspirations for luxury helped premium brand Royal Caribbean recover the Brand of the Year crown,” said Sinopoli. “Overall, we saw the top three brands—Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Princess Cruises—make noteworthy brand equity gains, while Disney, vulnerable to customer changes in life stage, fall slightly behind,” said Sinopoli.
Value Airline Brands Outpace Full Service Airlines
Led by Southwest Airlines, value airlines, driven by Quality ratings, outpace full service airlines on brand strength. Southwest Airlines, Value Airline Brand of the Year for the sixth consecutive year, holds a stronger brand equity rating than all other airlines. Among travel brands, Southwest Airlines ranks 5th; Full Service Airline Brand of the Year American Airlines is ranked 28th.
“Southwest owns brand equity among value airlines, but Virgin America and Frontier Airlines are gaining,” said Sinopoli. “Overall, however, all airlines need to stand up and stand out – while Southwest is a clear exception consumers view most airlines, especially full service airlines, interchangeably.”
Sharing Economy Brands Benefit from Millennial Momentum
A recently added category in Harris Poll’s brand equity research, sharing economy brands tend to have lower brand equity given the category’s newness and its tendency to expand in larger population centers. However, millennials are helping to raise equity scores, most notably Uber (+15 points among millennials compared to baby boomers overall) and Airbnb (+17 points among millennials.)
“Sharing economy brands are still finding their compass, but show great potential,” said Sinopoli. “Uber is not the only success story, and it took a slight dip when the company decided to service JFK during the initial travel ban controversy. Lyft, Airbnb and ZipCar all enjoy relatively high levels of momentum and emotional connection with consumers.”
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Additional travel findings include:
• Across all travel categories, premium and luxury hotels lead in brand equity. Luxury hotels have a slight lead in Quality scores, but premium hotels are more familiar and more easily considered on most business or leisure budgets. Economy hotels lag across all three equity factors – Familiarity, Quality and Purchase Consideration.
• Nine of the top ten travel brands are hotel brands. Narrowly surpassing Marriott Hotels and Hilton Hotels & Resorts, J.W. Marriott has the highest brand equity rating among all travel brands.
• In the fragmented Online Travel Service category, first time honoree TripAdvisor stands alone as a high quality, high familiarity brand.
• Enterprise, maintaining its Rental Car Brand of the Year for the fourth consecutive year, has a firm lead among other rental car brands, and it is the only brand with positive connection while enjoying the highest net momentum.