In the travel industry, a connected customer experience is the holy grail. No one knows this better than Molly Battin, Delta’s former SVP of Global Brand Marketing. In this episode, Molly shares how connection is infused in everything that the brand does—from customer personalization to department structure, how the airline built back stronger than ever post-COVID, and why a winning brand experience starts with the employee.
Heather: At the time of recording this episode, Molly Battin, our guest, was Senior Vice President of Marketing at Delta—but she has since joined Home Depot as Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer. Her lessons transcend any particular brand, though, so we hope that you get as much value out of our conversation as I did. Happy listening!
Heather: Today, I’m speaking with Molly Battin, an award-winning marketer, passionate brand leader, triathlete and mom of three. Molly has held many leadership positions at iconic brands such as Warner Media, TBS, CNN and Coca-Cola—all of which led her to take on, perhaps, her most exciting and challenging role yet: Senior Vice President of Marketing at Delta. It’s an expansive role, in which she leads global brand strategy and management across the company. And there’s a lot on which I’d like to get her views, from customer personalization, to reimagining the travel experience, to galvanizing Delta’s 75,000 employees. I’m really excited to get into it, as well, with someone who’s a fellow Northwestern alum. So, with that, welcome Molly. So happy to have you on the show.
Molly: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to the discussion.
Heather: So, let’s go back to November 2019. You had just started in this new and exciting role, and the brand was at its peak: Delta opened CES that January, with a keynote about investing in innovation to create a next-gen experience for its consumers. Delta had its best profit-sharing day ever on February 14th. And then we all know how the story goes: COVID hit, and it ushered in, perhaps, the most challenging period in the airline’s history. First, I’d love to know what drew you to the airline industry after having been in media and entertainment for so long. And second, what was that period like, and how did you manage through so much disruption?
Molly: Yes, Heather, it was a really exciting time in the fall of 2019 at Delta. And I was really attracted not really to the airline industry per se but to the Delta brand. There was this vision and understanding that there was an opportunity for the Delta brand to really transcend the category and truly lean into becoming a trusted and beloved consumer brand. And that was really what I was brought over to do, to help elevate the brand and expand and identify new opportunities. Along those lines, in March of 2020 we were announcing the founding partnership and sponsorship of the LA ‘28 Olympics—so, a long-term relationship with the Olympics and, again, elevating the brand on a global stage. It was a really exciting time, as you said—best profit-sharing day ever, we had a lot of momentum, a lot of wind at our back, investing in innovative ways to expand the customer journey, thinking about customer experience in different ways, how to take the stress out of travel and how to really elevate the experience…and then fast forward to March, where we put the airline to sleep. Basically, we pulled planes out of the sky, parked them in the desert and really had to pivot from building this brand to really helping to educate our customers on what to expect when they travel, making them feel safe, having them understand the layers of protection that we were putting in place and why it meant that the air on an airplane was really safe.
Heather: I don’t know that anything can quite prepare one for the things that come their way, but what was it like for the leadership team at that time? How did you think about, week-to-week, what was coming next given all the uncertainty?
Molly: We were in constant contact, daily meetings with the operations team, to understand what we were doing, how we were going to communicate this out, what was happening in the world. As you’ll remember, there was so much uncertainty, so much we didn’t know. We had three areas of priorities that Ed [Bastian, CEO] laid out for us, and it really helped shape the direction of how Delta dealt with the response and all of the actions that we took during that time. It was to protect our people, protect our balance sheet and build back better. But we were crystal clear, it was also about taking care of our people, our customers and our employees; protecting the cash that we had—we were losing billions a day early on. And then third, making sure we were doing it smart, so that we were positioning ourselves to be even stronger in the future. And that clarity, from the top down, helped us prioritize; it helped us make decisions; it, helped us figure out where to invest our dollars; and it helped us make sure that, no matter what we did, the number one focus was on keeping our people and our customers safe, which is why we made so many investments in our Delta care standard—which was really a brand that came out through COVID around cleanliness, around all the different layers of protection. And it’s why we led the industry in saying that we are going to block the middle seat for longer than anyone else, because it makes our customers feel better and it helps our employees.
Heather: And, as you said, it’s moves like that, especially, in focusing on the balance sheet, as one of them, that you have to make tradeoffs, right? And that’s a move that’s pretty brave and courageous. Certainly, I’m a Delta fan girl through being at Lippincott. I’ve learned a lot about Delta’s history and our work together and what you’re doing now; but I think that anybody following what was going on in the industry absolutely knew what you all were doing by focusing first and foremost, as you said, on the people and safety. It’s hard making those tradeoff decisions is hard. But when you look back, even though we’re still kind of in it, what’s something that you took away from that time?
Molly: It was that clarity that I think really led Delta and helped everybody, all the leaders, align on what we were doing, where to put our priorities and where we were 100% focused. I would say another thing that really came out is that the way that the operation works together is very different than it was back in 2019—the intentional kind of view around customer experience and everything that we’re now doing—investing in the customer experience and in personalization and really thinking through how all the different departments across the enterprise are connected. I would say we were much more siloed before the pandemic and really focused on commercial operations; on the other side was the operations. Now it’s all merged because we know they all go hand in hand.
Heather: It’s kind of the holy grail, right? It’s the thing that people talk about. And as much as there’s an understanding of the benefit of breaking down silos, that’s structurally the way that companies are organized. I know you work very closely with the head of customer experience and, as you said, are thinking about all of the interconnected pieces. What’s something you’re working on right now in terms of innovation, in terms of the experience, that you’re most excited about?
Molly: I’m really excited about a lot of the work that we’re doing through what we call the Connected Cabin and the vision of what we can bring to life on the plane, leveraging the investment that we’ve made in seat backs and in IFE (our Inflight Entertainment System). I think there’s such an opportunity for us to go deeper and create a really engaging experience for our customers. And from a marketing perspective, it’s pretty incredible to have someone in their seat, strapped in, and we can tell our story, bring them value, and engage with them to really create a stronger brand connection and stronger loyalty. So, I think the things that we’re doing in CX (customer experience) is really going to move the dial for Delta and differentiate us in new ways.
I’m also really excited about a lot of the things that we’re doing in the values space. We are leaning hard into sustainability, not only in thinking about sustainable jet-fuel options but also thinking through wellbeing and wellness in everything that we do, from our food and beverage choices, to utensils on the plane, to cutting down on plastic. We’re thinking about [sustainability] through this lens of a values-led brand, and it’s really coming through in a lot of the work that we’re doing. And a lot of the innovation that we’re looking into is pulling forward what we know, coming out of the pandemic, that wellbeing is top of mind for our customers, for the world. And we think there’s a big opportunity for us to make that part of our brand experience.
Heather: There’s so much talk about the reassessment of what we value in this period of time, in our lives, that have had people really question where they’re spending their time, how they’re spending their time and wanting to focus on the things that matter to them. Did you and the leadership team undergo an effort to renew or refresh your corporate values? Or is it something that has been baked in that you’re now building meaning into those values?
Molly: One of the silver linings, if you think about it, is that when you shut down an airline or put it to sleep, as our president said, we’re finding that it was hard to put an airline to sleep but it’s much harder to wake it up. So, as we pull back the operations, getting that muscle memory back, we had the opportunity to bring it back in a different and new way that I think really put us on a path that leapfrogs where we would’ve been if we hadn’t had that opportunity. We brought back how we marketed, how we think about marketing with an audience-led approach as opposed to really pushing what Delta thought and what Delta needed by really starting with the consumer, putting the customer at the center of all of our marketing and our messages. So, I think it’s a really big opportunity for us, and I’m excited about some of the things that we can unlock.
Heather: And give me an example of that shift in approach, how that shows up for me as a customer, as an employee. What’s a tangible example of that?
Molly: It’s interesting, Heather. Pre-pandemic, we were very focused on the corporate traveler—that was our bread and butter. But corporate travel has not come back as fast. That has really enabled us to take a step back and really dive deep into our customers and who is on the plane, who is traveling now. In the past, we never really focused on our leisure travelers, our high-end leisure; we were so focused on corporate that we kind of ignored the two sides of you. So Heather, you travel as a corporate business traveler when you go on business for Lippincott, but you’re also that person when you go on vacation. How do we make sure we know who you are and what experience you’re looking for and what your mindset is when you’re traveling? So, we’re really thinking through how we put that customer, their attributes, their motivations at the center of what we do as we drive more personalization. So, that’s one example: looking at the whole traveler vs. just one side.
Heather: I had read that there had been the first Parallel Reality beta experience in Detroit along the same lines as really understanding the whole person, personalizing the customer experience from the curb to the gate. Tell me a little bit more about how that’s going, how you’re thinking more about a test-and-learn approach with some of these new innovations.
Molly: Yes, it’s really exciting. The Parallel Reality is something that we talked about at CES back in 2020, but we have just launched a test of it in Detroit. And it’s amazing if you stand back and watch people interact with this screen, just the look of fascination in all on their faces. It’s a neat kind of consumer observation opportunity to see people and to think that the person next to you is getting different information from what you’re getting. And that’s really where we want to go. We know that traveling can be really stressful, especially if you’re not a frequent traveler. So we’re finding ways to personalize the experience, take the stress out and really, if you will, hold your hand or be that travel concierge for you—even pre-travel, all the way through baggage claim and pickup, and then making sure that we’re continuing to stay with you to keep you loyal and part of our Sky Miles program. So that’s just one area where we’re testing innovative solutions, partnering with different companies, just to find ways to, again, elevate the travel experience and really help make it a more pleasant journey.
Heather: I’m just thinking about the two sides: There’s Molly the human being and the mom and the triathlete and the traveler; and then there’s Molly who actually runs all of marketing and brand for this airline. Is traveling a different experience for you now? Do you pick up on things or observe things in different ways?
Molly: You know, Heather, it totally is. When I was at Turner, Warner Media, I traveled almost every week to New York. I was a million miler and diamond medallion, loyal, loyal Delta fan girl, like you said. So that was really something that attracted me to coming to Delta. Now that I know the operation and see what is behind it, I have to say that I am in awe, every time, just knowing the technical operation and the hyperfocus that this team has on safety, on reliability. I see the attention to detail, the amount of complexity that goes into everything to get everything operating on time. I always appreciated the people at Delta; it was one of the things that attracted me. They are our brand, right? The warmth, the Delta Difference that we talk about. But now, I appreciate it even more—what they do, how hard their jobs are, and how they show up with a smile and a lending hand. Most of the time they don’t know who I am or that I work at Delta. So I love just being able to interact with the gate agent or the flight attendant and being able to go back and sing their praises.
Heather: Oh, that’s wonderful. It’s like Undercover Boss. You just talked about the Delta Difference in employees, and I remember in the work that we did with Delta, when you were reemerging from chapter 11, that there was so much focus on reimagining the brand, the experience. But so much of it was focused on the people and the ground crew all the way up to the CEO. It’s hard to continue to understand what our employees and our colleagues need and how to best support them. And it’s certainly something that I think every company is thinking about, especially in the war for talent. So, I would love any advice that you have, in the role that you are in, where you’re really thinking about the brand from both the inside-out and the outside-in. What are some of the small ways in which you’re able to focus on the employee and bring that idea of the Delta Difference to life?
Molly: It’s from the top, right? Ed always talks about a flywheel effect. We believe if we treat our people right, they will treat our customers right—which, in turn, will elevate our brand and which will then help our shareholders. Right? So, it’s a whole flywheel, but it starts with our employees. We did a lot of work to really take our mission, which was always “No one better connects the world,” and really drilling down into what does that mean—How do I show up as a Delta employee? How do I show up to our customers? And how do I show up to our community?—so that we could make sure that every person, all 75,000 of us, were all working off the same sheet of paper and creating that very consistent brand experience. We started with the core, and the basics of what we do is that we connect people to place. That is our 100% promise. It’s about safety first. It’s about reliability. It’s about getting you there on time, with your bag. That is the core. That’s our most fundamental promise.
Then, if you move up, it’s about how we show up in our communities, how we give back. It’s a core part of what Delta stands for. Then you go up to person-to-person, which is really those moments of interaction and making sure that we bring the Delta Difference through every interaction that we have with our customers: little, big, whatever it may be, that warmth. Ultimately, at the tip of the pyramid, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the top piece it’s about connecting people to potential. And that’s where we think the brand can really live and thrive, which is about getting people to where they need to be so they can live their best life and do the best things that they need to do, whether it’s closing a deal, giving a big presentation or attending your grandson’s birthday. And how can we fuel that?
And then we talk a lot about doing it through three core attributes, which is about being elevated, being caring, and being welcoming. And those three things really guide how we talk, how we show up, our service and the policies that we make—making sure that everything that we do, every experience and interaction, is around those three attributes. We’re really rolling that out across the entire company and changing—even down to your text messages that you get from Delta, your emails that you get from Delta, how we show up and service recovery to products that we put on the planes. So, it’s really exciting, I think, to see the entire company galvanize around this new vision. It’s not even new, it’s just better, I think it’s just articulated in a way that everyone can understand—from the ramp agent, to the flight attendants, to our pilots, to the people working in the corporate offices.
Heather: One of the things you were just talking about, which is everything from the way an agent might greet you to the importance of brand voice when I receive a text message or an email message—and sometimes literally, the voice that’s coming out of a real person in front of you trying to help you, or, in some cases, through digital or social channels…how do you think about brand voice and how it flexes across those? And how are you playing around with it to get to the embodiment of those attributes that you talked about?
Molly: It’s a great question. When we started to dive deeper into the number of messages and the number of places that messages from Delta to our customers come from, it’s almost unwieldy. So, we have put in place what we call our messaging task force group that is really trying to get our arms around all of the different places that kind of trigger messaging so that we can make them more consistent and make them reflect the brand attributes that I mentioned. You could get an email from the marketing team, a text from the digital team, a text from the operation, an SMS message from reservations, and they’re all coming in different ways and fashions. We’re trying to get our arms around how we can clean that up or just make it more consistent, so that we understand the context of the message. If it’s in the middle of an IROP, or an interrupted situation, we want to make sure that we’re leaning into the caring piece of it, the empathy, and really doing all we can to help that customer. If it’s an on-time arrival or we get in early, let’s make sure we’re celebrating that. So, really, thinking through: What is the moment in time? What is the context of the message? And then, how do we deliver and lean into the different attributes based on those three things?
Heather: So, some of what you’re talking about, related to the connected experience, is obviously where travel is headed. And I’m curious, what you’re all seeing or thinking as it relates to where we’re going as we think about the future of travel?
Molly: We think the future is continued human connection. And it’s finding ways to connect people to their best potential. How we do it is through that power of human connection. So, as we think about investment in technology, in data and mass personalization that I talked about, it’s all about service to better human connections—so that we can empower our people to know more about you, so they can deliver better service. I think we’re going to be seeing more investment in the technology, but investment not just for technology’s sake; rather, investment so that we can improve the customer experience and the human connection that our employees have with our customers. I think that’s really exciting. That’s the way Delta is looking at the future and where we’re leaning into—how we create a more personalized experience for you.
Heather: And it’s expected, right? In certain ways, because we’ve experienced it in different products or services and know it’s possible. Switching gears just a little bit, you’ve had an amazing career. I’m particularly intrigued by your time at Turner and Warner Media. You’ve won dozens of awards and have just done amazing things there. What’s something that you’re really proud of in terms of your time in those various roles, and what do you bring forth with you to this day?
Molly: One of the things that I loved working on was the branding of TBS. Back in the day, it was basic cable. This was a time when cable networks didn’t really have a brand. So this was a new idea, to bring branding and marketing and have a position for your cable network. Everything used to be very, kind of general mass market, and TBS was the superstation. It was the station at the time: We had the Braves. We had Mayberry and a bunch of different movies. And we shared a lot with TNT, our sister network. But we had the vision to come in and really lead a rebranding of this network and change the face and the demographic of the people who watched—which, obviously at the time, was beneficial for our ad sales group. We were selling advertising, a lot pre-streaming, right? So, doing the work there and really understanding that there was a block of programming during the day that consisted of Seinfeld, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond…that was just off the charts. It was in the middle of the afternoon, randomly, and people were flocking to it, watching it. And they were younger and more affluent than the rest of the viewers on the network. So, we had an opportunity to take that insight, that block of programming, and completely reprogram the network, rebrand it, and take some risks. What I loved about that was the idea that we were bringing branding to a new category, changing the way people were thinking; it was a new concept at Turner. I just think bringing forward creativity, ideas—always starting with the customer or the consumer insight and then thinking about new and creative ways to brand—is really fun. And taking risks…the campaign was a real risk, and it paid off. We won a Cannes Lion with it. It really broke through.
Heather: And it’s endured. I mean, what a great story. I love my Seinfeld reruns. So, you are a mom of three, you lend your time to supporting and advising nonprofits like the Children’s Museum of Atlanta and you have completed a half iron triathlon—which, for those that don’t know, is a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run—which I just think is amazing. How do you find time for balance? It’s a tricky term; it’s a loaded term. I would love any advice that you have for our listeners. With such a massive job and all of the other things that you’re juggling, how do you make it work?
Molly: It goes in ebbs and flows, as you know, right? There are some days where you have to give yourself more to the job and other times where you lean into your family; and the hope is that it all balances out. But I’m very lucky. I have a wonderful husband, a great partner, who helps me. And honestly, it’s been the mentors and bosses and the work environment in my life that have enabled me to have the balance that I need. I try to bring that forward to my team, to make sure that they know it’s not about the time in the office or how much I see you behind your desk; rather, it’s about the work that you deliver. But you don’t have to do it on my timeline. You can do it when you need to do it, because I want you to be able to be there—whether it’s a music class for your daughter or the lacrosse game for your son. You can’t miss out on those things; because, if you miss out, you’re going to regret it and then it becomes resentment. So, finding that balance is hard; but it is something that I insist upon on my team, and I try to lead by example. This is a 24/7 kind of operation, so we’re always on; but making sure that we find time for everything that makes you a whole person, I think, is essential.
Heather: That’s great. And I think that the modeling of it is really important. So, I like to end each episode by asking the question: Who is your icon?
Molly: You know, it’s such a great question. I love it. There is one person who has been with me, or for me, or behind me, or supporting me, through my career. It’s Steve Koonin, who is the CEO of the Atlanta Hawks. I was fortunate enough to work for him at Coca-Cola way back when, and I was on his Sprite brand team; and he broke every rule. He is the epitome of creativity, of innovation, of trying new things, of being a fearless marketer. And then, luckily, I ended up working for him again at Turner. He and I were kind of partners in crime. He was the president, as we led the rebranding of TBS. And then, I’ve just been fortunate enough to stay close to him and watch him as he progressed his career and took on the Atlanta Hawks. He has just reimagined that franchise for the city of Atlanta through his leadership and reimagined the experience that you have when you go to a Hawks game. And what he’s done in the DEI space and just really elevating that team has just been great to watch. So, he is one of my icons when I think of trying new things or being uncomfortable or putting myself in new situations. I always think, “What would Steve do?” And it’s always, “He would go for it.”
Heather: Who knows! Maybe there will be a third act, and you guys will come back together again at some point and do amazing things. But I just want to thank you so much, Molly. I loved hearing the story about your journey at Delta so far, and we’ll look forward to staying connected.
Molly: That sounds great. Thanks so much, Heather. I appreciate it.
I think there's such an opportunity for us to go deeper and create a really engaging experience for our customers.