Top-Ranked Travel Brands: Southwest, Kayak, Royal Caribbean and Enterprise

Brands count to U.S. travelers. Companies like Southwest, Alaska/Horizon Airlines, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Kayak.com and Royal Caribbean Cruises prove they are the preferred choice, according to the 2012 Harris Poll EquiTrend (EQ) study. The EQ is a major brand equity study released annually by Harris Interactive, a leading market research firm.

"Consumers are savvy, and before they buy, want to feel 'linked and connected' to the brands they're purchasing," according to Joan Sinopoli, senior vice president of the brand and communications consulting group at Harris Interactive. "And, although services may be similar, preferred brands more than often exceed a customer's expectations, making them more than likely to recommend to others."

At the start of the economic downturn, airlines dropped to new equity lows by charging additional fees beyond checked baggage for things like blankets, pillows, meals, boarding privileges, ticket changes and window seat reservations, Harris notes. The Harris Poll EquiTrend study shows that carriers that forge emotional connections with their consumers and over-deliver on expectations tend to come out on top, consistently.

"This is the first time in the 23 year history of the Harris Poll EquiTrend study that we have broken the airline category apart, separating the full service carriers from the value carriers," continues Sinopoli. "We wanted to get a clearer picture of the category, a purer apples-to-apples comparison of carriers in each category, so to speak."

Among the Value Airlines, Southwest Airlines soars above the rest of its competitors as this year's Harris Poll EquiTrend Brand of the Year. Jet Blue ended up in second place. Even as Southwest has evolved into a major national carrier, it maintains its original "sassy" brand character and continuously creates a unique atmosphere for its loyal flyers. That "spirited" brand character, coupled with bucking the nickel-and-diming trend, has created a passionate and devoted following.

Alaska/Horizon Airways is the 2012 Full Service Airline Brand of the Year, according to this year's Harris Poll EquiTrend study. Since 2008, this full-service carrier has seen year-over-year increases in brand equity and momentum. Alaska/Horizon Airways has been aggressively expanding its footprint and updating its fleet and has supplanted last year's Airline Brand of the Year, Hawaiian Airlines.

After a turbulent year for the cruise industry, marked by several notable mishaps, Royal Caribbean Cruises has moved to the top of its category, earning the Cruise Line Brand of the Year ranking in the 2012 Harris Poll EquiTrend study. Also earning above average scores in brand equity are Celebrity Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line, which round out the top three in the category. Most notably, Celebrity Cruises posted a significantly better brand equity score this year, perhaps driven by an uptick in quality, but more so by a stronger intention to use the cruise line than compared to the previous year.

Although more familiar with Travelocity and Expedia, Americans chose Kayak.com as this year's Online Travel Service Brand of the Year. For those who know the site, its quality has garnered it a loyal following in the online travel space. With just one click, Kayak.com searches other travel sites and databases to provide a buffet of options, and emerges as the category leader.

As business travel fuels the car rental industry, modest extra perks offered both at the counter and through loyalty programs may be a reason why full-service providers like Enterprise, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Hertz and Avis are perennially within the top three highest ranked brands. Enterprise was ranked number one, followed closely by Hertz.

Visit  www.harrisinteractive.com.

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