Halle Hutchison ’88 Leads Branding for Alaska Airlines
Why do you choose one mobile network carrier versus another? Visit this online travel site rather than that one? Fly on a particular airline? Halle Hutchison wants to know.
She’s been asking such questions throughout her career, leading marketing and branding at T-Mobile, AT&T Wireless, and Expedia. In May, Hutchison joined Alaska Airlines as managing director of brand and marketing communications, where she oversees Alaska’s product marketing, sponsorships, advertising and promotions.
As an Alaska frequent flyer herself, Hutchison has some ideas about what makes travelers choose the airline. Her job is to figure out what “Alaska Airlines” means to customers, and what it should mean in the future. “Lots of people think the brand is the logo and colors, but it’s really the consumer perception of what your company provides,” she says. “We hear good things from our customers, but we want to know their emotional shorthand, what is personal about the airline for them. That’s what’s hard to manage and keep focused.”
Hutchison, an Olympia native, studied film and media at Evergreen, starting her career as a production assistant at Seattle’s KING-5 News. She moved on to a music video company, then had to choose whether to go to L.A. and make films, or take her communications skills to the business sector. She chose business, and ended up doing print and broadcast production. As head of advertising for T-Mobile, she was doing more than 50 television ads per year. “I make a lot of 30-second films,” she says.
Being in the telecom industry started her on the marketing track. “I was in the right place at the right time in wireless – the industry was growing so quickly and lots of rebranding was going on with new strategies, hostile takeovers and customer base changes,” she says. “It got me very interested in branding – what is a brand, what makes it, how do you change it and grow it?” While at T-Mobile, she led the transition from popular spokesperson Catherine Zeta-Jones, and in her four years at Expedia, launched a successful global repositioning campaign.
Hutchison has found that the hands-on, collaborative way she worked and learned at Evergreen really prepared her for her creative work environment. “I developed the more organic management style that you need when you manage creative resources,” she says. “You learn how to choose your battles – how to be flexible with employees and colleagues so creative work can get done.”
It’s a challenge to market an industry that has gone through significant changes in the past decade, and Hutchison is frank about that. “We are in an industry people love to hate,” she says. “The psychology of collecting 175 people into a metal tube is just not normal. Anxiety is high. We recognize this is an awkward situation and we do everything we can to make it more comfortable for passengers.”
In the next two years, Alaska’s home base at Seattle Tacoma International Airport will undergo a major renovation and relocation to the North Satellite. With the move to a new set of gates, the airline is taking the opportunity to reinvent the travel experience. “We try all kinds of things at SeaTac – testing new ways of making the travel experience hassle free,” Hutchison explains. “When customers are happy and things are smooth, all our operations run better.”