Southwest, Priceline creating consumer buzz, but does it matter?

It’s often said that reality bites but for travelers, it’s no match for perception.

According to just-released data from YouGov BrandIndex, a New York-based Internet market research company, some travel providers are generating positive buzz while others may just leave travelers feeling stung.

“Buzz is the entirety of what consumers are hearing about a brand,” said Ted Marzilli, CEO of YouGov's BrandIndex. “What they hear through advertising, news, friends and family helps shape their impressions of brands and whether or not they’ll consider interacting with them.”

Released on Thursday, the company’s mid-year review investigated brand perceptions in 20 categories, including four in travel: airlines, hotels, rental cars and travel agents. Researchers asked respondents if they’d heard anything about individual companies — positive or negative — during the previous two weeks and assigned Buzz scores based on the results.

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Among those receiving the best buzz in travel: Southwest (18.3), Marriott (9.8), Enterprise (8.7) and Priceline (11.2). (For comparison purposes, a brand that received all positive comments would score 100 while one that received all negative ones would score -100, so anything above zero can be considered good buzz.)

The company also tallies which brands had the worst buzz but doesn’t release that data.

Among airlines, Southwest soared above other top scorers, including JetBlue (4.3), Delta (3.4), Alaska (3.0) and Virgin America (3.0), in part, says Marzilli, due to a spring TV campaign that recapped the carrier’s 40-year history.

Most improved honors went to American Airlines, rising from -8.8 to 2.7, as consumer perceptions focused less on the airline’s bankruptcy and more on its progress toward integration with US Airways.

Among hotels, the rankings were much tighter, with Marriott being followed closely by Holiday Inn (8.3), Courtyard by Marriott (8.1), Hilton (7.3) and Best Western (7.1).

According to Marzilli, Marriott probably benefited from its rollout of a new interactive website and mobile check-in options; Holiday Inn, from a social media campaign featuring “The Daily Show” correspondent Jason Jones.

“The average consumer can also afford to stay at a Marriott or Holiday Inn so they’re the brands that seem to bubble up to the top,” he said.

But other factors may also be at play, says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Hudson Crossing, who suggests that the perception of any brand may say as much about the perceiver as it does the brand itself.

“There’s a critical mass of consumers who view travel brands as reflections of themselves,” he said. “For some people, it’s like designer labels in their clothes or driving a certain car. For them, the airline they fly, the hotel they stay at, matters.”

For his part, Marzilli readily accepts that other factors, including personal style, brand loyalty and previous experiences, also play a role in people’s perceptions of travel brands.

“Buzz isn’t the be-all and end-all but it is a sort of early-warning measurement,” he said. “Sometimes it has a direct impact; sometimes it’s more subtle but it influences people’s decision-making in terms of who’s the first brand they’re going to contact when they’re thinking about travel.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.