Civil Aviation

MAR 15 2011
Civil Aviation: Airline Branding

The British Airways speedbird and easyJet's orange, Emirates and Singapore Airlines offering the best in-flight service and Lufthansa being reliable. These are all images and reputations from the airline industry familiar to millions of travellers. They are among the most famous airline brands. And just like companies in other industries an airline needs a winning brand whether it's launching onto the market, wanting to grow, consolidate or simply survive. But what's involved?

Firstly, what is branding? Phil Edelin, a senior consultant at the creative agency Dave, puts it simply: "A brand is something you receive - it's not just a label. A brand is about providing your customers with the proposition they need."

The first point of branding for an airline, therefore, is working out what its customers - and prospective customers - actually require. And what they want differs with each market, meaning airline brands differ. The low-cost airline brands are different to those of the long-haul premium carriers, for example. Whatever the market and whoever the customers, though, an airline has to stand for something and offer the experience its passengers demand. "Each airline has a brand to suit its needs, and what's important for an airline is to really know what its customers want," says Edelin.

Edelin thinks the basic principle of success for airline brands is offering a service customers find quick, hassle-free and pleasurable. "Just to be a big name with lots of aircraft won't actually get you very far," he told Global Aviation Resource. "To get ahead airlines need to focus on quality and efficiency and making our lives easier and happier...it's about things like how we arrive, the quickest way to board and exit and to prepare us for the onward journey."

Peter Knapp, executive creative director Europe and Middle East at Landor Associates, a branding agency that's worked with many airlines worldwide, says: "In the face of unrelentingly harsh economic conditions and aggressive competition the airline brands must ensure both their relevance and difference are clear to the customer in order to preserve their competitive advantage. You can cut costs to save money but that can become a short term saving if you cut and kill the brand's potency. If the fares, product and schedules are similar the brand is key to help preference in the mind of the customer."

It's all about the right experience for the customer in question. Obviously excellent customer service, well-trained staff and easy-to-use telephone and web booking systems are a given, but there are differences between markets in what exactly constitutes the 'right experience' and therefore what drives different brands. For airlines offering long-haul routes and premium service branding is about high-quality in-flight service and facilities, and for low-cost carriers branding is about the cheapest and most efficient way of transport.

At the premium end of the market the likes of Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic are frequently cited as exemplars of the sort of quality experience business-class passengers expect. For these airlines branding means investment in lounges offering quality food and drink, massage and beauty treatments, mobile boarding passes, onboard Wi-Fi connectivity, frequent flyer programmes and excellent service from cabin crew.

Singapore's unique selling proposition, even now, is the reputation of its hostesses, the 'Singapore Girls', who are promoted as the epitome of quality in-flight service. Virgin, meanwhile, offers on-board MP3 players, designer seating and a door-to-door service. "Virgin does that quite well," says Adrian Pring, a consultant analyst at The Brand Union. "A limousine picks you up from your home, takes you into a Virgin lounge and there's another Virgin limousine at the hotel. That's a good example of experience management, but it's very expensive and that's why it's so difficult to achieve."

At the other end of the market, low-cost airlines are cited as equally excellent examples of good airline brands. "Although they're low-cost, they are still strong brands," Edelin says. "We understand that they're quick and efficient, that they help us by changing our flight bookings and that they're working to get us from A to B as quickly as possible. Ryanair has a strong brand. It stands for the lowest possible cost and you know you're going to get it...they don't need to add frills to that."

This isn't to say the brand differences between premium and low-cost carriers are mutually exclusive, as elements sometimes cross over to other markets. Most airlines now have smartphone apps, which originally were the preserve of the premium carriers. Two low-fare airlines, Flybe and US carrier JetBlue, both offer certain frills in the belief that many people want comfort as well as good deals. Edelin notes that Flybe offers a business class-style fast check-in at London City, while JetBlue has created what's been described as a "no-frills chic" approach with Italian furniture and Wi-Fi in its lounges at New York JFK.

For some airlines, brand management is complicated by strategic alliances and partnerships. Adrian Pring believes differing levels of service offered by carriers operating together on codeshares or partnerships can be problematic. "BA and Cathay Pacific are closely aligned as members of the oneworld alliance," notes Pring. "They codeshare on a number of routes. Let's say you're flying from Hong Kong to Madrid. You fly Cathay from Hong Kong to London, then BA from London to Madrid. When you fly with Cathay you're flying on a five-star airline [Cathay Pacific is rated 5 stars by Skytrax, the passenger experience ratings agency] for 14 hours from Hong Kong to London, enjoying the exceptional service that Cathay offers. Then you're going to have a two-and-a-half hour flight on a smaller aircraft which doesn't have the first-class experience, and so the level of attention to detail differs quite substantially. It creates issues around your travel experience."

Pring believes airlines in this position have to work harder to 'control' their brands and offer a good experience, because otherwise the brands involved will suffer. Peter Knapp thinks more attention needs to be given to this area. "I think what was until recently just an operational construct that had little relevance to the passenger will now become increasingly active and valuable as the alliance brands are leveraged to create more efficiencies," he said. "The challenge will be to develop them into complete service brands."

Meaning something to customers - and those people airlines want to become customers - also involves corporate identity and the way the airline communicates with people. The look of an airline is far from accidental. Easyjet using dayglo orange was very deliberate, the colour symbolising its proposition that they represented a new era of affordable air travel. British Airways' speedbird and stylised Trafalgar flag is meant to connote the airline's values of solid, professional, high quality British service. Equally deliberate is the use of the 'Tiny' character by bmibaby which, according to creators Landor, "is meant to represent character in a marketplace with little real personality". The 2008 rebrand of Siberian Airlines into S7 and the use of garish green symbolises a rebadged airline representing a similarly forward-looking, self-confident new Russia.

For all that David Taylor, founder and managing partner of the Brandgym consultancy, thinks airline corporate identities lack sparkle. He thinks Virgin Atlantic is the best example of an airline that's used its identity and communications to mean something to people. He cites the carrier's recent James Bond-themed ad as an example of what he means. "Every single frame of the ad has the Virgin brand running through it," explains Taylor. "The combination of visual extravagance, music, brand properties and service features makes it impossible to imagine it's for any other brand. Just try swapping Virgin in this ad for any other brand, such as BA or Air France. It's just impossible." Indeed, two of Virgin Atlantic's self-proclaimed brand values are 'fun' and 'innovation'. The Bond parody certainly includes those and, in this context, it perhaps wasn't surprising that it was a Virgin Boeing 747 that made an unprecedented close formation flypast with the Red Arrows at the Biggin Hill Air Fair in 2009 to help mark the airline's 25th birthday year.

A big development in communications recently has been the growth of social media through online forums, blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Conversation is easy and instant and available not just through PCs but smartphones and now the emerging tablet devices. It's a world offering great opportunities for airlines to engage with their passengers and thereby help develop their brands - and also to cope with the impact of negative events on their reputations. "Quite simply, the concept of social networking forces the airline to entertain conversations with the customer… or else they have to be prepared to be talked about, a big difference," explains Landor's Peter Knapp. "The trend has created far more transparency and customer interaction with the brand." Adrian Pring agrees. "On one level, there is little control," he says. "If you make a mistake, your brand will come under serious fire on sites like Facebook and Twitter and the capacity for people to share their opinions and influence peers should not be overlooked."

Airlines have certainly been quick to pick up on the potential, developing dedicated social media services. Airlines from easyJet and Southwest to Cathay and Etihad now have them. Lufthansa's MySkyStatus, for example, automatically sends updates about a person's flight to their Facebook and Twitter accounts, while KLM and AirAsia have developed special microsites their customers can log into for access to blogs, discussions and relevant travel information. The value of these services was seen in Europe over Christmas when airlines used them to keep their customers informed of the latest schedule changes caused by the severe snow.

The direct connection to customers offered by social media is part of a wider trend that's starting to emerge in airline branding. A big part of Emirates' and Etihad's brands, for instance, is the idea that they represent the fulfillment of a 'good life' for their customers. Emirates' tagline "Keep discovering" and Etihad's "Change the way you see the world" are both attempts to play on human emotions associated with travel. Finnair is trying something similar through its "Rethink Quality" initiative where the airline is attempting to position itself as a flag-bearer for "quality experiences" in travel, food and drink, art and culture. The message from these airlines is that a flight with them is not just a service, but a way in which you can fulfill your aspirations. Or, as Peter Knapp puts it, "a romantic trip through the cultural axis of the world".

Some would say this is just cynical marketing - an effort to shore up business in turbulent economic times - but the idea of a brand tapping into people's emotions and thoughts about lifestyle is a common and long-established technique. Apple, Starbucks, Rolex and BMW's Mini are examples of brands that, sometimes consciously and sometimes by implication, promote a 'lifestyle' through the products they sell. This in turn can become self-perpetuating - if you can make a product or service a 'must have' or 'must do', more people will want to buy it. You can see why the likes of Emirates, Etihad and Finnair are positioning themselves in this way.

Phil Edelin thinks this will become common for airlines. "I think we'll see more of it because it's a trend in all brands," he says. "Travel is a very emotive subject and it's amazing that it's taken so long to get there. We've gone through a phase of it being almost inane. Films like 'Up In The Air' capture the inanity of air travel in the US. With choice, people need to get back to why it is we're on those journeys.

"Tapping into emotion is a very natural thing, as is understanding people. The reason that's important is if you're flying a lot you can't just be treated as another piece of meat, so emotion is very important. It's part of the process of understanding customers and what they want."

It seems branding in the airline industry is set to become ever more sophisticated. With the operational and financial challenges, not to mention the predicted growth in demand for air travel, that's hardly surprising. Whatever the airline and whatever the market, branding and everything involved with it - the service offering, the way it's delivered and communicated, and the travel experience itself - is a vital element in whether an airline succeeds or fails.

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