The Brand In Action

Let’s take a look at what happens when theory is put into practise.
Here’s One We Prepared Earlier

Over the past four outings of The Blend, we have considered how to gather together the vital ingredients and write a recipe for brand success. Our discussion until now has focused on the principles underpinning great brands and has largely been a description of an approach to branding. This time out, let’s take a look at what happens when this theory is put into practise.

I propose to look at three familiar and successful brands, British Airways, Virgin and Aer Lingus, and consider how these three have applied key brand values to strategic elements of their business. I will occasionally contrast their approach with that of Ryanair, whose apparently casual approach to brand-building belies their serious intent.

As we do so, I am keen to avoid any suggestion that the application of key values has always been the driver behind every business decision taken by these brands. However, I do hope to show that the three have achieved distinctive positioning and competitive advantage whenever they have behaved in a way that is wholly consistent with those key values.

The Airline Business

Before we consider the performance of a brand in any detail, it is important to take a brief look at what is happening in its category.

Air travel is a fiercely competitive business and one in which a great number of the functional inputs and benefits have been equalised over the past twenty years. Safety no longer offers a basis for distinction. Individual airline networks scarcely provide a real advantage thanks to the range of extended networks now available through the various partnerships.

At the same time, the whole area of air travel is a highly emotive one and touches on a wide range of fundamental issues for the traveller. There is the excitement and trepidation associated with travel itself in the journey to the new and the unknown. There is the sense of engineering, comfort and modernity in the gleaming machines that take us there. The departures and arrivals and the check-in and boarding throw up a whole series of emotional responses (just witness the frayed nerves and fraught expressions on the faces at any airport) whilst the uniforms and livery sported by staff and equipment evoke their own glamour.

How Does Each Airline Respond?

In order to be successful, each airline must own a position within the market from which it can compete. A number of airlines chase the customer on price but only one airline can be the cheapest. Whilst the others cannot afford to disregard price, they seek to base their competitive advantage elsewhere.

British Airways

British Airways has occupied a ruling position in Europe for a considerable period of time. This is a throwback to its days as BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation), the airline of empire. The airline itself is driven by key values that include might, majesty, tradition and pedigree. Over the years, the airline has played the enlightened ruler, which owns the skies and determines the rules of engagement.

These values have influenced the visual communications, beginning with the red and blue logo that reflects the colours of the flag of empire, the Union Jack. At the core of the brand is its Britishness and it is no accident that the airline has heavily leveraged the other icons that communicate these values: the Beefeaters at the Tower of London, London itself and the pomp and ceremony that are associated with royal events in the city.

These qualities extend to the uniforms worn by British Airways staff which have always suggested a certain regal reserve or aloofness.

The airline’s brief departure from this approach in the early nineties (when the traditional livery and Union Jack were replaced with localised, native art or what one observer termed ‘airborne graffiti’) resulted in a flood of complaints from customers and a painful and humiliating retreat by the airline itself.

The airline has also boasted of the scope of its reach and for a long time styled itself ‘The World’s Favourite Airline’, emphasising its size and influence through a range of vistas typically presented from a wide-angled and lofty perspective.

The establishment of the One World alliance a number of years ago was typical of an airline which sees itself as defining its environment, setting the pace and making the rules.

Even more telling was the airline’s bullying response to the arrival of Virgin many years ago (and before that to the efforts of Freddie Laker). The king and ruler moves quickly to crush the newcomer and snuff out any threat to his hegemony.

Virgin Atlantic

Virgin introduced itself from the beginning as the youthful challenger, squaring up to the lumbering incumbent in British Airways. Its values were refreshing and readily apparent: rebellion, agility, ingenuity and immediacy. It offered an alternative to the established order and it was impatient to make it happen.

Its brand mark suggested a youthful confidence and exuberance whilst its communications reflected the cheeky swagger of its owner Richard Branson. The brand appealed directly to a market that was tiring of the autocratic approach of the flagship airlines in the region and consciously set out to put serious distance between the tried and tested and lazy habits of the older airlines and its own innovative approach to air travel.

The choice of Richard Branson as brand spokesperson may have been as much an accident of personality as it was a strategic decision but it immediately gave the brand a recognisable face (and one which already enjoyed a reputation in the youth market for innovation and candour thanks to his previous activities in the music industry). The series of attacks by British Airways on the fledgling airline, which have been well documented elsewhere, exerted a critical influence on the new brand and its perception in the marketplace. Virgin was confirmed as the underdog, fighting the customers’ cause against the reigning bully.

Virgin’s choice of language was equally important – advertisements were playfully insubordinate and the young brand made no secret of its hostility towards the establishment.

Even the well-publicised exploits of Richard Branson, particularly his personal efforts to circumnavigate the globe by balloon, fed the brand and the image of the bearded enthusiast being buffeted by the forces of nature reinforced the positioning of Virgin as the young innocent tilting at windmills on behalf of a grateful public.

Aer Lingus

The positioning of Aer Lingus offers an interesting perspective on the choices available to a brand in the category. From the beginning, the airline did not adopt the position typical of national carriers elsewhere. Despite its historical relationship with the state, the airline instead chose to leverage very different values in its quest to be different. Rather than present itself as a representative of official Ireland, the airline recognised that it was primarily the airline for the diaspora and fixed on the values for which Irish people are known throughout the world: warmth, informality / immediacy and hospitality.

These values have been reflected in the choice of the shamrock over the more obvious and official harp (which Ryanair later intriguingly adopted and then adapted). The dominant colour green speaks of caring rather than efficiency although the later addition of the blues in a supporting role does address this category concern.

The airline’s greatest successes have been achieved traditionally through its people. Whilst British Airways, Virgin and the other European airlines have affected a friendly and informal manner, it is really only the Asian airlines that have challenged the natural warmth and immediacy of the Aer Lingus staff. For many a returning emigrant, the first sighting of the Aer Lingus hostess at check-in in New York, London or Frankfurt, was the first glimpse of home.

The advertising of the eighties and nineties played on this association and the brand presented itself as the partner to lead you by the hand back to Ireland. The appeal of this approach to all shades of the diaspora meant that the airline enjoyed its greatest successes whilst the Celtic Tiger roared loudest about its uniquely native qualities and the Irish at home and abroad enjoyed their greatest mobility.

Slipping Up?

To a certain extent, all three of the airline brands that I have briefly presented have diminished in recent years. Whilst market forces have dictated a more cost-conscious approach, this seems to represent a lack of faith in the competitive advantage offered by a distinctive brand. Rather than look to their own unique brand values to find ways of managing the difficulties of the past number of years, brand owners have instead migrated towards the position so successfully taken up by Ryanair. None of them has successfully managed to present the new, commercially driven, imperatives in the context of their brand although there is some evidence that Aer Lingus is making a belated effort to retrieve some of its old values and wed them to its new positioning as a budget airline with class.