Branding for the long haul

Full service airlines have faced a plethora of challenges in recent times. Fluctuating fuel prices, issues with reliability of new aircraft and, of course, the growing presence of LCCs (low cost carriers).

Price has become king for many travellers. This means airline brands have had to be more accommodating in how they respond to bargain hunting fliers. Whether they like it or not, legacy carriers have been forced to innovate in order to defend their premiums and customer base.

Not surprisingly, many full service airlines have focused on creating remarkable brand experiences in an effort to not only stand out from budget airlines but also distinguish themselves from other airlines. Such initiatives include high tech in-flight entertainment, pre-flight door to door transfers, airport lounges and lavishly prepared dishes to pamper those fortunate enough to “turn left” rather than “right” when boarding a plane.

This illustrates the lengths many airlines will go to when enticing those travellers who are not solely interested the destination, but the journey as well.

The demise of the supersonic brands

It is a little known fact that back in the mid 1970s, travellers could fly from Singapore to London on the Concorde. In what was considered a first in airline branding, the SIA Concorde carried the Singapore Airlines livery on its port side, whilst exhibiting the British Airways livery on its starboard side. Regrettably, the service was short lived due to complaints from neighbouring Southeast Asian countries about the noise.

While the Concorde struggled to gain permission to fly over land mass, two airlines were successful in building an innovative reputation through operating the aircraft on trans-Atlantic flights.

Both Air France and British Airways attracted the crème de le crème of frequent flyers by providing an unforgettable experience that took travellers to an altitude where they could see the curvature of the earth.

The Concorde lifted the stakes for airline brands, considerably. The innovative trait that distinguished airlines in the 1970s was “speed”. Travellers were transported between London and New York at a pace never experienced before. This gave rise to BA’s clever tag line “Arrive before you leave” when flying from London to New York.

It is now over a decade since travellers experienced the exhilaration of supersonic air travel. During this rather bleak period in aviation history, the LCCs have continued to encroach on the legacy brands.

Whilst Tony Fernandes and his cheerful cabin crew at AirAsia claim “Now everyone can fly”, one can’t help but thinking: “Now everything feels the same”.

Luxury knows no bounds

With similar planes, flying to similar destinations, at similar times, marketers have had to conjure up new ways of making flying remarkable again.

Brand managers in the aviation industry have opted to concentrate on “pleasure”.  The title for the most comfortable lie ‐ flat seat, or the greatest leg room, is common battle lines for brands like ANA, United, Air Canada and Lufthansa. Some airline brands have pushed it further. Etihad offers its most frequent of frequent flyers an experience known as “The Residence”. Effectively, this is billed as “The only three room suite on a commercial aircraft”.

Or, put another way, if you can’t afford a private jet and are forced to slum it on a commercial airliner, this isn’t too bad an option!

In these days of long haul travel, Etihad not only quarantines its high net worth flyers through sound deadening walls, but also offer showers ensuring you’re nicely refreshed when stepping off one of their A380’s at London Heathrow.

Long haul gives brands cache again

Despite all the focus on luxury in the last ten years, marketers for full service airlines still can’t resist making claims that other airlines can’t.

Just as British Airways claimed the fastest passage across the Atlantic from Heathrow to JFK forty something years ago, the allure of a streamlined-aviation fact is too hard to pass up for some. Currently, innovation in the airline industry is all consumed with “how far can I go on one flight?”

In case you haven’t noticed, the race is very much on to be the airline that can claim the “longest commercial flight in the world”. This is an intriguing phenomenon brought about by the combination of efficient new aircraft (Think the Boeing 787 Dreamliner or the Airbus A350) and the recent decline in oil prices. All of this makes flying considerably more interesting again.

Last year, Emirates announced its intention to operate the world’s longest flight between Dubai and Panama City. Never one to be outdone, Qatar Airways gazumped Emirates by setting a new record with its direct Doha to Auckland flight. In the next year or so, expect to see the competition take off as branding for the long haul becomes a key point of differentiation in an increasingly commoditized sector.

In just under a year Qantas will take delivery of the ultra-long range Boeing 787‐9 Dreamliner. The airline intends to make some noise about being the first airline in the world to ply the 14,535km Perth to London route non-stop.  Qantas should enjoy its newfound fame because Singapore Airlines have a number of ultra long range Airbus A350’s on order.

These will commence flying between Singapore and New York in mid 2018. With a non-stop flying distance of 15,323 kilometres it will be difficult for any airline to beat.

Where next?

The problem with distinguishing a brand on speed or distance is that, just like any record, someone else is always going to break it. Whilst there is considerable cachet to claiming the world’s longest flight, only one brand can do this at any one given time.

The challenge for many full-service airlines is that they lean too heavily on country of origin attributes and, in doing so, run the risk of being confined to stereotypical parameters. Encouragingly, there are some exceptions to this. Virgin still enjoys a reputation for being “rule breakers”. Etihad own “premium”, Alitalia is bringing back “sophistication” and Jet Blue truly is “different”.

Aviation marketers are having to tailor their respective brand positions owing to the ever-growing numbers of Millennials choosing to fly.

This demographic expect brands to anticipate and embrace change. They want their brands to feel personalised and they expect brands to seek their input. For marketers, this means brands should be managed so they remain true to what they stand for, yet never stand still.

If Air Asia is correct and “everyone really can now fly”, legacy carriers would do well to develop more bespoke brand experiences that give their frequent flyers more reason to fly with them, more often.

The writer is Nick Foley, president of Southeast Asia and Pacific for Landor.

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