Garuda Indonesia's one-off uniform swap to kebayas: Will the investment take off?

Garuda Indonesia has recently switched flight attendants' uniform to traditional kebayas on a special flight service titled "Kebaya Pertiwi Special Flight". The kebaya, designed by renowned designer Anne Avantie, is said to signify the airline's appreciation for Indonesia's cultural heritages. Passengers on the Jakarta-Semarang GA 238 flight were also given a special batik scarf designed by Avantie and an opportunity to take a photo with the designer herself.

While changing uniforms may not on the surface seems like much for most companies, it is a huge undertaking for airlines, especially for an one-off marketing initiative. Speaking to Marketing Interactive, Landor president SE Asia Pacific & Japan Nick Foley explained that in the aviation industry, substantial focus has always been placed on uniforms as flight attendants are at the front line of customer service. He added:

In the aviation industry, a lot of the in-flight experience comes down to how the cabin crew show up.

However, Garuda Indonesia's move may be a cost-effective way to get creative on the marketing front. While changing a uniform certainly does not come cheap, it "pales into insignificance" when compared to the cost of changing a plane’s livery and having a plane out of action for a week. To decide if the marketing is worth the investment, Foley said marketers should analyse if their target audience will find the experience remarkable - which, if it is, will see consumers leaving several "remarks".

"With today’s super-charged, social media platforms, favourable remarks can count for a lot. Uniforms would not be my highest focus as a marketer, however, if the uniform reinforces great service or an impressive legacy, then it should contribute favourably to the brand’s overall perception," he added.

On the other hand, if a marketer cannot articulate the consumer or commercial benefit, then such a move is unlikely to have any positive impact on the brand.

Creative interpretation

The move by Garuda Indonesia, in Sedgwick Richardson managing director for SEA Dominic Mason's perspective, seems to be an "authentic signal of cultural heritage that evokes genuine national pride". He explained that the special flight's name Pertiwi (or Ibu Pertiwi) means motherland and aligns with the airline's position as a national brand.

"While Frenchman Pierre Balmain’s take on the Singapore Girl’s sarong kebaya has stayed unchanged for 50 years, the same success cannot be said for VietJet’s impromptu “bikini hostesses”, whose cabin frolics seem out of step with the spirit of our times," said Mason.

Citing Peninsula Hotel’s immaculate pageboy and the batik elegance of the Singapore Girl, he said uniforms are a valuable source of brand iconography, enhancing a brand’s visual equities. Brand marketers in the service industry can also leverage uniforms as part of a curated brand experience and bring a sense of gravitas to customer-facing roles. He added:

If a brand’s purpose and personality are well-defined, then there should be freedom to play with one-off uniform expressions without diluting brand meaning.

According Garuda Indonesia direktur utama (president director) Ari Askhara in a press release, the kebaya has become the identity of Indonesian women and is more than just women's clothing. The move is part of the company's ongoing "the new flight experience" campaign. Meanwhile, designer Avantie explained that the motifs with soft colours on the kebaya symbolise the gentleness and elegance of Garuda Indonesia's flight attendants as they serve their passengers.

A short video showcasing the crew in the uniforms on Garuda Indonesia's Facebook has garnered 473 views over the past five days.

However, Mason pointed out that the baby pink creation may appear "visually incongruous" to some elements to brand design puritans when juxtaposed against the tail fins of the Garuda fleet. Nevertheless, the real question is whether the uniform integrates compellingly with the brand experience that Garuda Indonesia is promising through the campaign.

Cost of investment

Meanwhile, TrinityP3 CEO Darren Woolley said flight attendents, being the face of many companies, can reinforce the culture of service and communicate the brand through the way they are presented. However, the logistics and cost can be a limitation. Factors to consider include ensuring the logistics of the process are well-managed with no negative media coverage; the staff are enthusiastic about the new uniforms; and that the uniforms are sourced and managed ethically and in an environmentally sustainable way (including the disposal of the old uniforms).

Additionally, the uniform design has to communicate the very values the brand stands for. Wooley explained: "Marketers should be involved in ensuring that all of the ways the brand is expressed are on-brand from uniforms to lounge design - in fact, all steps in the customer pathway."

In Garuda Indonesia's case, the move is sound for a brand that "takes Indonesia to the world and brings the world to Indonesia" and it embraces traditional culture in "an elegant and fashionable way", he said.

This is not the first time Garuda Indonesia has presented special flights. Similar efforts include a "male flight" with all-male crew in celebration of Kartini Day and a "vintage flight". Under "the new flight experience" initiative, the airline has been rolling out innovative offerings such as #GIAccoustic in-flight acoustic music concerts, and a new menu featuring 21 local "signature dishes" for its domestic flights.

According to YouGov BrandIndex rankings in April, Garuda Indonesia was the brand that Indonesians would be proudest to work for. With a score of 73.3, the national carrier topped the list for the second year in a row. In terms of brand health, Garuda Indonesia also topped the rankings in Indonesia last year. The score takes into account consumers’ perception of a brand’s overall quality, value, impression, reputation, satisfaction and whether consumers would recommend the brand to others.