Malaysia Airlines’ branding challenges

Malaysia Airlines is no stranger to media scrutiny.

In the past two years, the airline has had its name splashed across every major publication with industry experts from marketing to aviation to security scrutinising every move it makes. Millions of people today are still following every word the airline utters as the mystery of its airline MH370 goes unresolved.

“That kind of scrutiny can force you to not move, but we knew we had to move,” said Dean Dacko, CMO of Malaysia Airlines, who was speaking at the Adobe Digital Marketing Symposium 2015.

He was quick to admit the past two years for the airline had not been easy ones, describing the entire journey as a “blur” and somewhat “surreal”. In the first 10 days after the MH370 tragedy, the company saw a huge commercial impact with 10 straight days of an average of 100,000 cancellations a day.

“The commercial impact was absolutely devastating and the magnitude of it was unbelievable. But more dramatic was the emotional component of the event impacting over 500 lives along with the staff members and colleagues we personally knew and worked with,” he said.

“Some days we could not believe what was happening to us. We went from managing one crisis to the second crisis of MH17, to moving into totally recreating and the redevelopment of an entire organisation. All of which were across a relatively short period of time.”

Challenges of creating a refreshed identity

According to Dacko, because of the current restructuring of various MAS operations, the budget for rebranding is yet to be determined. However, he shared that a strategic brand steering committee had been created comprising of various teams internally and externally (including stakeholders) and agencies to develop this new visual identity.

MAS recently appointed M&C Saatchi Malaysia as its master creative agency, and handed its brand identity task to recreate its logo and the visual aspects of the aircraft livery to a Singapore-based shop called Prophet. The agency, which beat 18 other branding agencies, including several big network names, will be helping MAS develop its brand strategy and visual components of the new logo.

For its rebranding, MAS is also looking to actively involve its staff members across various teams and departments so as to garner real-time feedback on various aspects. The airline is investing its time into creating employee “brand ambassadors” who can give guidance on the new MAS direction.

“We are fully aware that in the process of launching that new identity we will need the full support of its team of 14,000. They will be the first ones leveraged with going out and promoting our new brand. So we need to engage them early on in the process. The new brand identity is not just something we present to them, but rather something they are involved in creating. That’s part of our process now, to really engage and involve our staff.”

However, the exact process is still undetermined as the organisation is in the midst of restarting things under new management.

The rebranding process, added Dacko, will be one which is drawn out and carefully thought through because of the strong ties the airline has with the Malaysian people and its principal stakeholders.

“This rebranding is done not only from a financial standpoint, but rather keeping in mind the 42 years of history MAS has had with our audience. The airline is very much ingrained with the culture of Malaysia. They refer to us as a Malaysian icon and that is true. Changing and moving that is something that requires back and forth engagement, dialogue and serious thought.”

He reiterated that outside of Malaysia, the airline’s loyalty also runs deep with non-resident Malaysians because of the emotional warmth and support associated with the brand.

“One of the very first times that people travelled out of Malaysia was on MAS and they remember how warm and comforting it was for them. That’s not a feeling that goes away. When we talk about possibly creating a new brand that would change that relationship, we really need to take seriously the emotional ties beyond the reality of the commercial component of it.”

If the revamped identity falls short of the public’s expectations, one of the major risks would be losing the supporters of the brand and potentially turning them into the airline’s biggest detractors.

“It is very easy to just create a logo, but there is so much that goes beyond it. So on 1 September when we launch a new identity, rather than a new image, it will be the start of our new journey of evolution with tweaks and changes being made along the way.”

MAS’ digital evolution

Early last year, when Dacko spoke to Marketing, the airline was in the midst of making a big push into digital. MAS was then looking to move 70% of its marketing budget to digital. In 2013, the split was 50-50 between traditional and digital. Before that, MAS’ marketing was completely tactical.

We ask Dacko where in the digital evolution journey the brand stands at, now. Currently MAS’ marketing split between digital and traditional stands at 60-40, he said.

“The speed and pace of what we have done towards digital has slowed because of the nature of events we have faced over the past two years which has led us to balance a lot more of our investments across a lot of channels,” he said.

While MAS has kept up its presence and velocity in making digital its primary channel of communication, it has probably not reached its earlier stated goals, Dacko admits.

The brand is nonetheless still as dedicated to moving in that direction and he remains firm in growing the investments being made into digital.

This commitment and need for digital was further reiterated in the first three weeks of MH370 going missing. From a digital platform perspective, MAS saw three major spikes in its website hits after the disaster. On a usual day, the website would take about 2000-3000 hits a second, but on those days it was tracking up to 230,000 hits per second.

“All the things we have leveraged in our communication, were never built on the premise of us facing a crisis such as the ones we faced. It was built purely for a business transformation process,” he said.

He explained the digital investments the brand made only four weeks before the tragic event of MH370 going missing was purely due to commercial reasons because the airline saw that it needed to move from a traditional environment to a digital one.

“Had we not made the new digital investments, our whole infrastructure would have collapsed. It was all the new technology and tools and resources we had just built that allowed us to move forward and continue engaging with audiences worldwide. It was never in the context of preparing for a crisis.”

Lessons learnt

Nonetheless, Dacko is positive his marketing team, and he personally, learnt a fair bit from the tragedies. Today, the brand is much more customer-centric and engaged on social media in an authentic way. Slowly, Dacko said, he sees consumer sentiment and trust growing.

No doubt in some markets such as China, the damage is bigger and it has been harder to gain back trust. But in Malaysia, the public has been immensely supportive.

One such early signs of support came from MAS’ #staystrong campaigns. The campaign was initially created to send a message to its internal staff to stay strong and fight through the calamities. But soon after, it was picked up by the public where consumers started communicating to the brand showing their love and support.

This, according to Dacko, was one of the pivotal moments that led him and his team to really open their eyes to the impact of social media being the backbone of modern communication.

The open dialogue with consumers is now something that has really taken root and MAS and the marketing team have been quick to capitalise and communicate on the platform.

“The reason for consumers having trust and confidence to fly the airline is based on the level of engagement we can create for them.

“On digital, you can’t afford to go halfway. You can’t be timid. The reality is that you have to make a commitment and you have to be real and authentic in communicating digitally. Otherwise the audience will see through it.”