Sale of Malaysia Airlines: What a national carrier means to a country’s brand building

In many countries globally, national carriers are a pride and joy of  a country's national identity and act as a brand representative on a global scale. This is no different in Malaysia where despite the recent challenges faced by MAB, its brand health among Malaysians still remains high with a score of +32.3.

But currently, the future of MAB remains in limbo as the government is reportedly studying options such as refinancing or selling off the airline.  This comes as MAB continues its attempts to transform the business and return to profitability this year. As such, citizens might have to grapple with the fact that the country will potentially lose a national icon on the global stage.

As a national airline is "inextricably linked" to a country’s destination brand as well as its inbound tourism product, not having one might nudge the nation off the radar of global consciousness, Dominic Mason, Southeast Asia managing director of Sedgwick Richardson said.

The importance of a national airline is often seen in joint marketing campaigns, partnerships, promotions and content. Without a carrier to fly a nation's flag, Mason said it becomes slightly harder to recall what the nation stands for and less easy for consumers to travel to and around the country's destinations. He added:
A national airline brand epitomises what a nation stands for. It projects the host destination to the world, it symbolises its culture.

Logos aside, he said that a national airline brand should encapsulate the experience of its nation in the hours that travellers are on board. From the condition of the aircraft, the personal service that’s delivered, the interior design of the cabin, the uniforms of the crew, the menu selection and the meal service, the in-flight entertainment, the duty-free range of products, and to some, even the in-flight announcements, these should all be telling a seamless story about the host nation.

Meanwhile, the biggest disadvantage of not having a national airline mainly impacts the tourism sector, as a strong aviation brand can trigger broader awareness for a country, president Southeast Asia Pacific and Japan at Landor, Nick Foley, said. He added that airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and QANTAS understand this principle well and know how to make it work in their home country's favour.

"While it is possible for nation branding to drive inbound tourism, a well-recognised aviation brand can help set up a smooth runway for travellers who wish to visit places they have not explored previously," Foley said.

Despite this, Foley said that countries seem to place "too much importance" on certain categories when it comes to national brands, including airlines, telcos, breweries and banks. AirAsia, according to him, is a "clear example" as to why the aviation sector is able to climb above the need for every country to have its own airline.

"Whilst many travellers would know that Malaysia is the home to AirAsia, a good deal of the flying public wouldn’t know this and – most probably – wouldn’t be too fussed with where the airline originates from," he said.

Back in 1980s, national carriers were the advance party of countries that wanted to be taken seriously on the world stage. While carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific have remained at the top of their game, Marcus Osborne, CEO, Fusionbrand said that MAB, despite multiple numerous turnaround plans, is "bloated, inefficient and nothing more than a low cost carrier in the national colours".

Having tackled several challenges over the past few years such as the disappearance of flight MH370 and the resignation of former CEO Christoph Mueller, as well as with Malaysia "reeling from multiple scandals", Osborne said MAB only has "one more chance to get it right".

"It needs to be led by a CEO who understands that it is not in the aviation business, but rather it is in the experience business and that delivering memorable experiences is what makes national airlines successful," Osborne said.

Most importantly, he said that MAB needs to be revived as part of a national brand strategy that provides a clear direction for the country. Osborne added: "Having a national airline that is surrounded by negativity doesn’t make sense. Providing global reach for an exciting, dynamic, ambitious and brave national brand does."