Mark Pilling LONDON

In an increasingly brand-aware world, airlines are wondering how their image should evolve as markets change and how they can ally their brands with those of the alliances

Clay Timon looks pleased with the curvaceous blue and white livery, with touches of red, which adorn a brand new Airbus A320. The chief executive of Landor Associates, one of the doyens of global branding, was taking a moment to review the work his team had done in re-branding British Midland - now bmi british midland - the UK-based short-haul carrier poised to launch Transatlantic services this spring.

The cost to bmi british midland for the re-branding - a project that has gone right through the carrier, down even to specifying items like the cocktail stirrers and cabin music - is a cool £15 million ($22 million). It is too early to say what return bmi will get on this investment, but if the design lasts as long as did those of Alitalia, Iberia or American Airlines, it will be money well spent.

These brands have stood the test of time because they still express the core values of the airline, says Peter Knapp, executive creative director of Landor, who led the bmi british midland branding team. The Alitalia identity, the first airline brand created by Landor founder Walter Landor, dates back to 1967. Iberia's scheme, also a Landor creation, is only a few years younger, and harks back to 1976. The new look Southwest has just unveiled celebrates the airline's 30th year of operation.

Not many organisations in any business sector can be so sure their branding efforts will be as fruitful, but in an increasingly brand-aware society, the desire to get the image and identity right is stronger than ever. "Airlines are much more aware today that branding is a live issue," says David Davis, managing director design of FutureBrand, which ranks alongside Landor as one of the world's largest airline branding specialists. "Re-branding is not a special project you set up every 20 years to adjust your tailfin. It is a massive operation that can take five to six years as the fleet is repainted and the ground experience (lounges, etc) is changed.

"The masterbrand on the side of the aircraft is just one aspect of it," says Davis, who has worked on re-brandings with SAS, LanChile and Air New Zealand among many others. He believes that branding is massively more significant than just a coat of paint. "Your business strategy is your brand strategy, the two have to be absolutely aligned and are inexorably linked."

However, there has to be a compelling reason to change a brand, explains Knapp. "An intelligent business is constantly assessing the relevance of its brand to its customers," he says, and many successful ones rightly adopt the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" attitude. For example, the basic Ford logo, which features the word "Ford" as originally written by Henry Ford himself, still represents the automobile makers' "masterbrand". Underneath this the cars all have their own sub-brands and are constantly in a state of flux.

This is because these brands are moving with the times as customer demands change. "If the market around you is changing, you need to express your change. Branding is the most clear outward sign that a company is changing," Knapp believes. There were many reasons for bmi british midland's decision to change: membership in the Star Alliance, an expanding fleet and the launch of transatlantic services among them. "The worst thing this company can do is not change," says bmi chairman Sir Michael Bishop.

Clear vision

But Timon stresses that if a company deems change to be necessary, top-level management buy-in plus a clear vision are crucial if the re-branding is to work. For the bmi british midland project, Landor received resolute support from Bishop and his directors. "I have never worked with an airline so determined to leverage its brand," says Knapp.

The first question design consultants might ask the airline's senior management is: "Are you prepared to change?" According to FutureBrand's Davis, the first question many chief executives ask is how detached the airline should become from its national identity and heritage. "It is a real conundrum. Airlines hear about global brands, and they want to be globally attractive, but the reality of their passenger figures shows that many of their core travellers are nationals or near-nationals," he says. "Many airlines have to act like a global brand, as well as a national brand. Working with airlines is particularly challenging because of this."

For the design gurus, the starting point is to latch upon the essence of the country and its cultural and national philosophy and to distil these elements into images that reflect what the country really means. "There are many pitfalls. You don't want clichés. To be successful you have to immerse yourself in a nation's ethos, otherwise you can get it very wrong," says Davis. In addition, a familiar brand, evoking a feeling of national identity, can offer a kind of comfort blanket to travellers on their journey home, believes Landor's Knapp.

For example, when working on the Air New Zealand branding, FutureBrand looked at the significance of the prehistoric fern symbol found on the tailfin. "This fern, also found on the shirt of the All-Blacks rugby team, is incredibly important to New Zealanders," says Davis. The design not only kept the fern on the fuselage, albeit with some adjustments, but brought it into the interior design too.

"Most airlines are absolutely tied to the country or region they fly from," he says, and in terms of branding that can be exactly what you want to represent. SAS strives to create this feeling in its cabin environment. "If you are flying to Scandinavia you want a kind of Scandinavian experience. It is a differentiating factor and part of their USP [unique sales proposition]," he explains.

Landor and bmi british midland spent two years researching what it was customers wanted from the airline. "All our research showed that travellers, from many countries, respect our British heritage as a true mark of quality and service," says Bishop. It has sought to reflect this heritage - including an image of the Union Jack flag on the tailfin - throughout the new design.

Regional character

In its re-branding a couple of years ago, Cathay Pacific stretched beyond national boundaries to develop its regional characteristics. "The brief with Cathay was very much to designate it as an Asian carrier," explains Landor's Knapp. "With Cathay we were giving an expatriate airline back to Asia. It had to have a resonance that all Asian markets could relate to."

Perhaps because of the much greater demographic differences across Europe and Asia, compared to the USA, the prevalence of airlines using national images rather than logos prevails, says Knapp. In general terms, Asian airlines tend to go for images of birds, such as Cathay, which represent mythical or heraldic qualities. European airlines usually go for their national flag, giving a sense of belonging. North American carriers take the route of a made-up logo.

What US carriers might lack in uniqueness in their branding they more than make up for in the market strength provided by huge fleets and networks, says Richard Ford, executive creative director at Landor's New York office. Unlike many flag carriers, US airlines have developed strategies that have to work across major domestic, international, shuttle and regional operations.

"They have to address a more complex range of offers than their European counterparts because they are flying many different airlines in one," says Ford. And although such a large product range can make it relatively inflexible in terms of changing brands swiftly, in general, US carriers manage the task pretty well. "Delta is in the business of making incremental changes rather than dramatic ones," he explains.

Ford led the team that has helped Delta make two branding moves in close succession in the past few years. The mindset about its brand, in common with many other carriers, is shifting. "There has been a progression in thinking away from the traditional dominance of the operational side of the airline towards customer service and a service proposition," he believes.

Delta's new identity, launched last March, is part of what it calls "a global passenger-focused rebranding programme". Research told Delta that passengers wanted the travel experience to be less formal and more relaxed, says its general manager marketing communications Tracey Bowen. A key element of the re-branding is communicating the reasons for change to staff, and gaining their support, she explains.

Bringing the passenger back to the centre of its strategy was central to Delta re-capturing the reputation it had in the early 1990s for good customer service, explains Brad Gerdeman, its director worldwide marketing communications. This was lost in the mid-1990s as the carrier strived to reverse its financial woes. Although the re-branding will take up to five years to implement fully, Gerdeman is encouraged by the reaction so far.

Going global

The challenges a US major faces with its brand are quite different to those of flag carriers where the emphasis is on creating a strong national identity. But all carriers face the challenge of bringing their alliance brand into play as well, and ponder whether these will ever replace national brands. For now the answer seems to be no. "You will never get a true oneworld or Star global airline," believes Davis, "there is simply too much equity in airline brands like Lufthansa."

Landor's Knapp agrees: "For the market today, the notion of national identity is too important to sacrifice," he says. So far, alliance branding on aircraft has been limited to small logos, usually near the forward door. The exceptions are the requirement of each Star carrier to have one aircraft in its fleet painted with the liveries of each member in sections down the fuselage, and Qualiflyer's decision last year to paint the bellies of all its members' aircraft its official blue colour.

But the arrival of the alliances, with their own over-arching brands is causing the marketing experts some headaches as they seek to raise the profile of the brand without losing the identities of the individual airlines. That is the idea behind Qualiflyer's blue belly livery.

From a branding viewpoint the strategy works. "Star, oneworld or SkyTeam is the global umbrella and masterbrand," says Knapp. "The alliance is there at a certain level and standard, offering an endorsement of quality, efficiency and service across the airline members," says Davis. Travellers are reassured that the guiding hand of the alliance passes them on from the starting carrier in the home country to a partner in another. "The alliance puts you into the hands of the local people all along the line, there is no point in suppressing these local brands," says Knapp. However, the awareness of alliances amongst travellers is still low and their brand attributes are not well defined, says Delta's Gerdeman, who adds: "It will take longer to solidify the positioning of the alliance brands."

Alliance membership

The alliance chain is only as strong as its weakest link. This explains why they have been so careful in laying down stringent membership criteria. For example, Aeroflot has been seeking to join an alliance but has been told in no uncertain terms that it must achieve higher levels of service to be considered.

Knapp jokes that the first true global airline brand will probably be the company that provides space travel, but some have already taken the road down the global brand path. The most high-profile was the British Airways "Utopia" liveries that replaced the Union Jack flag on the tailfins of its fleet with ethnic and regional designs. Although described by some as a brave effort to project a more global image, it was severely criticised and subsequently phased out and a Union flag design was re-introduced.

Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic capitalised on BA's woes by placing modest Union flag designs on its aircraft to emphasise its British roots. Although a marketing ploy, it shows how even a carrier with an abstract name, and an image more identified with its founder than the country where it is based, can find it useful to return to its national heritage.

Low-cost carriers have also turned away from using national heritage to express core values. Instead they put the stress on a no-frills, low-cost service and a brand to match. Europeans such as Ryanair, easyJet and Go are prime examples. "Ryanair is a very good brand and is one aligned with its business strategy," believes Davis. Yet low-cost does not necessarily mean a cheap look. "Go brought style to the low-cost market, which had previously been defined by price alone," says Landor's Knapp. Go's trendy look, based on circles and the bold use of colour, is seen throughout the airline and in the design of staff uniforms. Low-fare carriers can afford to be more adventurous with their branding. For instance, Denver-based Frontier Airlines is famous for images of wild animals on its tailfins.

But flag carriers generally remain very conservative, says Knapp, although some are making progress. He feels the bmi british midland design is a brave one, giving a distinctive treatment across the whole "architecture of the aircraft". Southwest's new livery, crafted by its long-standing design agency GSD&M, goes the same way, and has the whole aircraft featured as part of the image.

Some of this conservatism comes from understandable concerns about a branding change on operational aspects of the carrier. "There has to be an intelligent transition, both in brand terms and in finance terms," says Knapp. A well-thought-out branding exercise is just as likely to identify cost savings. Landor's decision to turn FedEx's previously purple-coloured fleet to white has saved millions from the carrier's air-conditioning bill. Southwest's re-branding team recommended it move to an all-leather interior. This will not only look better but save money in the long run. "Bottom line; this new look will not raise Southwest's costs nor require Southwest Airlines to raise its fares," assures the carrier's chairman, Herb Kelleher.

Southwest's branding team illustrates how more carriers are moving to permanent brand managers and brand groups. They acknowledge the umbilical link between a strong business and a strong brand, and the complex work needed to spread the brand across the airline.

These teams are re-assessing the benchmarks by which they measure their efforts. "Airlines have previously thought of themselves as transport providers, whereas the customer is now expecting hospitality," says Knapp. This is why airlines should no longer compare their efforts to their competitors, but to lifestyle and "mindshare" companies like hotels and leisure service providers. He also emphasises the need to develop a brand experience. "People buy into the intellectual argument of this, but not all do it. The idea is to leverage all points of touch with the customer. If you don't control it, the audience will make up their own minds and you throw away the chance to positively influence their experience."

Source: Airline Business