Facing its 737 Max crisis, Boeing is sailing in uncharted brand management seas
Boeing faces a long list of daunting challenges in recovering from the 737 Max calamity, which only begins with actually fixing the problems that caused two fatal crashes of its best-selling airliner. The world’s biggest aerospace company must also overhaul its management structure, grapple with a heavy financial impact, re-establish rapport with regulators, help suppliers cope with the massive disruption of a production shutdown, make up lost ground in deliveries to its airline customers and work out how to train pilots to fly the aircraft.
Perhaps equally massive, though, will be the task of repairing the damage to its brand and reputation. And, in this soft but critical context, Boeing looks to be sailing in uncharted seas, such is the global complexity of the situation it faces. One communications industry consultant contacted by Flight International observes that Boeing faces two different problems. One is to restore the faith of the aerospace industry in Boeing as a partner and customer. The second, says Harry Pirrwitz, founder of London-based space, telecoms and IT consultancy Cicero & Friends, is to address the “emotional side” of the problem.
Pirrwitz reckons that when it comes to restoring trust, suppliers and airlines will be more quickly forgiving than the flying public.
But complicating things for Boeing, he adds, is the fact that, for those people, the relationship with the aircraft maker is indirect via the airline, though both share an interest in ensuring flight and cabin crews are confident in their aircraft.
Chris Bullick, managing director of the Pull Agency, a branding and marketing firm based in Surrey, the UK, highlights the difficulty Boeing faces for want of historical precedent in how to deal with such a huge problem. The modern “textbook” on handling a consumer confidence crisis was, he notes, written by Perrier in 1990, when bottles of the naturally sparkling spring water were found to be contaminated with benzene.
Up to then, says Bullick, the normal corporate reaction would have been to cover up the problem, but Perrier took the “radical” approach of quickly tracing the source of the problem, admitting fault and recalling the entire world supply of some 160 million bottles. Such transparency meant a huge financial hit but he reckons it was the only way to restore confidence in a brand that boasts “purity”. Significantly, the root problem was traced to a cleaning fluid used at one bottling plant and, hence, could be fixed.
But for a better guide to Boeing’s dilemma, Bullick points to Coca-Cola’s ill-starred attempt to change its formula, launching “New Coke” in 1985 – to immediate consumer derision. As Bullick notes, Coca-Cola did not try to “intellectualise” its way out of the problem by citing taste test trials in which people preferred the new formula. Instead, it gave in almost immediately, reintroducing “Classic” Coca-Cola within three months.
Bullick warns Boeing against any instinct to intellectualise its 737 Max problem. From a passenger or pilot perspective, the problem was caused by software – and fixing the problem with more software will not restore confidence. To go down this route and also try to keep the 737 Max brand, he says, would be like pushing on a string: “The consumer won’t buy it.” At the extreme, he says, such an approach could see Boeing “heading for an existential problem of their own making”.
Ultimately, Bullick reckons Boeing’s room for manoeuvre is very limited. Even the case of the de Havilland Comet, the pioneering 1950s jetliner that suffered a string of catastrophic structural failures, gives little guide to the Max problem. The Comet’s problem was quickly identified as its square windows – fixed by a very visible design change. Boeing’s problem may well stem from having made one too many upgrades of an ageing platform, and few will have true confidence in a software fix.
Pirrwitz agrees that the Max dilemma “has all the hallmarks of a new paradigm” in restoring brand reputation. His advice to Boeing is, first, to fix the underlying problem. Then it should inform about the steps taken to ensure no similar issues happen again and find pilots who are happy to report about their positive results in the simulator. But, he warns, in his experience, Boeing would have to wait about a year after things calm down before stakeholders are receptive to messages promoting the brand and its century of delivering safe flying.
Another approach for Boeing to take is to address the name problem. Indeed, industry figures including leasing titan Steven Udvar-Hazy and Qatar Airways boss Akbar Al-Baker have called on Boeing to drop the Max name, and Bullick agrees that has to happen – if only to protect the hugely valuable 737 brand.
But he goes on to point out that nobody would be fooled by such a change, which leaves Boeing with the impossible challenge of having to convince all parties that they should have confidence in a software-based fix to what was a software-created problem. To Bullick, then, the only way out of this dilemma is find a different solution – perhaps going so far as to promise an all-new model and manage the transition as best as possible.