When the rock group The Who wrote a song with the chorus line, "Now tell me, who are you", they could well have been describing the raison d'être of a consumer brand. The brand should provide answers to the vast majority of questions which could be asked about a company's philosophy and market positioning – and in the airline business, that's crucial.
In recent times, the branding industry has been having to adapt as increasing electronic outlets requiring brand utilisation have become more prominent. Websites, SMS messages and images on PDAs have all become widespread and brands must extend to take these into account.
Peter Knapp, executive creative director at Landor Associates, believes that the internet/customer interface has certainly changed low-cost purchases, both in terms of the operator and the customer. "It's obviously made life a lot cheaper for the operator and I think it's made it more accessible for the customer," he comments. "I think it's encouraged a different demographic into ticket-buying as well. There's a greater comfort for the female customer who often organises holidays to actually organise ticket purchase as well."
In terms of how Knapp does designs with airlines, the discussions that go on depend on the brand message required. "One airline may be just about function and process and efficiency," he explains, "and designing a digital interface for them would be very different from the one that believes that a more stylish, sophisticated presentation is important to their brand. So there is no one-size-fits-all."
Richard Cobb, design director, Start Creative – the company behind the gargantuan brand that is Virgin – believes that the change and evolution of communication channels can actually drive an identity refresh. "Many brand identities were created before we had the www, and in the days when we talked about corporate identity, not brand identity, logos existed in print, and 3D environments," he notes.
"Traditionally brand image could be tightly managed using huge volumes of identity guidelines," Crabb recalls, "but as the world of commerce went electronic new identity systems were required to maximise consistency and standout of the online image. Everything now moves and very quickly. You can 'publish and be damned' on the click of a mouse, logos can and quite literally do spin, flip and whiz across our screens. The logo police need faster cars! Technology continually throws up new challenges and limitations. Clever brand management works with them and adapts application appropriately. It's not a one-size-fits-all world anymore," he confirms, echoing Peter Knapp's comment.
Priorities at airlines looking for a new image have changed in other ways too, as Steve Manning, managing director of Igor International, elucidates. "Branding in the airline industry is being forced to grow up, albeit kicking and screaming," he states. "The biggest difference is that airlines have moved from a doomed strategy of baseline positioning to attempting to implement secondary positioning. Baseline positioning argues that the most important consumer messages are professionalism, experience and safety. Such positioning is the darling of those with degrees in marketing, hence you should avoid hiring such people.
"The names British Airways, United and Air France are all extensions of baseline positioning," Manning continues. "This type of cold, herd-mentality positioning dictated that vast sums of money be thrown at advertising, since there was nothing engaging or differentiating to be had from any of these brands at face value.
"Virgin broke free with secondary positioning. No need to spend money telling the world you are different or pleading with consumers to remember you when you paint 'Virgin' on the side of a jet. Further, the name Virgin leveraged secondary positioning that went something like this: we are different, confident, exciting, alive, human, provocative and fun. The innovative name forced people to create a separate box in their head to put it in. None of this would have mattered if the experience of flying Virgin hadn't been a direct match to its positioning. Since everything does line up, the name brand is self-propelling, connects emotionally, has personality, and is a deep well for brand extension going forward."
Manning is quick to point out that secondary positioning can go awry when the practitioners don't get it right. "Song is a prime example. A truly horrible name," he declares. "It's particularly bad because they were attempting to create something interesting and engaging, but what they landed on was an emotionally empty moniker – an advertising money pit. Advertising is explaining – branding is demonstrating. Explaining costs money, demonstrating is something you do in the course of normal business. Song will have to explain itself in an attempt to make a connection with passengers."
Having decided on the message, the design consultancy has to work with its airline customer to manage the brand to ensure maximum effect.
"Internal selling of the brand is a key principle of Richard Branson's," says Mike Curtis, Start Creative's managing director. "It's probably the most important audience, so we've developed a 'tool kit' with a book, CD and posters which help staff learn ploys, tricks and techniques to get the best from the brand."
Curtis's colleague, Richard Crabb, picks up the company's tale. "Close working relationships are vital," he remarks. "The consultancy can create and manage brand workshops, but where practical it's a much richer experience if they actually run and present the workshops. The impartial view takes out internal company politics, departmental cynicism and, from experience, the 'outsider' has a much easier job facilitating, engaging and bringing together multi-functional teams under one vision, identity and core set of values."
For Landor's Knapp, helping a customer to manage its brand – in particular the aforementioned online aspect – starts with the close relationship Crabb advocates. "If you think about something like bmibaby, for example, we worked with them to ensure that there was a user-friendliness and a certain humour incorporated into the website so that the personality came through," Knapp says.
"I think in a humanless interface there can still be space for some humanity. That's really important," he confirms. "If you treat the digital interface as purely mechanical, you have a very cold reaction to it. And what we've tried to do with bmibaby – and to a significant degree with bmi – is to make sure that there is a strong personality, to make sure that there is a feeling that, ultimately, you are connected to somebody at the airline. You're not just dealing with the electronics behind the airline. That gives a certain amount of reassurance and security for the customer. Because, at the end of the day, it's still a service industry and you want to feel that there is somebody serving you."
For the 'internal sell' Knapp recognises that each airline company has a diffenent number of people who are responsible for the brand. "You really deal with it on a very individual basis each time because people have different expertise in-house.
"One thing that we do is a process that we call 'brand engagement', where marketing is the definition of the brand itself and how that's expressed in strategy and design, but brand engagement is more about internalising the brand, making sure that people within the airline know what it represents and subsequently how to behave it and how to express it. The external expression is the promise, the internal brand engagement is much more about the delivery."
Presentations, seminars and workshops to assist in managing the brand are not to the liking of Igor's Manning. "These tactics never work; they're a complete waste of time, money and energy," he proclaims, though he does agree with getting the message across internally. "Explaining is desperate, demonstrating is king. The brand is kept consistent by the experience of its employees. The interaction of the employee with the consumer is demonstrative of their work environment."
Creating and managing a brand costs money, particularly for quality research. So recouping some of the investment and making the brand a financial asset is the next goal.
Once again, Steve Manning is unequivocal on the matter. "The goal of all brand image makeovers should be the elimination of advertising from the corporate budget. If at every point of contact, the name, the experience, the attitude and so on, is handled perfectly, your advertising costs should be laughable," he concludes.
At Landor Associates, Peter Knapp addresses the matter by examining the value of research. "Yes it can be expensive but the value is that you gain, hopefully, fairly broad consumer insight," he remarks. "And with that consumer insight you understand the motivations of the customer, what they're looking for, what resonates with them, and you start to play that into the strategy and make the strategy attractive to the type of people that you want to talk to.
"So what research is giving you a greater understanding of what the customers actually want in order for you to more accurately shape your strategy. That then becomes more magnetic and more accurate to your target audience. I think that's the way that the research starts to pay for itself," he sums up.
Start's Curtis believes that the brand becomes more valuable with the more you invest in it. "Brand value often has a great deal of goodwill attached to it," he comments, acknowledging that goodwill is certainly a valuable commodity which is hard won, but easily lost.
Start colleague Richard Crabb refers to his leading client to explain how a brand can be a financial asset. "Virgin in the UK has 100% awareness and is more trusted than the Bank of England," he expounds. "It's a great example of the financial asset of a strong brand. When customers become your brand advocates, you are operating on a personal level. Traditional advertising and marketing spend are part of the mix, but everything starts with your brand."