Are the BA heritage advertisements really more relevant to their employees?

British branding establishment figure, Wally Ollins claims in a Marketing Week article that “It’s too late for BA ‘To fly. To serve’ when you’re in a tailspin”, criticising their latest, timeline-based advertising campaign.

Wally alleges that: “The problem for BA and, for that matter, most European and all American airlines is that they have become cold, mechanistic and absolutely uninterested in their passengers.” Fairly punchy stuff on the one hand.

Yet on the other he states that “The advertising campaign is brilliant clever and original, and fine for internal morale but leave us passengers out of it. Don’t talk about service. Do it.”

“Fine for internal morale….leave us passengers out….”!?

I’m afraid this is the perpetual minefield for the external-facing brand fraternity which includes Wally, namely the persistent notion that employee engagement with brand is somehow consigned to morale building, push communication or internal advertising.

Speaking from the standpoints of passenger, engagement and change consultant with intimate knowledge of BA and as a brand specialist, I have to admit to finding his comments puzzling.

Firstly, I agree  that the advertisement is clever. I know from past and current experience that brands with a legacy have a potent opportunity to provide a sense of stability in troubled times. Wherever possible, especially during mergers and acquisitions or periods of major change I urge my clients to embrace and respect the history of the brands involved. People retreat to the comfort of the known during troubled times, the village and the homely embrace of trusted values and associations. Consumers and employees alike are comforted by heritage and “stickability”and seek out islands of stability when the cold winds of economic misfortune blow. Brands with a rich heritage like BA, should be valuing and re-communicating that heritage. After all, Virgin recently did the same regardless of the fact that their roots extend only as far as the 80s. And is it a coincidence that the tv series Pan Am, about a long-lost and much lamented brand, has become a hit now?

I disagree that the BA campaign is largely irrelevant for customers and much more relevant for BA employees. Of course BA has to back up their service promise. It’s patently wrong to suggest that the advertising campaign is primarily for the benefit of BA employees, however. I’ve been vociferous in my own cries for the BA leaders to do much more than simply “show their employees the adverts” as internal engagement is a more subtle art, requiring very different approaches to convince the harshest of critics that the leaders are listening, consulting and acting to preserve an organisation and brand they hold dear. But at least they’re taking brand engagement seriously and are seemingly investing accordingly.

It’s obvious that the airline industry is in turmoil and has been for some time. Banker bashing has overtaken airline strike spotting as the business media’s favoured sport. But it wasn’t that long ago that I hosted a debate between some of the leading airline brands at Interbrand hq in which it emerged that the impact of bargain-basement airlines; short-termism and obsession with quarterly shareholder reporting had become the biggest risks to the industry.

Contrary to what Wally’s article implies, I don’t believe the blanket negative caricature of BA employees he portrays. Yes, the airline industry would benefit from a refresh, even if that has to be a brand at a time. But BA is still one of the most beloved brands of these British isles and to a large extent, the problems the BA brand faces are synonymous with the trouble brand Britain finds itself in. And we know what happens when Brits are backed into a corner.

Sure, the BA leadership could do with some help re-connecting with their stakeholders inside and out. Yes, they would do well to explore the fabulous engagement initiatives of the past. Of course they should listen with open minds to the opinions of the marcomms critics, their customers and employees. Yet they do need to be applauded for investing and taking risks at a time when most board rooms are content to hunker down and ride out the economic storm. Most of all, they’re absolutely right to look back in order to move forward.


2 thoughts on “Are the BA heritage advertisements really more relevant to their employees?

  1. You make some excellent points Ian but I can see where Wally is coming from. This is a great campaign which nails what the essence of BA should be. Unfortunately the organisation doesn’t deliver and this cart is very definitely before the horse. Not enough has been done to help the team deliver and it’s too much service by assertion. Although the campaign may give some staff a lift I’m sure it’s frustrating for others and in some cases embarrassing.
    I hear BA is on course for brand of the year. I wonder how it would score if the voters were its own frequent flyers.

    • Good to hear from you.

      I imagine we’re coming from a similar place here Pete.

      They certainly have a lot of work to do to truly and sustainably bring the brand back to life. But they really do need to do this from the inside out i.e. by re-connecting with their people and tapping into the strong sense of emotional connection the vast majority of employees have for the brand. I don’t believe that any of their employees want to feel that they’re under-performing. Classic leadership by example stuff required. I really don’t get Wally’s point that the adverts are relevant for the employees only. As we both know, engagement of that nature requires investment, but of the involving and empowering rather than slick and polished ilk a la internal advertising, as implied.

      I really have no problem with the advertisements making promises to customers PROVIDED they’re being backed up by the type of inspirational internal engagement and culture change I mention above and a commitment to improvement underpinned by very clear understanding of current customer and employee perceptions. Will they get this from a one-stop-shop brand agency? Little news about authentic engagement activity in the market, though. Doesn’t bode well for delivering on the promises. But we live in hope.
      As for the potential brand award…..well, that speaks volumes about how behind the curve so many of these gong-fests and conferences are, wouldn’t you say? I believe At least two of the large clearing banks were “gonged” for their internal comms recently………….

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