If Malaysia Airlines (MAS) makes it to 2015 and beyond, 2014 will probably be remembered as an annus horribilis for the beleaguered brand. In fact it may go down as an annus horibilis for the Malaysia Nation brand but we’ll discuss that another day.
Certainly the first half of 2014 has been desperate for MAS with missed revenue targets, ineffecitve advertising campaigns universally mocked by the industry, reports of alleged sabotage, police investigations, negative press about the customer experience and of course the tragic circumstances surrounding MH370 and the subsequent weak handling of the global media by the airline.
The once mighty airline, an early poster boy for national carriers is struggling on a number of fronts with two big questions 1) Can MAS survive and 2) should it be allowed to fail? being asked in coffee shops, boardrooms and even in schools.
The answer to 1) is yes, and to 2) is no.
But to survive, someone is going to have to get very, very tough because MAS is in a mess. Since 2007, MAS has made 3 cash calls to the tune of RM7 billion (US$2.1 billion) and over the last 3 years has accumulated losses of RM4.1 billion (US$1.2 billion). Whatever they are doing isn’t working.
Morale is low, bookings are down especially from normally busy and profitable routes to and from China, the unions are throwing their weight around even though the airline is terribly over staffed – you only need to go to KLIA to see so many staff sitting around doing nothing and I heard one story recently of a new person who arrived to find someone asleep (with a pillow) at his desk.
Just to get an idea of the situation, Singapore airlines (SIA) has a fleet of 104 aircraft (MAS 107), flies to 62 destinations (MAS 61), has revenue of RM36 billion (MAS RM58 billion) and is staffed by 14,000 people (MAS 20,000) and yet in 2012 made RM1.150 billion ( during the same period MAS lost RM400 million).
SIA is flying to the same amount of destinations, operating the same amount of aircraft and using at least 6,000 less employees to do it. It turns over only about 60% of what MAS turns over yet makes an impressive profit.
MAS needs a new strategy but cutting costs is not the way forward. In the interests of nation building and to ensure morale and belief in Malaysia doesn’t plummet further and to turn MAS around quickly, the firm needs to carry out a number of key initiatives immediately starting with
1) All suppliers have to accept that their existing agreements must be cancelled and be given the opportunity to submit new proposals that are acceptable to the airline. If they cannot agree terms, new tenders must be issued.
2) Moving forward, all procurement activities must be done transparently.
3) The unions have to understand that 5,000 staff must go. The government must underwrite any redundancy packages for 12 months to encourage staff to leave and reskill these staff to ensure they find work immediately.
4) Training of staff, especially front line staff has to be ramped up because these people are key to the success of the brand and at the moment their customer engagement skills are simply not good enough. But training providers must be recruited transparently.
5) MAS must review it’s sales policies, processes and systems. Right now they are not leveraging effectively on key opportunities such as the Enrich database.
6) MAS marketing and advertising is stuck in a time warp of mass media mediocrity. It needs to stop wasting huge amounts of money (I was told RM400 million in 2013) on irrelevant advertising campaigns and review it’s marketing approach now.
7) MAS must understand that customers build brands not advertising departments. The new strategy must focus on the customer and delivering economic, experiential and emotional value to its customer segments and on their terms.
8) MAS appears to have 3 brand identities at the moment. It’s a mess and needs to be revamped quickly and there has never been a better time to do it as the MAS brand identity is tired and old and associated with MH370.
9) Successful airline brands today are innovative, creative, nimble and move fast. I remember being in discussions about updating the uniform in 2003. 11 years later it is essentially the same.
10) Years ago MAS aggressively marketed it’s Enrich programme and encouraged anyone to sign up. But the programme is antiquated and a mess. Children get offers to sign up for credit cards, there is limited segmentation and personalisation and opportunities to reward and leverage brand loyalists and identify and nurture influencers are missed.
There is an obsession at the moment that cutting costs is the way to make MAS profitable. It is the wrong approach. However by understanding the importance of branding and spending money on the right brand strategy and integrating that brand strategy with the corporate restructuring plan, significant savings can be made and crucially, those savings (obviously) save the company money but will also generate more income by negating the competition, increasing share of wallet and allowing MAS to increase not decrease ticket prices.