Can Christoph Mueller rebuild the MAS brand?

The May 2015 edition of Going Places, Malaysia Airlines in flight magazine features an introduction from Mr Christoph Mueller, the airline’s new CEO. In the short message Mr Mueller talks about the “overwhelming hospitality” he has received since arriving in Malaysia two months earlier. He explains that he would like all Malaysia Airlines’ passengers to experience the same overwhelming hospitality on board MAS flights.

MAS is not a bad airline

MAS is not a bad airline

He goes on to talk about the “formidable culture” of Malaysia and expresses hope that MAS will leave visitors with a “wonderful experience from the heart of Asia”. He tells us he is ‘excited’ for Malaysia Airlines despite the difficult and challenging task he and his staff face in turning the carrier around and making it profitable again.

He explains that the turnaround begins with people like ‘me’ (the reader) who he calls guests. The airline will be listening carefully to the feedback from guests. Mr Mueller goes on to say that the “the key is to design products and services to create a guest experience that you will find truly valuable.” I’m not sure what the key refers to to but I presume it is to rebuilding the airline.

'Truly valuable products and services'

‘Truly valuable products and services’

Mr Mueller is certainly right that the turnaround of MAS begins with the airline’s guests and in particular the frequent flyers who have supported the airline over the last 20 years. No doubt retention of guests will be at the heart of the rebranding brief sent out a few weeks ago and the RFPs for which are due at the end of this week. But he needs to steer away from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to his guests because they all have very different needs and requirements for value.

As for ‘designing products and services’ that guests will find ‘truly valuable’, Mr Mueller is making the right noises although I would have liked to have seen a more specific set of ideas delivered confidently and dynamically in his first public communication to the country and those many supporters of Malaysia Airlines. For instance, an overview of what he has in mind would have given people something to start talking about and sharing on social media, generating a wave of interest, enthusiasm, anticipation and positivity. And what exactly does ‘truly valuable’ mean?

MAS is not a bad product and it’s certainly not broken. Far from it, the product and services are OK. But the trouble is, to be competitive in today’s aviation business, or for that matter any other business being OK simply isn’t enough. To be successful in the aviation business, you need to be exceptional.

On a business trip to London earlier this month, I met up with a group of Malaysians who were all long-term MAS passengers, all with Silver or Gold Enrich (The MAS frequent flyer programme) cards. But this time they had flown in on Emirates and were raving about the quality of the business class experience, the outstanding service from the crew of 13 different nationalities and their professionalism, the efficiency of the airline, the seamless integration between the business class lounge in Dubai and the A380.

But what surprised me most of all was how they waxed lyrical about the communication between the crew and the passengers. Each crew member seemed to know each passenger’s name and used it in every communication, no matter how trivial. And the crew seemed genuinely interested in each passenger. Not in an irritating, intrusive way but in a professional client/customer way.

Emirates, the benchmark for MAS

Emirates, the benchmark for MAS

The meal service was akin to something normally reserved for a 5 star restaurant and was designed around the individual passengers needs on that flight. Meals were served individually, by hand and not from a trolley. Two of the travellers sat next to each other. Both were asked if they would like to sleep first and have their meal later or eat first and then sleep. They felt the crew were doing everything possible to make their trip truly memorable.

The service wasn’t rushed and they all thought the announcements over the PA were delivered in a confident, calming and professional way. And when the Captain (not the chief steward) announced clearly and confidently that seat belts needed to be put on while the aircraft experienced some ‘choppy’ weather, they all felt instantly at ease. MAS does many of the things Emirates does (I believe having flown Emirates, MAS and Etihad business class to the UK in the last 5 months that Emirates is the benchmark) and many of the things it doesn’t do can be done.

The question is, will MAS be able to do them exceptionally? Will Mr Mueller be able to find enough good middle managers with the skills and commitment to motivate MAS staff to deliver an outstanding experience time and time again? Will branding investments focus on getting the organisation ‘on brand’ before launching very expensive and imminently forgettable advertising campaigns that over promise and force the airline to under deliver?

Making experiences outstanding will be key to winning back lost customers and attracting new business and not glossy advertising campaigns, a new logo or new uniforms. We all want Mr Mueller to turn the airline around and with the support of the government giving him the authority to let go of 6,000 staff and low oil prices driving down the price of aviation fuel his chances are good. But judging by where MAS is at the moment and the ability of competitors to keep raising the bar, Mr Mueller is really up against it.

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5 thoughts on “Can Christoph Mueller rebuild the MAS brand?

  1. Having asked by flight attendants whether they prefer to have their meal first or sleep first, is not the prerogative only of Emirates Business Class passengers.

    I been asked similar questions by our very own low cost carrier Air Asia on their what is equivalent to Emirates Business Class, but for a fraction of the cost on my recent flight to Tokyo!..Well done Tony!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Menda

      Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment. I’m sure Air Asia’s business class is not quite the same sophisticated offering of Emirates but I get your point. What I was trying to communicate was not that the airline asked, but it was how they asked and the whole experience was of a far superior offering to what MAS offered even though MAS may ask the same question.

      Like

  2. Insightful article, with burning questions we all want answered. What plan does Mr. Mueller have?

    I can understand why he’s being vague about his ideas. Having previously consulted for both Malaysia Airlines, and Malaysia Airports, I can say that the culture within the organisation lends itself to rumour-mongering. Permutations of an idea fly thick and fast, and spread like wildfire. The general public got a glimpse of this nature during the MH370 crisis – when the airline put out more press releases snubbing rumours, than share facts.

    Add the this the uncertainty that comes with any retrenchment, Mr. Mueller probably wants to keep his cards close to his chest for now.

    While you make a good point about Emirates being the gold standard, with Malaysia Airlines set to pull out most of its European routes, the MEB3 will not be as big a threat as they are now. Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and the recently profitable Thai Airways will be the big threats on the Business front. AirAsia, LionAir, Jetstar and others will provide formidable competition regionally. So, Malaysia Airlines needs to do something out of the box.

    Cheap prices may bring passengers to the airline once. How do they get them back? It’s going to be about building affinity – not increasing numbers in the frequent flier program. How do you get people to genuinely build a preference for the brand? That’s going to be the challenge.

    Here are some ideas:
    1. Instead of leading with a major rebranding effort, start with re-defining the the ethos of the brand and delivering exceptional service on certain chosen touch points. New logo can come later.
    2. Get people talking about the Malaysia Airlines difference – on social media. Malaysians are one of the most active populations online. Malaysia Airlines should leverage it.
    3. The techniques that worked at Aer Lingus for Mr. Mueller may not all work at Malaysia Airlines as well – he needs to tweak his approach to the emotionally charged workforce.

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  3. I fly MAS almost every week for past 10 years…the only dissapointment really need to address is the cabin crew….MAS should retain old and senior crew. They are very good with passangers. The new young cabin crew only look pretty but have no courtesy ….bonding with passanger. It seems like a part time waiter in a bar…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Mohd Razif, thanks for dropping by my blog and commenting. I too fly MAS every week, often 4 times a week such as this week when I will fly to and from Bangkok and Kuching. Sometimes, even on domestic routes, I get superb service. The sort of service that would shame many European and US carriers.

      But I find that flying other airlines gives me a better perspective of how MAS is doing, when benchmarked against the competition. I’ve always said that MAS is not a bad airline, it’s just that the competition has raised the bar in terms of the experience and MAS has been caught napping.

      So many of the MAS – passenger touchpoints at MAS are OK but they are not great and to be able to compete and be profitable in the crowded skies of today requires an ability to deliver great economic, experiential and emotional value. MAS often does the first but rarely does the last 2.

      Like

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