These videos suggest there is a disconnect between what Malaysia Airlines says and what it does

In the mid 1980s, I was working in the Middle East and when it came to taking leave, we had 2 travel options. Head West for Europe or East for Asia. Whichever direction, the airline recommendations were always the same – try to fly on Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific or Malaysia Airlines.

Why, because those airlines offered top quality service. Something the European carriers, with the exception perhaps of Swissair, were unwilling or unable to do.

Emirates arrived in 1985, Oman and Qatar Air in 1993, Etihad in 2003. Prior to that, the only Gulf carriers were Saudi Airlines and Gulf Air. Thanks to their owner’s deep pockets, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar accelerated the establishment of their brands with massive investments in brand experiences.

Since then, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific have done their best to compete but Malaysia Airlines (MAB) was left far behind and today, is a mere shadow of the great brand it once was.

To many, if it wasn’t for the Business and First class offerings, it’s essentially already a low cost carrier. Nevertheless, in its communications at least, Malaysia Airlines continues to give the outside world the impression it sees itself as a world-class carrier.

In March 2018, Malaysia Airlines launched a campaign titled “Malaysian Hospitality Begins With Us”. The campaign aim was to ‘reinstate and demonstrate MAB as the national icon and represent Malaysian hospitality on behalf of the nation to all its guests and customers.’

MAB’s group CEO Izham Ismail said during the launch “that the airline’s diversity, heritage and culture are the foundation and reference of the brand promise, and that MAB aims to provide a Malaysian experience in travel through Malaysian hospitality.”

These bold and practically impossible to live up to statements were supported by the usual professionally produced advertisements and videos shot in high definition with smiling cabin crew in brand new aircraft telling us about ‘Malaysian Hospitality’ and how it is a culture that ‘runs through the organization’.

The website, the first destination for many potential passengers has a special section for ‘Malaysian Hospitality’ and in this section announces “Welcome’, or as the locals would say, ‘Selamat Datang’. That’s how it begins, the experience that is our hospitality. Warmth and generosity are the hallmarks of how we treat anyone we meet. That’s what we’re known for as Malaysians, and more importantly as an airline.”

It goes on to say, “Our hospitality begins with our experience. As we strive to deliver the best experience possible, everything we do is guided by our principles of hospitality.”

Now in some ways I think this is quite clever. Because if Malaysians are known for their warmth and generosity, then they only need to leverage on the natural capabilities of employees to deliver a potentially world class experience.

But it also means that every crew on every flight, will have to be on top of their game non stop if they are to deliver a high level of service at every touch point, every time. And that delivery must meet the very diverse needs of very diverse passengers.

And of course, the concept of ‘warmth and generosity’ may be difficult to deliver. Warmth yes, but generosity? What does that mean? Do you hug every passenger and give them a US$100 bill? Or do you upgrade everyone who asks?

Don’t forget, the aim is to ‘represent Malaysian hospitality on behalf of the nation to all its guests and customers’. With such a promise, there can be no half measures. And of course you can be sure plenty of people will be waiting for the first fail.

Is Malaysia Airlines delivering on the promises above? Despite the glossy high-end corporate videos, two videos have emerged recently to suggest it isn’t.

On their own, these videos could be dismissed as ‘one off’ rants by disgruntled customers but watched together and added to the explosion of negativity on the MAS Facebook page and a pattern seems to be emerging.

This suggests to me that whatever training cabin crew are receiving is not linked to the big promise and whoever is responsible for measuring the effectiveness of that training, isn’t doing their job properly.

Let’s take a look at the videos. The first one was uploaded to YouTube on November 20th 2018 by travel and aviation vlogger Josh Cahil who is based in Germany and has 23,000 followers on Instagram and close to 10,000 followers on Twitter.

His YouTube video where he claimed he was bullied by “extremely unfriendly” MAS cabin crew on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to London has been viewed more than 280,000 times and generated more than 2,600 comments.

International media in the UK and Australia picked up the story as well and in Malaysia it was covered by Says.com not to mention other news portals.

The second video was circulated around Malaysia via Whatsapp towards the end of November 2018. This video was created by controversial travel hack, entrepreneur and author of “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am?: Confessions of a First-Class A**hole” Justin Ross Lee.

I have a suspicion this video was created some time ago because it features the Malaysia Airlines A380 and as far as I know, they aren’t using that aircraft on the London sector any more.

But what both these videos do is show how Malaysia Airlines is unable to deliver on the bold promises it makes in its marketing. They also show the futility of spending large sums of money on big ideas and not linking that promise to the departments responsible for delivering on that promise when all it takes is one passenger to have a bad experience and share that experience across social media and the whole expensive, one size fits all campaign is ruined.

This mass economy approach more suited to 1988 than to 2018 is built around the belief that with a large enough investment, an airline can make potential and existing passengers believe each bold statement it makes and that if it doesn’t deliver on that statement during their particular interaction with the brand, the passenger should just be grateful anyway.

Following the Josh Cahil video, Malaysia Airlines initiated an investigation and according to Cahil, the group CEO sent him a template apology and offered him a refund, which he asked them to donate to a charity supported by them.

The problem was that by this stage, the story was dominating social media conversations. Even corporate driven tactics on social media were being ambushed with negative comments.

In fact the majority of MAB’s attempts to use social media in a positive way are being hijacked by negative comments. And when this happens, the firm doesn’t seem to grasp the link between what the commentators are saying online and what is happening offline.

Malaysia Airlines attempts to build brand equity on social media
However, brand experiences are not meeting expectations & negativity is hijacking campaigns

This is the dangerous spiral many brands are finding themselves on today. They don’t invest in the right training to deliver the experiences consumers demand offline.

There are a variety of reasons for this and some of them sinister. Most common is that the scope of work for a campaign is created in isolation and by people who don’t understand the importance of delivering a ‘best in class’ customer experience.

Which means that if the scope of work for the project is wrong, it is doomed to failure before it even starts.

In despair or because they now have a channel in which to express their frustrations, consumers go online where they passionately vent those frustrations. And often they do it in the very space the company thinks it owns such as on a Facebook page, further diluting the ability of the brand to deliver on the brand promises made in the very expensive corporate driven messages it believes are defining its brand in the way it wants to be defined!

And if that wasn’t bad enough, when passengers vent those frustrations online, the people tasked with representing the brand simply don’t have the skills or for that matter the responsibility to respond in a suitable manner.

This exasperates the negativity around the brand, causing brand equity to plummet to such an extent that it can be almost impossible to escape the spiral into brand obscurity.

So what can Malaysia Airlines do? If they are serious about building a national brand that can compete with Asian and Middle Eastern competitors then it needs to understand the following

1) Forget about the big idea
Smart Brands understand the concept of the big idea belongs to the 1970s and much as the world has changed significantly since then, so should the way brands engage. Malaysia Airlines must focus budgets not on telling people they deliver Malaysian Hospitality but on showing people they deliver Malaysian Hospitality.

This requires a comprehensive overhaul of the marketing, advertising, customer relationship and social media strategies. Fusionbrand recommends this be carried out through a brand audit as soon as possible.

2) The right experience training
Judging by these videos and the comments across Social Media, Malaysia Airlines see training as a box to be ticked. A review is required to identify if there is an understanding of what constitutes world class service.

If the training providers have been hired for the wrong reasons and don’t have the skills to deliver the type of training required to compete with sector leaders, how can Malaysia Airlines cabin crew and for that matter ground crew, deliver a world class service?

3) Social Media
There’s no escaping social media but too many brands don’t give it suitable attention. Malaysia Airlines must start investing funds in social media instead of big idea promises it cannot keep.

I don’t know what’s happening at MAB, but too many companies think social media is the perfect place for interns because they are young and have an Instagram account themselves. After all, what could be hard about posting on Facebook and Twitter, right? Wrong.

Social Media is about many things. For brands, it’s about cultural, social and other nuances. Being responsible for a brand online is not something you do, it’s something you are.

Malaysia Airlines needs to link what it says and does offline with what it says and does online. Quickly, before it’s too late.

Does it make sense to rebrand Kuala Lumpur’s taxis?

Taxis are ubiquitous in Kuala Lumpur, just as they are in most cities in around the world. Unfortunately, years of poor public transport, viable alternatives, ineffective regulation and little or no oversight has created an industry that is a Frankenstein monster that has lost sight of it’s actual purpose. In other words, it has grown fat and lazy.

Generations of visitors to Kuala Lumpur have put up with a terrible product. Drivers would stop at taxi ranks and ask each person in the queue where they wanted to go.

Once the driver found someone going where he, the driver wanted to go he would quote an (inflated) fare and the potential passenger could take it or leave it.

If none of the waiting passengers wanted to go in his direction or refused to accept the quoted fare, he would drive off, only to sit in traffic with an empty cab. (That particular stunt always baffled me.)

KL taxis waiting to take customers to a place the driver is happy to go

Getting a receipt for a journey was an exercise in futility. Meter rules were flouted, tourists and residents ripped off and on more than one occasion, this writer was driven by a Pakistani native who’s long beard and salwar kameez did not match the clean shaven, tie wearing Malay in the id on the dashboard identification.

There were exceptions but they were few and far between. A vast majority of the drivers appeared oblivious to the concept of customer service or for that matter, safety, personal hygiene, honesty, integrity and warmth.

And then in 2014, the uber disruptor Uber opened in Malaysia. You’d think that with the arrival of such a dynamic competitor, the Kuala Lumpur taxi business would think to itself, ‘well we’ve had it good for years but now serious competition has arrived so we better up our game’. Alas no because a year later, Kuala Lumpur came top in a poll for the city with the worst taxi drivers in the world.

To celebrate this accolade, taxi drivers complained to the government and rioted in the streets, attacking the vehicles of Uber drivers and in some cases dragging customers out of Uber cars and into taxis. Who needs customer service when you’ve got brute force and violence?

KL taxi drivers think the way to impress customers is by destroying the competition with violence

Citizens voted with their feet and despite being more expensive, Uber became the preferred mode of transport for most KLites.

All it took for this revolution was a taxi business that did what it said on the tin – ie picked people up when they wanted to be picked up and sent them to where they wanted to go at the agreed price in a nice, pleasant environment, normally delivered with a smile.

Recently there has been talk of rebranding the KL taxi business? Can this issue be fixed with a rebrand and if so, how? The short answer is that done properly, a rebrand has a very strong chance of success but if the wrong approach is taken, it’ll be an expensive and futile exercise.

And why is that I hear you ask. Well we need to first understand what constitutes branding. Only then can we appreciate what constitutes a rebrand.

To answer this, we first need to look at what isn’t a brand. In a nutshell, a brand is not a new logo or brand identity. Imagine the Apple logo. Would changing the logo from an Apple to say a sausage change anything about the brand? Of course not.

And rebranding is not launching the new logo or brand identity with a new website, new tagline and new advertising campaign that makes outrageous claims that are almost impossible to live up to and more importantly will be viewed with scepticism by consumers.

A rebrand is a three stage process that begins with a comprehensive review of the business. In this case, it will probably be painful but it needs to be done to benchmark future effectiveness of the brand strategy.

It’ll look at processes and systems related to the brand. What’s good and bad about it, explore segment specific perceptions, the technology used, communications, experiences and much more while identifying areas for short, medium and long term improvement.

Once this brand audit is completed, the findings are used to develop the internal and external brand strategy.

The internal strategy will improve dated systems and processes related to hiring, training and firing of drivers, define driver rules, develop codes of conduct and develop best practices for key touch point linked to customer requirements for value.

The adoption of technology will play a key role in providing a better product and in due course, contributing to the process of changing the perceived professionalism of the taxi industry. Tools are already on the market that allow the sharing of the resources of Grab and taxis to the benefit of both businesses and users.

The external strategy will focus on activities around 6 core attributes necessary for the success of any brand. Those attributes are warmth, humility, integrity, competence, accessibility and transparency.

Disruption is the scourge of every business today and actually has been for many years. Think how the hospitality, banking, aviation and retail industries have had to keep reinventing themselves.

KL’s taxi drivers shouldn’t be frightened of change. By using these attributes as the pillars of their industry, they have a lot going for them.

The external strategy will also leverage weaknesses in the Grab model. A narrative needs to be developed around what taxi drivers contribute to the economy, as opposed to what Grab doesn’t contribute to the community.

If there are questions about how much tax Grab pays, the taxi model will be extremely transparent and the amount of tax paid by taxi drivers will be developed as a societal narrative.

The carbon friendly London taxi, voted the best in the world

If insurance and safety are key concerns when it comes to using Grab, the taxi industry can use this to it’s advantage by inculcating a culture of safety with the drivers (instead of the often blatant abuse of traffic rules) and water tight insurance policies that cover passengers.

If Grab has a weakness when it comes to passengers with disabilities, the taxi industry will specialize in working with such groups. If the Grab pricing models are contentious, the taxi models will be clear, fair, transparent and impartial. At all times, taxis will be well maintained.

Some European cities have used regulatory vetoing to block disruptors. But in KL there was a serious market failure when it came to the needs of the customer.

So with the damage done, the free market has already decided so such action won’t work in Malaysia and the taxi drivers should stop trying to force the government to take the same approach or for that matter by trying to force the government into action with random acts of violence.

However, KL’s taxis can rebuild trust and belief in the brand. But they’ll need to adopt an organizational approach to a rebrand. If they do so, over time, perceptions of taxis and taxi drivers will improve.

A service driven culture will increase the revenue of taxi drivers while making KL a better place to live.

Ironically, taxi drivers have the potential to become the disruptors they fear, to influence cultural and political change in KL, Malaysia and possibly the region.

So yes it does make sense to rebrand KL’s taxi business. And just like the Malaysian people have proven to the world there is still some mileage left in democracy, Kuala Lumpur’s taxi drivers can prove to the world that this ancient industry has plenty of miles left in it.

 

Fusionbrand is Malaysia’s only Strategic Brand consultancy. You can reach the author Marcus Osborne on marcus (at) fusionbrand (dot) com or call 03 7954 2075 and ask for Gurmeet.

Enrich is not a channel to sell as much as possible, it’s a channel for the brand to build relationships

So I’m checking in online for a flight on Malaysia Airlines and I noticed that my Enrich membership (that’s the MAS Frequent Flyer Programme (FFP)) has been downgraded from gold to silver.

That in itself is hardly a surprise because I rarely fly with them anymore (the 3 – 4 business class business trips I take to the UK from Malaysia each year are now on a competitor carrier where I’m a gold card member) but what surprised me is the way my demotion was, or in this case, wasn’t communicated to me.

After going through old emails, I don’t think I received any communications telling me I would be or had been downgraded. No gentle nudge or reminder to travel to retain the gold status. No email to ask what could MAS do to help me remain a gold card holder. Nothing. Just a stealth like downgrade. And I presume that’s standard operating procedure for anyone downgraded?

I can’t remember how long I’ve been a gold member but I suspect it’s around 10 years, maybe more. But as I’ve documented extensively elsewhere in this blog, I’ve been flying with Malaysia Airlines for more than 30 years and was one of the few to fly MAS in the days after MH370 went down. So I feel, perhaps wrongly that I have some relational credits in the bank.

Now I’d like to reiterate that I’m not complaining about being downgraded because I knew it was coming. I’m just reminded how few brands understand the concept of loyalty, of retaining a customer once they’ve acquired them. Of doing what they can to salvage a customer before they leave.

Harvard Business Review would argue that not all customers are worth keeping. And Malaysia Airlines most probably would argue that I’m definately not worth keeping. Even though I manage the travel budget of my family of five as well as my company and influence a number of other business owners.

According to Harvard Business Review, “acquiring a new customer is anywhere from five to 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one.” Meanwhile Accenture reports that 80% of ‘switchers’ feel the company could have done something to retain them.

I switched my long haul allegiance to another carrier years ago and am definately one of the 80%. Malaysia Airlines has done nothing to stop me switching. And has done nothing to try and win me back once I have switched.

They put a lot of effort into encouraging travellers to join Enrich, the Frequent Flier programme. But once a member, communications are fairly standard and lack personalisation. Even a customer experience email sent to me after a flight was addressed ‘Dear Sir/Madam’.

Malaysia Airlines needs to move away from a transactional approach to branding

The email was written in an old fashioned style (who says ‘we will duly respect your style?”), littered with grammatical errors and despite stating the survey was only valid for 7 days, the link which was sent to me on 8th October 2017, was working today 10th April 2018. The email offers me an opt out option if I don’t want to receive the surveys but there isn’t a link to make this happen.

The email signed off ‘We are professional, progressive, connected and open‘ That’s a bold, ambitious statement, very hard to measure and almost impossible to live up to.

I get a lot of emails from the frequent flyer programme and they are almost always trying to sell me flights, packages, destinations, discounts on third party products and services and I get that but these are all transactions. The airline is simply carpet bombing the database with offers and hoping that enough of them will stick.

The focus seems to be about selling enough of everything to as many people as possible and in the shortest period of time. There is zero attempt to build a relationship with the recipient despite the fact that it’s the FFP. It simply reduces MAS to nothing more than an object or a commodity.

But as Malaysia Airlines should have realised post MH370, objects can’t be differentiated emotionally and besides consumers have no emotional connection or loyalty to objects.

I am sure MAS understands this because that’s why it has a FFP programme. Unfortunately, it’s stuck in the past when it comes to using the FFP. Malaysia Airlines needs to stop looking at members as customers and start to see them as partners.

What are the lessons for MAS and other brands? If you collect customer data, store it and use it properly. Instead of trying to sell something to everyone, use the data base properly. Link offers to customer value requirements. Preempt negative situations. Don’t simply downgrade members, find out how to keep them happy. Personalise correspondence. Encourage participation.

Instead of selling to them, collaborate with loyalty programme members. Build relationships by providing solutions to members’ needs. Successful brands are built on openness and Malaysia Airlines says it’s an open company. Prove it.

Apple needs to focus on its core business or the brand will be in trouble

Towards the end of 2016 I read an article in Business Insider that had the audacity to suggest Microsoft is more innovative than Apple.

Now I believe that’s a bit of a stretch but there are definately problems at Apple. Since Steve Jobs moved on, the brand has made three critical mistakes. One is that it no longer has direction or if it has direction, it’s the wrong direction – driverless cars? Two it appears to have stopped listening to the voice of the customer and three, it’s products are very nearly not fit for purpose.

The next 'must have Mac?' Probably not
The next ‘must have Mac?’ Probably not

These three things are leading to a perfect storm of problems for Apple. If they are not addressed quickly, the brand will lose its loyal following from the creative sector. Indeed, Microsoft, yes Microsoft is already making inroads into this segment. Consumers are not as loyal to brands as they used to be, especially when those brands aren’t listening to them.

This excellent post from Mark Wilson of Fast Company outlines what is wrong with Apple and what they need to do to save the company.

In a nutshell, he wants the company to focus on delivering getting the existing products right rather than diversifying into new areas, to lose the gimmicks and deliver quality, to get the integration across platforms seamless, as promised. And he has a point.

It’s good to know I’m not the only one increasingly disillusioned with my Apple products.

The most interesting thing about the iPhone 7

In April 2016, Apple announced its first ever reduction in iPhone sales. The company played down the decline suggesting it was in line with slowing smart phone sales around the world but the reality is that Android is becoming an unstopable force and consumers are getting bored with the iPhone.

So the launch of the iPhone 7 is really important for the Apple brand. I haven’t played with the iPhone 7 so I can’t say how it is but it needs to be interesting, exciting and desirable and that’s going to be tough to deliver.

What I do find interesting is related to the removal of the 3.5mm circular headphone jack on the left side of the bottom edge of the iPhone 6. Instead of traditional wired headphones the iPhone 7 will work with wireless EarPod headphones which don’t, I am now told, ship with the phone. According to Apple, this move is part of the plan for a wireless future and that makes sense although the rest of the ecosystem is still wired so that might be an issue in many situations you find yourself in.

EarPods - wirelessly wired. Thanks customers
EarPods – wirelessly wired. Thanks customers

Traditionally, when Apple makes such a move – remember when it redesigned the MacBook and MacBook Air computers a few years ago, the MagSafe charger got a refresh too which meant you couldn’t use your old charger with your new laptop. And every Mac user will complain about Mac adaptors for monitors, Ethernet cables and God knows what else – it doesn’t think about the consumer.

Well this time, the new iPhone ships with an adaptor that plugs into the Lightning port which is normally used in its chargers. This means you can still use your expensive wired headphones. But you’ll still have to fork out for a separate adaptor if you want to charge your phone while listening to music.

Apparently, the new lightning EarPod headphones offer a better quality sound than ‘wired’ versions which tend to sound a bit tinny. This is something to do with an inbuilt digital-to-analogue music converter (DAC) present in lightning connector headphones.

What this tells us is that Apple listens to its customers and that’s something a lot of brands need to do. It also tells us Apple values the voice of the customer and that is a major step in the right direction for a brand that hasn’t really needed to in the past. It’s a small but important step for Apple and shows that even the most valuable brand in the world must and is listening to its customers. Are you?

New Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has an explosive start

Rumour has it the new flagship phablet from Samsung has a dodgy battery. Early reports on social media from Korea feature terrible images of burned units fresh out of the box. Samsung was quick to say only about 0.1% of the devices were affected but out of 7 million already sold, that’s an embarrassment they could have done without.

That's going to hurt
That’s going to hurt

The latest news is that they are going to issue a recall of all Galaxy Note 7s. This will be a massive blow to the mighty Korean electronics firm that has been banking on the Note 7 to stop the decline in profits of the last couple of years.

I haven’t played with it but cannot escape the relentless advertising across all media channels. With USB Type C charging (said to be the root of the problem), waterproofing and a futuristic iris scanner that uses your eye to unlock the phone, this was considered a real threat to Apple’s dominance.

With a new iPhone due to be released next week, it will be interesting to see how Samsung manages the fallout and whether it can continue to stay in touch with Apple. I expect Samsung to be very transparent and decisive about the whole issue. The recall suggests that’s the case. It’ll also take more marketing dollars, a lot of grovelling and lots of freebies to those affected.

Harder to win over maybe those who were considering switching from Apple to other devices. A category I include myself in. It just maybe that the winner will actually be Huawei. Huawei has seen a 40% spike in smartphone revenue and now has 9% of the smartphone market. To overtake Samsung, it’ll need to sell about 10 million more handsets. That’s a challenge but dodgy batteries and weak quality control at Samsung will help its cause.

Even brand consultants are human

I wrote a blog post last week about how I was told I could not use the Malaysia Airlines lounge at KLIA if I wasn’t flying Malaysia Airlines. I also shared the post with a blog that I have a lot of time for and they responded with a very balanced article suggesting I was wrong.

In the post I wrote that gold and platinum members of the Malaysia Airlines FFP programme couldn’t use the lounge but someone also not flying Malaysia Airlines, who had never flown Malaysia Airlines and may never do so again, could enter the lounge if they paid RM200 (US$40).

I explained that this lack of appreciation for loyal customers did not make branding sense.

I was making the point that what other airlines do is irrelevant. That what is normal doesn’t matter because Malaysia Airlines isn’t any other airline going through normal. That Malaysia Airlines needs to work harder than any other airline to rebuild its brand following the twin tragedies of 2014 and that the first place it should start was with members of its frequent flyer programme but that it had largely ignored them.

Brands, especially airline brands are always looking for an edge. And they especially like to be seen to be human, to be caring, to be willing to do something extra. A colleague reminded me of what we call ‘thoughtful gestures’ branding. It’s happening more and more in the era of the long idea because thoughtful gestures have long legs on social media.

Think of all those airline ads that show the captain giving a kid a toy plane, a stewardess adjusting the blanket of a sleeping passenger, the offer to heat up a milk bottle for a baby, etc. All cliches and all used by Malaysia Airlines in its advertising in the past.

No frequent flyer, including me is entitled to anything that’s not in the terms and conditions but if they ask for something minor or simple, such as a free coffee or a pen or a postcard or want to use the bathroom in the lounge then although it’s against the rules, it would be a great opportunity for a “thoughtful gesture” that made an impression and more importantly, may then be discussed on social media and negate some of the negative narrative.

The mistake I made was that I personalized a minor issue and as a result, people focused on my behavior instead of the airline’s attitude.

I copped a lot of abuse and I won’t make that mistake again. Although I can promise you I’m not an unctuous twat and do not consider myself entitled!

A negative brand experience with Malaysia Airlines can be a lesson for all brands

Although this post is almost inevitably a branding lesson for Malaysia Airlines, it’s also a branding lesson for any company that doesn’t appreciate the importance of retaining customers.

At the risk of stating the obvious, customers are key to a brand’s success. After all, you can’t build a brand without customers although there are probably some advertising agencies that would dispute that.

Retention not aquisition should be at the heart of any Malaysia Airlines restructuring
Retention not aquisition should be at the heart of any Malaysia Airlines restructuring

Loyal customers are generally the most profitable of all. And as I wrote in my book, if you have enough loyal customers and look after them, you don’t need to spend the equivalent of the GDP of a small Scandinavian country on advertising to keep selling to new people.

Just think about it. If every customer you ever had came back over and over again and never left you, it would hardly matter how slowly the numbers built up. Fast or slow, your business would grow.

If every new customer became a convert for life, most of the risks would be taken out of running your business. Simply put, you’d be able to plan your sales and production, predict your cash flow, know when to open and when to close, recruit the right people at the right time and know exactly when to commit yourself to a new factory or, in the case of an airline, new aircraft.

Branding means looking after your customers. If you do, why would they leave?
Branding means looking after your customers. If you do, why would they leave?

In a situation like that, the only way is up. Unfortunately, though, it’s not going to happen. Customers don’t just come. Repeat business and customer retention rates are never going to be anywhere near 100 per cent in practice. Customers will leave too. But the absolute key to building a brand is getting more of them to stay.

And the reason why is because once they’ve become a customer presuming the experience from their perspective was a success, they are likely to come back again. According to one report, once a customer buys something, there’s a 70% chance of him coming back. And, once he’s back, he’s likely to stay.

repeat-customers-are-more-likely-to-convert

So how do you get more customers to stay? Obviously, by offering something that’s more attractive than the offer your competitors put up against it. Actually it’s easier than that because quite often a loyal customer will be oblivious to what the competition as to offer anyway.

But that’s not as easy today as it was 20 or even 10 years ago. There are companies out there who can manufacture what you manufacture more cheaply. There are companies out there who can get the same product as you to the market more quickly and in smaller or larger quantities than you.

Unless you are very lucky, there’s only really one advantage that you have over your competitors and that is your company’s relationship with your customers. That relationship, managed properly can never be duplicated.

And good relationships are the key to repeat business. Once Malaysia Airlines returns to profitability, and take it from me that it will do and ahead of target it will then need to start rebuilding it’s brand.

Customer experiences must be improved at Malaysia Airlines
Customer experiences must be improved at Malaysia Airlines

And if it really wants to rebuild its brand, and continue to make a profit once it starts to increase prices, which it will have to do, it must start to place relationships with existing and especially loyal customers at the heart of its turnaround strategy.

Malaysia Airlines must be prepared to invest in getting to know its customers by collecting the right data about them, developing relationships with them and then leveraging those relationships to generate higher sales and the referrals that will bring in more customers.

Malaysia Airlines must understand that building businesses today requires a relational, rather than a transactional, approach to doing business. This will be an almost 180 degree change in direction from the way it is managed at the moment.

The customer who is attracted to the airline because of a discounted fare but has no relationship with it will walk away the moment he sees the same thing cheaper somewhere else.

But customers who feel they are getting something out of the relationship, beyond the individual transaction, will stick around.

That ‘something’ the customer gains will depend on its ability to deliver emotional, economic and experiential value to every customer. And this is going to be hard because a lot of customers have now experienced the competition.

Branding isn't transactional, it's relational
Branding isn’t transactional, it’s relational

This is where branding gets complicated because it requires C level executives and senior management to refocus and move away from the ingrained, traditional ways of running a business. And for Malaysia Airlines it will mean tearing up the very strategy that got it back to profitability.

Most difficult of all, it means they have to give more responsibility to front line staff, many of whom they frankly don’t trust to do the right thing.

And much of that lack of trust is based on the fact that those management and C level executives see staff as a cost not an investment.

Even after the massive cull that has seen more than 6,000 workers retrenched, the carrier is staffed with people who simply don’t have the skills to represent the brand at this critical time.

But it’s also because whilst the ‘turnaround’ focus has been on slashing costs, the organization still suffers from a traditional, top down approach to managing the business.

A case in point is yet another depressingly familiar experience with Malaysia Airlines. As I’ve said many times before, I fly fifty times a year domestically with Malaysia Airlines and anything from two to ten times internationally. I’m not a major customer but I am a loyal one and continued to fly with them through the dark days of 2014.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know how loyal I’ve been to Malaysia Airlines. You’ll know how I flew repeatedly following those 2 tragic events of 2014 and despite the fear and the mess the management and government made of engaging with the global media, family of those lost in the disasters and other stakeholders, I kept flying.

I don't expect to be treated like a VIP but I expect to be appreciated otherwise I'll take my business elsewhere
I don’t expect to be treated like a VIP but I expect to be appreciated otherwise I’ll take my business elsewhere

But like just about every other consumer, my loyalty shouldn’t be taken for granted. And if the quality of the product provided deteriorates and there is no attempt to reach out to me in a human way during that process, then it’s only logical that I’ll start to look for other suppliers. If those other suppliers deliver value to me, why would I go back?

Malaysia Airlines never reached out to me despite my loyalty. I wasn’t looking for much, perhaps an unexpected upgrade here, an invitation to use a lounge when travelling economy or perhaps some bonus miles as a gesture of appreciation.

Sure there were times when I picked up a few bargains during travel fairs but they weren’t personal and required me to invest hours of my time sitting in front of my computer waiting for the page to load.

Since 2014, the brand continued on its downward spiral to ignominy thanks to a ‘transformation plan’ that resembled the cast of a disaster movie as they stripped everything out of a plane in a desperate attempt to keep it in the air.

The quality of the product, the aircraft, the offering, the service, the ability of the brand to deliver value to me and on my terms degenerated to such an extent that I’ve finally started to cut the umbilical chord and over the last 12 months, I’ve booked me and/or my family on British Airways, Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Silk Air, Air Asia and most recently, Malindo.

All of the bookings are on routes served by Malaysia Airlines and only one of them because Malaysia Airlines was full on that sector.

Last week I was flying Malindo on a domestic sector that I always fly Malaysia Airlines. My Malindo experience wasn’t perfect (For the first time ever, my flight departure time was brought FORWARD which could have caused havoc with my work schedule) but my expectations weren’t high anyway.

Although I wasn’t even travelling on Malaysia Airlines, I still managed to have a negative experience with the carrier.

Let me explain. When I got to KLIA I thought I’d try to use the Malaysia Airlines business class lounge. After all I was flying business class and besides, I’m a gold member of their frequent flyer programme (FFP) and have been as long as they’ve had one.

In case you are unaware, the top two tiers of the Malaysia Airlines FFP are Platinum and Gold. To be a Platinum member you need 100,000 Elite Miles or 130 Elite Sectors.

A tale of two toiletry bags. Emirates offers a brand experience
A tale of two toiletry bags. Emirates offers a brand experience
Malaysia Airlines does what it has to do
Malaysia Airlines does what it has to do

To qualify for a Gold card which is what I have, you need 50,000 Elite Miles or 50 Elite Sectors. If I’m not mistaken, you get 2 elite sectors for each business class flight and one for each economy class flight. This means I’ve travelled at least 25 times in business or 50 times in economy.

My most common route is KL to Kuching so let’s say for the sake of argument that all of those sectors were KL to Kuching. The fare to Kuching is about RM1,000 for business class so at a minimum I’ve spent RM25,000 to get those 50 elite sectors. Not a lot but if you add it to the other fares it starts to add up. To become a Platinum member I’d need to spend about RM65,000.

When I got to the Malaysia Airlines lounge I asked if I could get a cup of coffee. Long story short, the receptionist said I couldn’t and nor could a Platinum member however, and here’s the kicker, anyone can access the lounge for RM200 (US$50).

As you can imagine, this wound me up. Royally. I support a brand through the most difficult period of its history and encourage others to do so but I can’t get a cup of coffee in the lounge.

However, someone who has never flown the airline before and may never do so, can drop RM200 at the door and sit in the lounge as long as he likes.

That simply doesn’t make branding sense. Whilst the motivation for doing this is obvious, isn’t it a bit shortsighted? It was the last straw and I wrote this in my business class seat on an Emirates flight to London.

Sitting next to me was my wife and in economy were two of our kids. We spent about RM30,000 (US$7,500) on this trip but would have spent it on Malaysia Airlines. During the trip to London we met up with a group of about 20 Malaysian all of whom, bar two had flown in on Emirates.

Now I’ve flown the ‘world’s best airline’ it’s going to pretty hard for Malaysia Airlines to win back my business. Even my wife who travels more than I do and is a true patriot and blindly loyal to Malaysia Airlines admits it’s going to be tough to go back.

You could argue that not allowing me to use the lounge for 10 minutes has cost the airline perhaps RM250,000 a year from my family. Every year for the next say 10 years. That’s RM2,500,000 of lost revenue.

Of the group we met, 2 travelled first class on Emirates, 10 travelled business class and the rest economy. How much has that cost Malaysia Airlines? And it doesn’t take into account anyone who reads this or listens to my rants offline. Was it worth losing all that business over RM200? Of course not.

So what should Malaysia Airlines have done?

When the latest turnaround plan was developed, instead of the Chairman announcing there was no need to rebrand, there should have been a strong commitment to the brand.

The Chairman doesn’t understand what constitutes a brand and what is required to build a brand. He probably assumed a rebrand was a new name or logo or positioning statement implemented with a global advertising campaign pushed out across all media for as long as the budget would allow.

Whilst Malaysia Airlines is restructuring it's brand is being sacrificed
Whilst Malaysia Airlines is restructuring it’s brand is being sacrificed

Someone on the restructuring task force should have been able to educate the rest of the team on what constitutes a brand and its importance during the turnaround process. As mentioned already, emphasis should have been placed on delivering value to customers and not simply slashing costs.

More responsibility should have been given to those staff on the front line who were interfacing with the few customers still travelling on the airline.

The FFP should have been revamped immediately with personalized communications, ongoing engagement through unique dialogues to build an ecosystem of supporters willing to discuss the brand positively.

A concerted effort should have been placed on creating positivity about the airline. A transparent approach to building a new narrative, openness and humility should have been the foundation for any communications, not poorly thought out advertising campaigns.

Instead, with no one guiding the brand, much of the narrative around Malaysia Airlines has been negative, related to the 6,000 plus personnel that have been laid off and the replacement of modern aircraft with old, worn out planes.

Pictures appeared online of masking tape used to fix breaks in the business class cabins of old 737s on routes that had normally been served by much newer aircraft.

Unlikely to inspire confidence in the Malaysia Airlines brand
Unlikely to inspire confidence in the Malaysia Airlines brand

IMG_4538

Discussions and complaints raged about the lack of alcohol on flights of less than 3 hours and then the departure of the CEO after only a year or so of a 3 year contract generated more negativity. More recently, the new CEO made headlines for his comments about charges at terminals one and two.

Non stop negativity surrounding Malaysia Airlines is destroying the brand
Non stop negativity surrounding Malaysia Airlines is destroying the brand

Now I expect a lot of people reading this will say I’m being petty and besides, the airline is right. They need to have rules in place and if the front line staff were given freedom to make such decisions, it would be open to abuse.

Others will say that few airlines will let travellers into a lounge if they are not flying with the airline and they are probably right although many of them would let a frequent flyer use the lounge. Bbut that’s not the point because unlike the Malaysia Airlines brand, the majority of these airlines don’t have a broken brand.

But most importantly of all, branding today is about small steps, it’s about the small things that matter to customers. There is no more ‘big idea’ or other traditional mass media solution that speaks to everyone in the same way.

If you want to restore a broken brand you need to focus on many, many little things to make sure the brand get’s fixed quickly. Move the narrative away from negativity to positivity, from mass communictions to personalized collaboration.

Emirates is a classic example of an airline that understands branding. It spends a phenomenal amount of money building its brand. Not just through communications but in the experience and relationships.

I flew from London to Kuala Lumpur via Dubai and both sectors were full, despite the fact that a week before an Emirates 777 had been involved in a crash in Dubai.

Despite suggestions of a deeper issue at DXB, Emirates investments in its brand meant it had plenty of equity in the bank. Crucially, this meant there was little negative news to write about the carrier following the crash.

The event and the fall out was managed effectively and efficiently. Fortunately other than one brave fireman, there were no fatalities and the international media had little interest in building a story around the crash.

That’s one of the many benefits of real branding. The equity you have comes in handy when you need it. A week after the crash, it’s business as usual at Emirates.

Compare that to Malaysia Airlines, two years after the twin tragedies. It’s still struggling and continues to slash prices and the quality of the product.

Malaysia Airlines will return to profitability thanks to labour cuts, more old aircraft, new supplier deals and low oil prices. But unless it learns some harsh branding lessons and starts to invest in its brand, it is unlikely to stay profitable for very long and will struggle when it begins to increase fares.

STOP ADVERTISING, START BRANDING is in all good bookshops NOW!

Attached is a press release for Stop Advertising, Start Branding. This is a book about change. Yep, another one. The difference is, this one is about changing back to what you and everyone else used to do. It’s about laying the foundations before building the house. It’s about researching the destination before getting on the plane.

Stop Advertising, Start Branding on sale now
Stop Advertising, Start Branding on sale now

That’s right, it’s about getting the fundamentals in place before coming up with the creative, the quirky, the clever, the funny, the whatever. Far too many brands try to compete in their markets today without doing the right research. Without even communicating to their staff what they are trying to say. At other times they don’t even know if they can deliver on the promises made. That’s mad and why so much advertising doesn’t work.

Stop Advertising, Start Branding is a book that doesn’t have a title with an animal name in it. It won’t win a creative award for the cover even though it looks great. It’s normal, it’s a bit thicker than many branding or marketing books today but that’s because the information you need to build a brand takes up this much space. Sorry.

But if you read it I’m confident it will make you stop advertising and start branding. Which means it’ll save you a lot of money because let’s face it, most advertising doesn’t make much of an impression on anyone.

And you can use the money you save to build a brand your people buy into and want to work for. And once they do that they’ll be able to deliver on the promises you make. And when they do that, your customers will come back to you time and time again and they’ll tell others how great you and your product are. And when that happens you’ll make a lot of money.

OK, it’s not that easy but that’s why the book is 300 pages and that’s why I wrote it. If you want to find out how to build a brand without wasting massive amounts of money on advertising, I suggest you get a copy from your local Kinokuniya, MPH or Times bookstore in Malaysia and Singapore or from Amazon in the UK. And if they don’t have it, make sure you complain and order it or call us at +603 7054 2075 and we’ll sort something out right away.

Click here to read the full press release for STOP ADVERTISING, START BRANDING by Marcus Osborne

Where is the new Malaysia Airlines brand?

I was under the impression that September 1st 2015 was the planned date for the launch of the Malaysia Airlines System (MAS) rebrand. As far as I can see, all that has happened is the name has been changed to Malaysia Airlines Berhad (MAB).

To launch the new company, MAB CEO Christoph Mueller led a team of senior managers around Kuala Lumpur international airport (KLIA) greeting passengers, handing out teddy bears and giving away a pair of business class tickets to Melbourne. This is a nice if old fashioned way of introducing a new product and the internet means these cute if short lived PR tactics can be leveraged online and potentially taken up by users across the ecosystem.

Malaysia Airlines CEO greeting passengers on the first day of the new company Pic credit: NSTP/Aizuddin Saad
Malaysia Airlines CEO greeting passengers on the first day of the new company Pic credit: NSTP/Aizuddin Saad

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any reference to the airport visit on the Malaysia Airlines Facebook page. Not even a reference to the free tickets to Melbourne. Perhaps I missed it or the airline missed an opportunity to get some valuable positive earned media.

In conjunction with the launch of the new company, the CEO stated “We are very excited to welcome today, the start of our new company. We have been working hard for the past months to ensure a smooth and successful transition and we would like to thank our customers and airline partners for their continued support during this period.”

Interestingly, he added, “the new company was looking forward to enhancing its customer in-flight experiences and give them more reason to visit Malaysia.”

Although his comment suggests he’s more interested in new recreational customers than existing ones and visitors to Malaysia rather than citizens of Malayisa, it’s a reassuring place to start because the experiences (at all touchpoints and not just in-flight) are key to building a successful brand and not advertising, PR, cute PR gimmicks and corporate driven messages pushed out across all media.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons why MAS failed. The company thought it could spend more than a RM1 billion (US$400 million) in the years leading up to 2014 and pass that off as brand building whilst cutting costs that impacted every stage of the experience.

When a crisis hit, the brand was unable to deliver on promises it had made. In addition to gross mismanagement, failures at every touchpoint, lack of appreciation of the importance of existing customers and an inability to engage stakeholders, constituents and customers all contributed to the destruction of the once mighty brand.

So Mueller’s comment about improving the customer experience is good to hear. But I have to say I’m a little skeptical and here’s why. Last week I flew business class to Kuching on MAS and I was shocked at how old the aircraft was. Seats in business class were falling apart as the image below shows. Normally MAS uses new 737s on this sector so I can only hope the new aircraft have been taken out of service for the application of a new MAB livery.

A week before the launch of the new Malaysia Airlines, domestic business class is ready for the upgrade!
A week before the launch of the new Malaysia Airlines, domestic business class is ready for the upgrade!

The week before the trip above, I flew business class again to Kuching and 10 minutes out from Kuching the familiar alert sound of an incoming text message rang across the cabin. Then another and another. I figured someone in business class had turned on their phone whilst we were on our final approach.

I looked at the already seated stewardess who looked away in embarrassment. At least another 2 messages came in before we landed. When the stewardess got up to close the curtain I asked her if she was going to say anything. She replied yes and then went and hid in the galley.

A quick search online about the use of phones in flight throws up plenty of references. This is a quote from a Directorate General Civil Aviation (DGCA) report dated 2010 that refers specifically to the final approach: “Safety information internationally exchanged reveals specific cases where use of mobile telephones by passengers inside the aircraft cabin has caused erratic performance of aircraft airborne equipment leading to serious safety hazards during the flight. Typical instances include automatic disengagement of the autopilot at an altitude of 400 feet above ground level during an auto pilot assisted approach.”

Boeing the manufacturer of the aircraft I was travelling on has in the past written to all operators to warn of “the adverse effects of electromagnetic emissions on control, navigation and communications systems. Boeing is concerned that portable electronic devices carried by passengers on aircraft do not meet the stringent electromagnetic emission standards imposed on the certified airborne equipment used on its aircraft.”

As the passengers left the cabin the stewardess didn’t say anything. I was disappointed and explained to her as far as I was concerned, she was the boss of that cabin and if someone broke the law she should do something about it. She just looked at me blankly.

The last throw of the dice for the national carrier of Malaysia, a country that desperately needs some good news
The last throw of the dice for the national carrier of Malaysia, a country that desperately needs some good news

So what’s this got to do with branding? Well first of all, the MAS brand is toxic at the moment and especially when it comes to matters of safety. And a new name or identity or logo or advertising campaign won’t change that.

What will change that are examples and experiences, especially those related to safety. And most of those experiences will involve the ground staff or cabin crew. So any rebranding should have started with a brand audit to identify that the MAS crew was in desperate need of training to get them up to speed with dealing with difficult customers.

If the stewardess had been retrained to represent the new brand, she would have had the skill and confidence to take charge of that cabin and seized the opportunity to show to half a dozen leading VIPs, businessmen and me that this was a new era for the brand. That it had a zero tolerance to matters of safety and breaking international law, that the crew is competent, knowledgeable and confident and the safety of the passengers, crew and reputation of the airline is paramount.

Meanwhile on September 3rd 2015, The Malay Mail carried a story about a Malaysia Airlines jet making an unscheduled stop in India because the lavatories on the plane weren’t working. Now I know that this sort of malfunction can happen to any airline anytime but the new national carrier of Malaysia isn’t any airline, not at the moment anyway. These maintenance issues, common and accepted generally will be seen as a reflection of the carriers lack of a maintenance culture and the inevitable question will be, “If they can’t fix the lavatories, what else is broken?”

The Malaysia Airlines Facebook page is bursting with negative comments from frustrated customers made to wait over 2 hours in queues at KLIA, wait days for the return of lost luggage or unprofessional customer service staff. When I checked in recently, I was told by a duty manager that 40% of staff scheduled to be on duty that morning didn’t show up for work.

Even today, four days after the launch of the new firm complaints are coming in about service at the business class lounge at the carriers home airport KLIA.

Has anything been done to improve the Malaysia Airlines experience?
Has anything been done to improve the Malaysia Airlines experience?

The chances of a company surviving a disaster are small, the chances of surviving two are practically impossible. Little wonder then that Malaysia Airlines passenger numbers are down over a million in the first six months of this year.

The restructuring of the company was a necessity. This rebrand is the last throw of the dice for the national carrier of Malaysia, a country that desperately needs some good news.

As a branding professional and a loyal customer of Malaysia Airlines for over 20 years, my expectations of the rebrand go way beyond the name, the logo, the identity and promises made by the CEO that staff are not trained to deliver on.

I don’t know what has happened to the rebrand but my expectations are an end-to-end rebrand that will see Malaysia’s national carrier back where it belongs, at the top of it’s game. I genuinely hope the people tasked with rebranding the carrier, know what they are doing. Because if they don’t, Malaysia Airlines will fail.