Which is the best business class from Kuala Lumpur to London? Malaysia Airlines vs Qatar Airways vs Emirates compared


According to the Skytrax world airlines awards for 2019, Qatar is the best carrier in the world, Emirates is 5th and Malaysia Airlines is 36.

The Skytrax awards are based on the responses of 21 million participants from 100 nationalities. It is touted as the largest annual airline passenger satisfaction survey in the world.

I have a number of issues with satisfaction surveys, the primary one being that they don’t really provide any actionable insights. J.D. Power, a research company carries out an annual satisfaction survey of US airlines and their 2019 survey shows travellers are more satisfied than ever with airlines.

Yet high levels of satisfaction don’t translate into increased profitability as airline stocks underperform most markets, mainly because as capacity continues to grow, prices continue to fall.

And many of those surveyed probably travel once a year in economy. Business class passengers’ account for only 5.4% of international travel, yet are responsible for 30% of airline revenues. On some flights business class passengers account for 75% of profits.

Little wonder then that Malaysia airlines, Qatar Airways and Emirates are going all out to attract premium class passengers as we head into the lucrative end of the year holiday season. But which one of them flying to the UK deserves your hard earned money?

We compare the business class offerings of these three of the main carriers.

Online airline booking experience
If you want an easy to navigate, seamless experience with an online booking engine that is clear and transparent with an intuitive interface then Emirates clinches this important part of the process as all the information is clearly laid out, allowing you to make changes without too much effort or repetition.

The Qatar Airways sites is easy to navigate although the font is a bit small. They lose a point for the outrageous ‘no show’ penalties while Malaysia Airlines loses a point for the limited number of flights offered but wins it back for being the only one to offer direct flights, shaving at least 3 hours off the journey time.
Emirates 4. Qatar 3. Malaysia 4.

Check in at Kuala Lumpur International Airport
There’s nothing to choose between the three, which is a massive lost opportunity for MAS because KLIA is its home airport and should be used to really make a powerful first impression.

Check in staff for all three carriers also need to be trained to have more enthusiasm for their jobs and be constantly reminded they represent the brand at the start of the relationship with passengers.

It may be a process for them but it isn’t for the brand or the customer. It’s a key touch point in the relationship building process and shouldn’t be underestimated, especially by Malaysia Airlines.
Emirates 3. Qatar 3. Malaysia 2.

Emirates, Qatar Airways & MAS lounges at KLIA
All three lounges are on the ‘mezzanine’ level at KLIA and are all harder to find than they should be, especially the Plaza premium lounge. This is not unique to KLIA as most airports appear to hide their lounges.

The Malaysia airlines lounge at KLIA

When flying Qatar and Emirates I took the early morning flights that left around 0200hrs. Qatar doesn’t have its own lounge at KLIA so uses the Plaza Premium lounge. Which is anything but premium.

From an experiential branding perspective, this is a massive fail on the part of Qatar Airways. I don’t know why they haven’t invested in their own lounges, not just at KLIA but at other airports around the world.

The Emirates lounge at KLIA is small & intimate

Emirates lounge is small and intimate with a limited but superior range of hot and cold foods and beverages including premium non vintage champagnes. The lighting is calm and the environment relaxing. Staff are attentive and knowledgeable.

Understandably the MAS lounge is the largest but it wasn’t the most impressive. The first thing that hits you is the smell. It’s the unmistakable smell of Malaysian food.

It reminded me of walking into a food court. Nothing wrong with that perhaps but the Emirates lounge in Dubai doesn’t smell of Mandi while the Qatar Airways lounge at Doha don’t smell of Machbus.

While some business class lounges around the world are creating daylight boosting zones, ‘Hue lighting’ rooms and amber or blue lighting throughout, The Malaysia Airlines lounge at KLIA was rather dull and uninspiring.
Emirates 4. Qatar 1. Malaysia 2.

Lounge to gate experience at KLIA
Walking from all the lounges to the respective gates should be straight forward but it isn’t due to a lack of effective way finding. While this isn’t the fault of the carriers, they should be able to influence the airport operator. Walking out of the Malaysia Airlines lounge, there is no sign directing you where to go or even how to get down to the ground floor.

The main security checks for all flights are at the departure gates. I think this is unique to KLIA and absolutely bonkers. At Dubai, Doha and Heathrow, by this stage it’s just a passport check.

So as a business class passenger on the national airline you queue with everyone else. This should be at an earlier stage of the journey where there are fast track lanes for business class passengers.

National carriers need to leverage every opportunity they can and home advantage is supposed to work for them, not against them. Malaysia Airlines really needs to get on top of this by working with stakeholders such as Malaysia Airports to create a memorable experience, for the right reasons. Malaysia Airlines loses another point here because KLIA is its home airport.
Emirates 3. Qatar 3. Malaysia 2.

Business class environment on MAS, Qatar and Emirates
My Emirates flight was a Boing 777 while the Qatar flight was an Airbus A330 and the MAS flight an Airbus A350. So not exactly ‘apples to apples’ but close enough.

Emirates business class is bling central. It’s shiny, bright with huge TV screens and thousands of movies, TV shows, games, flight information and more. It’s world class and has won numerous awards.

The Qatar cabin is less ostentatious and a little more refined with equally impressive TVs and movies, TV shows, games and flight information. It’s also won many awards especially with Skytrax.

The Malaysian Airlines cabin is functional. It’s more Toyota than the Porsche of the others. The TV is smaller, of poorer quality and there are less new movies. Overall entertainment options are significantly less than the others.

I’m not comparing seats because that would only make sense if I compared exactly the same seat on each aircraft.

Wifi is free on Emirates and Qatar and costs US$2 – US$25 on MAS, depending on the package. Bearing in mind the quality of Wifi on flights is still patchy, charging business class passengers is not a good idea and MAS would be better offering it free.
Emirates 4. Qatar 4. Malaysia 2.

Comparing inflight service on MAS with Qatar Airways & Emirates
I’ll focus on key experiential points here and not do a food review! The mix of passengers on all the carriers was essentially the same – Westerners, Arabs, Malaysians and a mix of others so they need to cater to all tastes.

Order a pre meal drink on Emirates or Qatar and it’s served together with a variety of warmed premium nuts in a bowl.

Pre meal nuts on MAS
Pre meal nuts on Emirates
Pre meal nuts on Qatar Airways

On MAS the nuts are the same as economy class and are served in the bag. Another bag of nut mix is also served the contents of which was a serious disappointment.

MAS does provide two choices of nuts but the presentation is weak

On Emirates and Qatar, every pre dinner drink order was a personal event and served by a ‘waiter’. I saw a number of passengers order cocktails, champagne and other drinks and the glassware is elegant and the whole experience is similar to a 5 star hotel cocktail bar.

The pre dinner experience on MAS is functional. It isn’t bad, it’s just not in the same league as the competition but it is competing with them for the same passengers so it really needs to be.

While the food is comparable, MAS really lets itself down with the way it serves the food. Emirates and Qatar prepare meals in the galley and serve them individually, MAS pushes the food trolley along the aisle, like in economy.

I was sitting in the back row so had to put up with the trolley clanking every time it went over a ‘lip’ on the floor next to me.

Oh, and on the MAS drinks trolley were some heavily flavoured and hugely sweet ‘juice drinks’ popular in Malaysia and other parts of SE Asia but not really anywhere else.

Watching MAS cabin crew peel back the seal on one of those containers didn’t make me feel like I was in an exclusive cabin. Pedantic perhaps but paying attention to these little things is what differentiates great brands from the rest.

MAS did deliver the main course personally so I didn’t have to put up with the trolley!

MAS losses a point over its coffee. The world loves good coffee. Arabs have been drinking coffee since the 15th century. Europeans have had a coffee culture for 400 years. There are 700 Starbucks stores in South East Asia, 140 of them in Malaysia. 75% of Australians drink fresh coffee every day.

Order a coffee on Emirates and you’ll receive a freshly brewed mug of Ethiopia’s finest beans. Same on Qatar, on MAS it’s Nescafe. Now I know Malaysians like Nescafe but the typical international business traveller from the East or West is more likely to enjoy a freshly brewed cup of java.

At the end of the meal on MAS, out came that bloody trolley again. And this time there was a rubbish bag on top and as the steward cleared plates, he emptied left over food and rubbish into the bag. Sorry but that’s simply not good enough on business class and another point lost.

Clearing plates on MAS business class

All three offer a ‘mattress’. Qatar gets a special mention for providing The White Company pajamas. I didn’t use them but I took them home!

Like I say, it’s not that MAS business class is bad, it’s just that the other carriers have raised the bar when it comes to service. So it’s inevitable passengers will compare experiences.
Emirates 4. Qatar 5. Malaysia 2.

Cabin crew attitude on MAS, Emirates & Qatar Airways
Cabin crew are some of the most underrated and under appreciated people in the aviation business. They need a wide variety of skills. They need to be professional yet friendly, polite and caring, have great communication and customer service skills while at the same time an empathetic nature.

They need to be flexible enough to deal with multiple cultures, have high levels of tolerance, be organized, firm and calm while managing multiple activities and all at 38,000 feet!

Little wonder then that cabin crew can make or break an airline brand. And it takes real talent to become good cabin crew. Asians have a natural charm and historically, Asian carriers have led the world in providing memorable experiences and it’s no surprise that Emirates and Qatar hire mostly Asian cabin crew from at least 15 Asian countries.

Emirates cabin crew lead the field in terms of professionalism. They are attentive and yet unobtrusive. The crew member looking after me introduced herself at the start of the flight and made herself visible without interrupting me. She made me feel special and important.

The service, personalization and ‘nothing is too difficult’ attitude was bang on the money.

There isn’t much to choose from between the Qatar cabin crew and Emirates, perhaps a little more refined but really nothing much in it.

The cheese platter on MAS. Would it be more exclusive to serve the biscuits out of the wrapper?
Presentation of the Emirates cheese platter is very different to Malaysia Airlines

MAS staff were professional and attentive if a little hurried. I felt they wanted to get the meal over with while the others seemed to actually enjoy their work.

When I complained about not being able to have a proper cup of coffee on MAS, the crew member – who was senior and obviously experienced – dealt with me sincerely, sympathetically and professionally.
Emirates 5. Qatar 4. Malaysia 4.

Arrival in London
Most airlines seem to be happy to be rid of you the moment you leave the aircraft. However, flying Emirates business class entitles you to a limousine to any destination within about 70 miles of Heathrow or Gatwick.

This limousine option is outstanding value and ensures the last leg of the journey leaves a lasting, positive impression. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve mentioned this service to people. Neither MAS or Qatar offer a limousine and for some I know it’s a deal breaker.
Emirates 3. Qatar 0. Malaysia 0.

The post experience experience
None of the airlines try to build a personal relationship with you. I was travelling Qatar for the first time and yet there was a lack of personalisation in follow up communications. It was my first flight to London on MAS for about 5 years and I had mentioned it on social media but again, no attempt was made to build rapport with me although I was sent an email asking me to complete a questionnaire. Emirates carpet bombs me with numerous emails containing special offers but doesn’t do anything to build rapport with me. This a missed opportunity for all the airlines.
Emirates 0. Qatar 0. Malaysia 0.

The Verdict
Emirates 30/45
Qatar 23/45
Malaysia 18/45

Malaysia Airlines comes in a distant third and that’s a pity because in the mid 1980s, before The Emirates or Qatar even had their own airlines, three airlines – Singapore Air, Cathay Pacific and Malaysia Airlines – invested heavily in their people to make the experience of flying with them memorable.

The contents of the MAS business class toiletry bag 3 years ago
The Malaysia Airlines business class toiletry bag is a lot better today.

It worked and those airlines became the ‘poster boys’ of the commercial aviation business.

MAS began to lose sight of what it is in the 1990s and stumbled along until the twin tragedies of 2014. In the months and years after 2014, costs were slashed and it became nothing more than a low cost carrier masquerading as a national airline.

There is no doubt that it has made significant headway since those dark days but it still has a long way to go. To make the transition, management has to understand they are not selling flights they are selling experiences.

The Emirates toiletry bag is well thought out with brands that complement the offering.

Looking at the MAS staff behave, my gut feeling is they are trying their best but the MAS training is inadequate in the face of such dynamic competition. And how the management react to the recent FAA ruling will be key to the next stage of the carriers evolution.

Splitting Emirates and Qatar isn’t easy. Qatar’s rise as a global carrier of repute has been meteoric and it is winning awards almost every day. Loads out of Kuala Lumpur are impressive but it isn’t investing as heavily in the experience as Emirates and that’s why it came in second.

Emirates is the benchmark for all airlines. The crew really seems to be in touch with the company values and living those values on board. Having said that, I hear there are rumblings of discontent amongst frequent flyers.

Emirates has undoubtedly reached the top but in many ways, that’s the easy part. Staying there and continually improving will be tough, especially if competitors up their game.

Emirates is a clear winner.

If you’d like to know how Fusionbrand can make your business a world class brand, please contact us on +60192233090.

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.

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.

10 things to do to save the Malaysia Airlines brand


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.

 

MAS weren't ready for the ferocity of the global media
MAS weren’t ready for the ferocity of the global media

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.

Mass media advertising does not build brands. THe sooner MAS understands this, the better
Mass media advertising does not build brands. THe sooner MAS understands this, the better

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.

Or is it this?
What is the MAS brand identity? Is it this?
What is the MAS brand identity? Is it this?
Os is this the MAS brand identity?

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.

You can't build a brand using mass media so stop trying to do so
You can’t build a brand using mass media so stop trying to do so

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.

Used properly, the MAS FFP is a potential revenue gold mine
Used properly, the MAS FFP is a potential revenue gold mine

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.

Poor database management can destroy your brand’s credibility


My inbox is overflowing with ‘invitations’ to attend numerous conventions, exhibitions, masterclasses, seminars and so on. I don’t know where these guys get my email address but I must be on every mailing list from Malaysia to Mexico.

I’ve trained my junk mail filter to send most of them to the trash without me having to do it manually but somehow, quite a few still get through. One company is particularly good at getting around my filter and I find myself actually reading the subject line or even some of the copy, especially when I can’t find anything with which to self harm which is what I would prefer to do.

Normally I just swear at the sender, make a note of the company name and promise myself that I will never, ever attend one of their events and then just trash the email. But I thought I’d share this one with you so that if you are in the event or seminar business, you might learn something.

Here is a section of their most recent email

Not quite relevant to brand consultants
Not quite relevant to brand consultants

Of course her earlier email was included so I’m going to share part of it with you

Who is responsible for boilers? Are you serious?
Who is responsible for boilers? Are you serious?

You can draw your own conclusions from this farcical attempt to get the head of boiler operations at a brand consultancy to attend a seminar, the benefits of which are according to the email, “boiler efficiency, improved water strategy and analysis, better understanding of modern boiler burner operations as well as easier identification of its failures, by reducing cost and increasing safety and finally better understanding of legal requirements of Dosh

Tosh more like. If you must use email campaigns to try and drum up business, here are 5 top tips for an email campaign:

1) Give recipients an opt out from your list. This email doesn’t even allow me to unsubscribe, which may well be illegal.
2) Segment your list or risk destroying your brand. You’ve collected information, use it properly. Failure to do so may see you embarrassed on a blog.
3) Make your subject line creative, short and sweet.
4) Less is more. Trust me, the more emails I get, the more determined I am not to attend any of the seminars listed.
5) Track your customer activities. If they don’t respond to any emails, get in contact and find out why.

There you are, despite annoying me I’ve given you some sound and free advice. I shall be sending this post to Anna. Feel free to send it to anyone who keeps sending you irrelevant emails.

Great advertising should help build a relationship


Some TV commercials are remembered for the commercial and some for the product and others for the brand. Although they will never admit it, a lot of agencies want you to remember the commercial whilst the brand wants you to remember the brand so you will go out and look for it and then buy it.

Of course from a branding perspective, it is then that you need to build the relationship with the customer to try and cross sell and/or upsell them, either then or at a later date or to get them to become brand influencers. This is marketing 101 yet it never ceases to amaze me how much money firms spend on marketing (which includes advertising) to acquire a customers yet very little on retaining a customer. In fact it amazes me how much they spend on marketing what is obviously a great product but very little on training retail staff to match the product attributes to a customer’s requirements for value.

Anyway, I came across this fantastic TV commercial for LG TVs. It really grabbed my attention and made me think of buying a TV. Unfortunately I’m not in the market for a TV so I won’t be going to check out the LG TVs. But if any of you are looking to buy a TV and this generates some interest, let me know how you get on at the point of sale. Assuming of course that this model is available here.

Stop advertising and start branding part II


A fascinating insight into the social media and mobile shopping habits of consumers in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore has just been released by SDL in the UK.

The survey size is a little small – 4,000 people in four countries – but the results unearth new data on how social media and mobile are influencing how consumers interact and build relations with brands.

Singapore participant breakdown
Singapore participant breakdown

Findings include:

33% of respondents from all four countries have acted on promotions seen on social media.

58% of respondents have shared positive experiences online and have sought advice from friends and family when talking about brands on social media.

U.K. respondents are more likely than respondents from the other four countries to complain about service on social.

When respondents express feedback, Facebook is the most popular platform to do this.

Showrooming (visiting a physical location to evaluate products and services even when you know you will buy online at another time) is increasingly prevalent as 77% of participants showroom.

Experiential branding key to branding success
Experiential branding key to branding success

62% of the participants use a mobile device when in stores to compare product prices.

69% of respondents from all four countries expect a brand’s online store, mobile app, and physical store to offer the same pricing, discounts and sales.

Pricing consistency is expected in all countries
Pricing consistency is expected in all countries

What can brands learn from this thought provoking survey?

They need to understand their relationship with consumers and what resonates with those consumers.

Brands that ensure parity in pricing and products across multiple channels will have to place greater emphasis on the customer experience and experiential branding if they want to win and retain business. Those that compete on price alone will soon be out of business.

Department stores and other retail outlets that represent multiple brands will have to work harder to engage consumers and ensure a positive brand experience otherwise they face the prospect of losing customers, possibly forever.

Mobiles are changing the way consumers research and learn about brands.

Brands that take the time to build relationships with core fans or brand evangelists will see their brands promoted to thousands of fans for minimal financial investment.

Those brands with digital brand strategies that go beyond tactical campaigns online are increasing sales through loyalty and advocacy.

Brands that try to control content and manage corporate driven messages and ignore consumers are unlikely to last very long in the consumer economy of today.

Telling the brand story online should be done across Facebook and other popular platforms with the ongoing development of corporate and consumer content.

How to build a luxury automotive brand in the tough Malaysian market


The Malaysian automotive industry consists of two low-end manufacturers. To help these manufacturers, the government protects them with massive import duties, sales and other taxes that can jack up the price of an imported car with a large engine by as much as 155%.

In addition to these taxes an Approved Permit (AP) is required to import a car. These can cost around RM30,000 (US$10,000) each.

This makes it a tough country in which to sell foreign cars, especially luxury vehicles. To give you an example, a BMW 3 series that costs approximately £30,000 (RM150,000) in the UK, will cost about RM230,000 (£46,000) in Malaysia.

Top selling luxury cars in Malaysia
The BMW 3 series and the Mercedes C class are the most popular of all luxury vehicles in Malaysia. Sales of the BMW 3 series are around 2,000 units per year and the Mercedes C class slightly higher at 2,200 units. Both these models account for about 40% of each manufacturer’s total annual sales in Malaysia.

Mercedes Benz C class interior
Mercedes Benz C class interior

So you would expect any dealer that makes a living selling and servicing luxury cars to be on top of their game. Right?

In November and December 2012, a prospect visited a number of luxury auto dealers and had a few test drives. During one test drive, the sales person spent the whole time texting.

On another occasion, at a different showroom he was approached by an executive who began the discussion by arguing about whether a particular vehicle in the showroom was the latest model.

Despite operating in a very competitive space, neither sales executive followed up on the prospect’s visit. However one of them does send ad hoc emails focusing on discounts.

Eventually the prospect asked a friend to refer him to someone at one of the main dealers. He was introduced to a senior Director who referred him to a manager who referred him to an assistant manager. Despite this the prospect purchased a new Mercedes Benz C250 because this dealer offered a larger discount than any of the other dealers.

Even this luxury car dealer who got a referral from a supplier and made a sale with zero marketing investment has done little to build a relationship with the customer, preferring instead to simply sell a car. More on this later.

Selling a luxury product is not like selling a bag of rice
More than any other sector, luxury brands must have people who know how to build relationships with customers. The market for these brands is 0.02% of the Malaysian population. It is not like selling rice, LCD TVs, Computers or Fax machines where volume is the key to success.

Ensuring a luxury purchase requires an investment in time and effort to build a relationship. A one-to-one relationship with a representative that offers individual specific value, exclusivity and personalisation is what customers want.

Levels of service must be exemplary because customers in this space have so much choice and have worked hard for their disposable income.

They want to be seen as special, important and part of a select club and not simply as another anonymous person in an anonymous crowd buying an anonymous product.

In the first month after purchase, our buyer received two or three calls and both times the callers were essentially going through the motions of ticking service and satisfaction boxes.

Since then he has heard nothing. Then last week he received a text message. It is enclosed here, in full.

Poorly written, too familiar and a lazy way to try and upsell a luxury product!
Poorly written, too familiar and a lazy way to try and upsell a luxury product!

Pathetic I know. And the cars listed in the text are not cheaper. We’re talking about RM350,000 (£75,000) and upwards!

Now manufacturers, dealers and salesmen are going to say that all that matters is price and discounts but that is only because you cannot be bothered to build relationships with prospects and customers.

So what should this dealer of luxury automobiles do differently? Here are 10 things they need to do and do fast:

1) Recruit the right people and train them not with generic training courses that are used for automotive today and property tomorrow, but with bespoke training relevant to your brand, your industry and your customers.
2) Use technology correctly. Text messages are not a sales tool.
3) Put in place processes and systems that must be adhered to. For instance, if a member of staff has never met a customer before, the relationship must start on a formal footing, at least to begin with. Depending on how the relationship evolves, staff may be allowed to become more familiar.
4) Telling isn’t selling. Appeal to prospect emotions by identifying individual requirements for value and matching your product attributes to those preferences. You don’t sell cars, you realize dreams.
5) Service, service, service. Every interaction with a luxury brand must be of the highest level and expectations must be exceeded every time.
6) Make the experience of dealing with the brand special, unique, glorious but never, ever assume the customer will come back.
7) Too many brands spend a fortune on marketing and then practically ignore the customer. You have a 50% chance of selling to an existing customer and only a 15% chance of selling to a new customer. But sending a poorly written text is not going to retain a customer.
8) Don’t discount.
9) Carry out a sales process audit and sales skills analysis (yes, we can do that for you) and improve the skills of your customer facing staff.
10) Don’t waste time measuring satisfaction. It offers no value.

There is talk of liberalisation of the Malaysian automotive market but the reality is there won’t be any significant changes soon. Luxury brands need to know how to build relationships and realise dreams, not sell cars.