The Malaysia Airlines tie up with Liverpool may sell tickets, but it won’t rebuild the brand

The English Premier League is broadcast to 70% of the world’s 2.1 billion football fans in 212 countries and territories around the world. Asia and Oceania represents 35% of that global audience.

In China alone, up to 18 broadcasters show nearly every game every week to more than 350 million fans across the country.

As of last year, a number of Asian brands including Thailand’s Chang beer (Everton) and King Power (Leicester City), Japan’s Yokohama Tyres (Chelsea), Yanmar and Epsom (Manchester United), Hong Kong’s AIA (Tottenham Hotspur) and GWFX (Swansea City) could be seen on advertising at grounds and/or on shirts.

Betting firms such as 138.com and UK-K8 who are targeting Asia are represented on the jerseys of West Bromwich Albion, Bournemouth, Watford and Crystal Palace.

In the championship, AirAsia sponsors Queens Park Rangers and Malaysia has a relationship with Cardiff city. Last year Malaysia Airlines signed a three year deal to be the official carrier of Liverpool after Garuda Indonesia relinquished the role.

Any reference to Malaysia Airlines on the Liverpool Facebook page?
Any reference to Malaysia Airlines on the Liverpool Facebook page?

Football has become popular with big global brands because of its impressive reach and because traditional channels such as TV are becoming fragmented as new services like Netflix, iflix and Amazon prime as well as Youtube, Facebook and others make it increasingly hard to gain the eyeballs all brands insist they need.

Football gives these brands the opportunity to reach a mass audience as well as be associated with what is obviously a very popular sport.

But in an economy driven not by what a company says it does but by what its customers experience, I question the relevance or validity of this approach.

I also think that if the logic is that by supporting a football team, a brand reaches out to all that team’s fans then surely fans of other teams will not support that brand?

And what if the team does badly? How does the association with a badly performing product reflect on the brand?

Take the case of Malaysia Airlines and Liverpool. Liverpool is one of the greatest, most iconic football clubs in the UK. The club was established in 1892, four years after the original premier league was set up.

The club’s trophy cabinet contains eighteen domestic League titles, seven FA Cups and eight League Cups, more than any other club.

They’ve also won five European Cups, three UEFA Cups and three UEFA Super Cups which means they’ve won more European trophies than any other English team in history except Manchester United (also 41).

That’s an impressive record but there’s a problem, they haven’t won an EPL title since 1992. Does that matter? Well it should do.

Does a brand such as Malaysia Airlines, which is going through a business turnaround plan to make it more competitive, efficient and effective, want to be associated with a team that hasn’t won anything significant for nearly 40 years?

And over the last few years, Liverpool has developed a reputation for poor winter form. The team won 2 out of ten matches at the start of 2016. In January 2017, Jurgen Klopp’s team lost 3 matches at Anfield in one week and as a result, was unceremoniously dumped out of two major competitions.

The team narrowly missed their worst run of losses at home since 1923 with a 1-1 draw against Chelsea at the end of January but the poor form continued into February with the recent 2-0 defeat away to lowly Hull City, 15 places below them. Only time will tell if last Saturday’s win against high flying Tottenham was the beginning of a new dawn or a flash in the pan.

If the latter, how does that reflect on Malaysia Airlines?

The Malaysia Airlines logo appears at the bottom of the home page, between the beer and the donuts
The Malaysia Airlines logo appears at the bottom of the home page, between the beer and the donuts

Liverpool are now 13 points off the leaders Chelsea and definitely under achieving.

Sure Malaysia Airlines is getting the eyballs, assuming viewers are watching the LED panels around the ground but is it the right environment for the brand? Is being associated with a team that is underachieving going to leave a positive impression?

You could argue that all Malaysia Airlines is doing is trying to raise awareness. But is raising awareness the right way forward? Is there anyone out there NOT aware of Malaysia Airlines?

Before Malaysia Airlines stepped in, Garuda International was the official carrier of Liverpool but after three years and a comprehensive study to determine if the airline was benefiting from the sponsorship, they pulled the plug. Surely if they felt they were getting value for money, they would have stayed on?

Garuda wasn’t the only sponsor to see little value in sponsoring teams in the EPL. In June 2016, Chinese smartphone maker Huawei ended its relationship as “official smartphone partner” to Arsenal after two years, citing “limited visibility.”

Malaysia Airlines hasn’t disclosed the amount it is paying to be the official carrier but Garuda forked out US$9 million (RM40 million) a year for the privilege.

So if Malaysia Airlines is paying the same (probably more but anyway), that’s US$27 million or RM125 million for brand exposure on LED and static boards at each home game, exposure on the Liverpool FC website which seems to consist of the logo at the bottom of the page, in publications and on the Facebook page although a quick look at the Liverpool page failed to find any reference to Malaysia Airlines.

The package is also supposed to include co-branding opportunities, merchandising rights and pitch side access with players and legends.

That’s a lot of money to pay to increase awareness of an airline that is probably known to everyone on the planet. But Malaysia Airlines CEO Peter Bellew thinks the deal, “has changed perception radically for us, in China, in Thailand, in the U.K.”

He didn’t explain what the perception of Malaysia Airlines was before the deal and how advertising on LED panels can change those perceptions.

The first game at which Malaysia Airlines appeared was a Liverpool v Manchester United match at the beginning of the 2016/17 season.

Liverpool managed to hang on for a draw, not an auspicious start. During the game, Malaysia Airlines advertised roundtrip fares between Kuala Lumpur and London at a ridiculously cheap £395 (RM2,299).

Branding is not about sales, it's about relationships
Branding is not about sales, it’s about relationships

Confusingly, Bellews credits the passenger load increase on the Kuala Lumpur to London route from 45% in May 2016 to 63% in December 2016 to the Liverpool deal and was quoted in one newspaper as saying, “Old-fashioned sales and marketing works.”

Slashing prices to the bone and spending RM125 million to raise awareness (and to change perceptions) and tell football fans you are selling tickets at £395 when other airlines are selling the same route at £500 isn’t really old fashioned sales and marketing, it’s just old fashioned and more importantly, unsustainable.

And to be frank, it’s hard not to fill a plane from Malaysia to the UK in December as thousands of expatriates head home for Christmas and thousands more Malaysians head to Europe for the long holiday.

Irrespective of the fact that Malaysia Airlines is sponsoring a weak product, there is also the question of whether football fans in Asia, watching matches as they do in coffee shops, bars and roadside stalls at 2, 3 or even 4am really take in the messages on the LED billboards.

And even if consumers do take in and accept the limited messages that can be communicated on a pitchside screen there is another flaw to this process. What if performance doesn’t match any perception created?

Of course in the ‘old fashioned’ world that didn’t matter because the focus was more on acquistion anyway and there was a belief that there were always going to be new customers.

At least that’s what TWA, Swissair and the other 300 airlines that have failed over the past 50 years thought.

Brands such as Malaysia Airlines generally succeed, or fail not based on their advertising, positioning or associations but on operational issues, service capabilities, retention and the experiences of others we relate to.

The problem for Malaysia Airlines is that today, all of the above are played out on Facebook, in the letters pages of newspapers and in the comments sections of popular bloggers.

Dissatisfied customers can change perceptions and damage brands on social media much faster than those brands can change perceptions through pitchside LED screens.

In the ‘old fashioned’ world, brands reached out to the masses. Awareness and sales took precedent over customer development.

I get the feeling that Malaysia Airlines is focussing too much on getting back into the black, no matter what the cost. Selling tickets at RM2,299 and old fashioned sales and marketing tactics may just do that.

But what happens when the carrier wants to increase prices? If Malaysia Airlines has been attracting price conscious customers, won’t they move on to the cheapest carrier?

And if this model is successful, then it will probably be the next advertiser on those LCD screens.

Together we are rebuilding the Malaysia Airlines brand

Two days ago I posted this blog post about what I called a minor yet significant step by Malaysia Airlines to rebrand by engaging me.

I was asked by some people why the email I got has anything to do with the Malaysia Airlines brand. I explained that in the social economy of today where consumers not companies define brands, it is the little things that brands do when interacting with consumers and how those consumers share their thoughts on those experiences, that build strong brands today.

I used as an example how much money Malaysia Airlines had spent over the previous 10 years on advertising whilst driving the brand experience into the ground. This meant that the brand had no equity in the bank and that if anything were to go wrong, it may struggle to rebuild its brand.

From the outside it looked like management had come to believe that the brand was defined by the company and as long as the company kept creating messages that the management liked, the brand would one day bounce back.

And then came the tragic events of 2014. The out of touch management didn’t have a clue how to address the issue and could not engage with relatives and other stakeholders. I compared their reaction to that of Tony Fernandez following the terrible Air Asia Indonesia accident of the same year and how his response was so ‘human’.

Following the twin events and with no equity in the bank because few customers were talking positively about their experiences with the brand, Malaysia Airlines had to be bailed out by the government and is still lurching from one problem to another.

I explained that whilst the interaction I had with Malaysia Airlines was small it was nevertheless a step in the right direction and if it was part of a strategic plan to start delivering value in key customer facing areas, it was a step in the right direction to save the brand.

I went on to explain that brands are not built with a big idea, a creative campaign or a one off interaction. They are built organically, over time and through little interactions at nearly every touchpoint. This isn’t rocket science but it is amazing how many firms still think they can build a brand through a creative programme.

And then today I read this article about a Virgin employee who works at San Francisco airport. Over the years he has adapted flight information boards to include famous quotes, jokes and irreverent announcements.

branding is not about the big idea, its about experiences
branding is not about the big idea, its about experiences

Rather than discipline the employee Steve Freitag, Virgin actively encourages him to make passengers smile. Passengers who encounter Steve Freitag will envariably talk about the experience and tell their friends.

No big idea thought up over a six month period and then turned into a slick advertising campaign. Just a real person doing real things and making life better for a minute for those people flying with Virgin.

In the case of my little experience with Malaysia Airlines it meant that instead of clicking my heels and the airport and wasting time I could ill afford to waste, I could spend an extra 45 minutes in the office.

And here I am sharing my experience with you through this blog and on Twitter and Facebook. And some of you are sharing my story with your friends. And together we are rebuilding the Malaysia Airlines brand.

Is this the first glimpse of the new Malaysia Airlines brand?

Malaysia Airlines has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising campaigns in an effort to convince us that it’s a top carrier and we’ll all have fun flying the airline etc. You can read one of my scathing attacks on the marketing department here and another one here.

Unsurprisingly this 1960s approach to building a brand didn’t work so they focussed instead on cutting costs wherever costs could be cut, without giving much thought to the effects of these cuts.

Most recently the carrier was ripped apart in the Malaysia media because it has stopped serving alcohol on any flight of less than three hours and not just in economy but in business class as well. What appeared to be most galling to the hundreds of consumers who commented on the ban was the fact that the airline had implemented the rule below the radar. Without apparently any formal announcement. Scores of furious business class travellers took to Facebook to air their frustrations and to swear never to fly the carrier again.

And then a few days later the CEO stepped down, nearly two years before the end of his lucrative contract. We’ll come back to that in another post. Because this post is a positive one.

This afternoon I received an email from Malaysia Airlines telling me my flight was delayed. Now I know a lot of you are going to ask what is the big deal but this is the first time, for as long as I can remember that MAS has emailed me to inform me that my flight was delayed.

Rebuilding the Malaysia Airlines brand, one baby step at a time.
Rebuilding the Malaysia Airlines brand, one baby step at a time.

It’s not perfect. For instance I would also like to have received a text notifying me of the delay because I might not have checked my email before leaving for the airport. And of course you’d think that after more than 20 years of being a customer, they could address me by my name but that doesn’t matter.

What matters is that rebuilding the reputation of the Malaysia Airlines brand will require a greater investment in improving experiences at every touch point than in advertising campaigns that are lost in the sea of noise. I’m not holding my breath, but I hope this is the first step in the rebranding process.

An open letter to Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar on the Malaysia Airlines rebrand

I was concerned yesterday when I read your comments that rebranding of Malaysia Airlines (MAB) is not a priority. It was reported that you said, “undertaking a rebranding exercise without having a strong foundation would create a vacuum in the carrier.”

TS Azman Mokhtar
TS Azman Mokhtar

This worries me because I think you are wrong. Malaysia Airlines desperately needs to rebrand. Secondly, you are contradicting what we’ve been hearing from Christoph Mueller who said, “A brand change is a necessity.” This contradiction is only going to make Mueller’s job more difficult, as well as confuse an already confused global public and weaken trust in the ability of the company, whichever one is trying to restore trust in its ability to run a global airline.

But most worrying of all, is that if you as the respected Managing Director of Malaysia’s flagship sovereign wealth fund are making such statements, I am concerned you have been given the wrong advice about what constitutes a brand and branding. Because the structural changes implemented in a rebrand form the foundations for the business to deliver on the promises it makes at every touch point and in relationships with existing customers.

It may be that you have been told a rebrand is nothing more than a creative driven exercise based around a new identity, tagline and statement. That these are then promoted across traditional channels using traditional media in the hope that the new identity will resonate with prospects, boost sales and retention and make the world forget about the twin tragedies, poor management, questionable practices, gap between promises and reality and shallow offering.

This of course is mutton dressed up as lamb and couldn’t be further from the truth. But sadly it is not uncommon. In the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, with few conduits to consumers and limited competition, this type of creative driven branding often worked. Companies such as Coke, Malaysia Airlines, Nestle and Unilever spent billions of dollars using this approach and increased sales and made profits.

Broadcasting corporate driven messages across mass media is not branding
Broadcasting corporate driven messages across mass media is not branding

Mass media, which was so powerful during this mass-market economy, was the logical vehicle to enhance the impact of creative-driven branding with a corporate controlled message and reach and repetition. In this environment, the company defined the brand and the consumer accepted that definition.

But the mass-market economy no longer exists. Today’s customers are increasingly overwhelmed with those creative images, taglines and promotions and the disruptive nature of that messaging and underwhelmed by the gap between promises made and reality. They now block out much of the noise and look instead to other consumers for information.

In this new economy, where consumers not companies define brands, the definition of a brand and how to build one has changed. Creative ideas are great, but consistency, information, knowledge and relationships are better.

Whilst every brand is different, the fundamentals of building a brand can be applied across sectors. Today Tan Sri, if you want to build a brand, as apposed to make sales, you need to develop a long-term profitable bond between you and your customer. This can only be achieved if you understand how to deliver economic, experiential and emotional value to those customers and on their terms. And you must back this up with everyday operational excellence and at every touchpoint every time.

Once respected managers of sovereign wealth funds such as yourself, our CEOs and government servants understand that this is what constitutes a brand and branding, the sooner we will be able to build world-class brands or in this case rebuild a world class brand that can once again compete with the best carriers out there.

This is especially relevant as the TPPA and AEC will see a massive influx of competition. If we don’t have any brands, our companies will struggle to stay relevant in the new economy.

Tan Sri, I do hope you read this and see my comments as feedback not criticism.

Yours sincerely

Marcus Osborne
MD Fusionbrand Kuala Lumpur
Contributor: Nation Branding: Concepts. Issues. Practice. Routledge. January 2016
Author: Stop Advertising, Start Branding. Published March 2016.

Is Malaysia Airlines serious about rebuilding its brand?

I’ve been looking forward to the new Malaysia Airlines (MAB) brand from both a professional and a personal perspective. Professionally, I’m eager to see what direction a global company with a huge reputation proposes for the carrier. Personally, I’m a big fan of Malaysia Airlines and have been for over 20 years. I also believe a national carrier is a critical component of any nation brand and building a nation brand is harder without a national carrier.

Right now, despite a new CEO and one presumes new management, the brand seems to be directionless. I think 3 launch dates for the new brand have come and gone and each time the date passes, there is a deafening silence from management.

Meanwhile corporate driven messages tell us the new brand focus will be on ‘making the customer experience change.’ In mid 2015 we were told that in December 2015 the airline “will begin installing new cabin seating and improving inflight entertainment, customer service and on time performance. New technology, lounge concepts and catering would be introduced and the uniforms may change.”

This is not the new cabin seating I was expecting
This is not the new cabin seating I was expecting

But I can’t find anyone who has witnessed the ‘new cabin seating and improved inflight entertainment.’ I hear complaints about the poor state of aircraft and have witnessed it myself. Delays are inevitable when launching a new brand but in a social world, these delays must be explained. There is nothing wrong with being normal.

Poorly thought out announcements are made regarding long haul flights that result in global condemnation and humiliating U turns but management remains silent. Days later, as if nothing happened, a press release is sent out about the new beginning at MAB and how the CEO will ‘boost product offerings and rebuild confidence in the carrier.’

What does ‘boost offerings’ mean? Does it mean make it cheaper? The lines between Low Cost Carrier (LCC) and Legacy Carrier have become blurred. The low cost carrier (LCC) model is familiar to just about everyone who travels. Basically you purchase the use of a seat on a (very cramped) plane and then pay through the nose for anything else such as luggage, food, drinks and even the location of the seat.

The alternative is Legacy carriers but I’m not really sure what they are. The term came out of the USA but today, seems to apply to any national airline not making money. With a legacy carrier or national airline, you pay one fee that covers everything including what should be a postive, even memorable experience.

Nowadays, a lot of so called legacy carriers mimic the low cost carrier model. Many of them do it quite well, others not so well. Malaysia Airlines seems to bounce between the two. It recently offered business class seats to London at the ridiculously low return fare of RM3,400. However, just like LCCs the rate excluded GST (6%), taxes and fees and added a caveat that additional baggage and fees may apply. I didn’t check but I suspect this would have bought the figure to the same level as competitors.

MAB needs to focus on delivering on the promises it is making not slashing prices
MAB needs to focus on delivering on the promises it is making not slashing prices

This is a dangerous game because if Malaysia Airlines cannot compete on price with the Middle East carriers, it won’t be able to compete with LCCs like Air Asia. According to the Economist newspaper reporting on a KPMG study, “a legacy airline operating an Airbus A320 between London and Rome spends US$12,000 more on each round-trip than a low-cost airline.” Whilst the amounts may be different, the additional perceptage is no doubt the same in SE Asia.

Malaysia Airlines should focus more on improving its product than trying to discount its way through low seasons. Instead of trying to match the LCCs with their basic services and expensive add ons, Malaysia Airlines should seek to improve its relationships with its customers and offer a premium service rather than discounts, especially to its passengers at the front of the aircraft.

And it needs to start communicating with the public. Successful brands today are built on accessibility, transparency, collaboration, retention, personalisation and integrity. And consumers not companies determine the success of brands. Corporate driven press releases are not as effective as positive comments shared across social media. Malaysia Airlines needs to get its head around this.

And it must do it now because Air Asia, once the poster boy of LCCs is struggling to stay relevant and is looking to innovate. If it looks to Europe or Australia for inspiration, it will see the likes of Easy Jet and Virgin Australia morphing into legacy carriers. According to the Economist, this may leave legacy airlines “in a perilous state, regardless of their location and size.”

And before anyone says Malaysia Airlines is a private entity and doesn’t need to explain anything to anyone. Just remember that this is the 21st century not the 20th century. Consumers are smarter and acquire knowledge not from brands but from those who use them. And besides, Malaysians have invested billions in the carrier and they have a right to know what is happening and why deadlines are not being met.

If Malaysia Airlines is serious about its brand, someone needs to take charge of the communications and take charge now because I for one, don’t want to see this once great airline continue to make these elementary mistakes. Otherwise the only thing serious about the rebrand will be its inneffectiveness.

Is Malaysia Airlines turning the branding corner?

In my previous post I promised to report on the experience of flying Malaysia Airlines this December to see if there were any improvements in the experience following the earlier announcement that the new brand would be launched this month. These were my 40th and 41st flights on Malaysia Airlines this year so I had a decent benchmark.

The good news is that whilst 2 flights are not proof of overall improvements it can be seen as a sign of progress. I’m pleased to report the experience was a lot better than it has been for a while. The aircraft wasn’t new but it wasn’t as tatty as the one’s I’ve flown recently. The cabin crew were very professional and conveyed a confidence I haven’t seen for a while in Malaysia Airlines crew.

My return flight was delayed and I was informed of the delay via a text at least three hours before my departure time which meant I was able to continue working before leaving for the airport.

About two hours before departure, I received a call from a customer service representative who apologised for the delay. I asked him the reason for the delay and he put it down to the weather which, if you’ve been in Malaysia over the last month you will know has been rough.

I asked if I could be switched to an alternative flight and he was able to check for me and I presume, if there had been a flight available he would have transferred me to that flight. All signs of a potentially seamless brand experience.

One minor criticism, whilst waiting for my departure from KLIA I spotted an aircraft on the tarmac sporting livery from the 1980s that is celebrating an event from 2012. I really think it’s time to change the livery because it communicates laziness and a lack of urgency amongst other negatives.

This livery is celebrating an event in 2012. It's time to apply the current livery.
This livery is celebrating an event in 2012. It’s time to apply the current livery.

The new Malaysia Airlines brand is to be launched this month

We’re into December 2015 and this is an auspicious month. But it is not just auspicious because of the holidays, it will be remembered as the month Malaysia Airlines launched its new brand.

You only need to look at recent images of the Malaysia airlines CEO Christoph Mueller to see how stressful it is cutting 7,000 jobs from a bloated workforce, reducing the number of suppliers from 20,000, (yes 20,000) to an industry average of around 2,500, renegotiating sweetheart deals such as the one with the caterer and changing the focus of the carrier from a global one to a regional one.

The strain is evident on the face of Malaysia Airlines CEO Christoph Mueller
The strain is evident on the face of Malaysia Airlines CEO Christoph Mueller

But there is plenty of good news for Mr Mueller and the industry. Global passenger traffic is up 6% this year and long term, Airbus predicts the Asia Pacific region will lead the world in air traffic by 2034 with 41% of all passengers.

Meanwhile, aviation fuel, which accounts for anything from 40% to 55% of an airline’s operating cost is down more than 40% year on year. And as this saving doesn’t appear to have been passed onto passengers, Malaysia Airlines could make a profit earlier than the predicted 2018.

So with huge reductions in the cost of operations, improved efficiencies and a new brand, things are looking up for MAB. But the road to the new brand has been uneven. Reuters announced in late May 2015 that a new name, livery and rebrand would be unveiled in June 2015. This didn’t happen.

The company did change its name from Malaysia Airline System Bhd to Malaysia Airlines Bhd and this was reported by some quarters as a rebrand but it’s not. It’s actually the company’s fifth name change and besides, the company continues to be known as Malaysia Airlines.

In late July 2015, it was reported that M&C Saatchi had won a four-way pitch to ‘refresh’ the brand and was going to be working on the ‘refresh’ with Prophet, a predominantly US centric brand consultancy with a regional office in Hong Kong.

Only six months earlier, Lara Hussein the head of M&C Saatchi is reported to have said, “I don’t think re-branding is the answer. To change the name, image or logo would appear to be superficial and not trigger any change in perception.” She’s right of course, to change the name, image or logo would be superficial, but that’s not a rebrand.

Most recently, the CEO of Malaysia Airlines stated, “The entire brand needs a ‘refresh’ and will be like a start up with a new culture, values and ideas.” That’s more like it.

He also admitted that the airline had “fallen behind in the past three years and the rebrand would be much more than a new name and coat of paint”. He said the focus would be on ‘making the customer experience change’. OK, now we’re getting somewhere. All the talk of logos, image and refreshes was beginning to concern me.

Let's hope the new cabin upgrades include domestic business class
Let’s hope the new cabin upgrades include domestic business class

According to Mueller, from December 2015 the airline, “will begin installing new cabin seating and improving inflight entertainment, customer service and on time performance. New technology, lounge concepts and catering would be introduced and the uniforms may change.”

Now we’re cooking with gas and I’m excited because this is more like branding and these changes are long overdue. Some of the planes I’ve flown recently, from the B737-800 to the A380 have looked tired and the business class lounge at KLIA is more like a cafeteria.

He’s banking on the new product improvements to renew customer confidence and trust in the brand. But while these upgrades are important, it will take more than a new lounge, new seating and new equipment to revive the brand. After all, these changes will only bring the brand back up to speed with the rest of the industry.

The current snack offering to Malaysia Airlines business class passengers on the A380
The current snack offering to Malaysia Airlines business class passengers on the A380

Branding success in the aviation business comes with a number of small successes at key touch points in the customer journey. And these successes are built on delivering value on the customer’s terms.

Nowadays that journey begins not with an advertisement but with the customer discovering the brand, most often online or, in the case of the lucrative but undervalued existing customer during the relationship that the airline builds with the customer once they have finished their journey.

Emirates A380 business class. It's all about the experience
Emirates A380 business class. It’s all about the experience

At every step of the way, those experiences involve interactions with personnel that know how to represent the brand and deliver that value.

Having been a customer of Malaysia Airlines for over 21 years, and having flown nearly 100 times on the carrier since MH370 I can say, with some authority that the majority of staff don’t understand branding and the role each of them has in the success of the brand.

It’s not their fault because years of mismanagement have inculcated the ‘tidak apa’ (Don’t care) culture across the organisation. It’s not that the airline or its people are bad, it’s just that it has been driven into the ground in an attempt to milk it for every penny. And this has created a sense of every man for himself.

The mismanagement has created an organizational culture that lacks the required values. All of its processes, attitudes and systems have evolved to do the bare minimum required to get by. Recently, in an attempt to try and stem the hemorrhaging with the layoffs and supplier renegotiations, morale has hit rock bottom and the company is hanging even further over the precipice.

So will the rebrand make a difference? We’ll have to wait and see. My concern is that it is going to be advertising and promotion driven. A ‘big idea’ will be created and pushed out across the world in a massive advertising blitz that will make a big splash before being lost in all the noise.

We’ve seen this approach before and it doesn’t work. In an era when delivering value to customers has become the norm, Malaysia Airlines’ seems to be struggling to come to terms with the new branding order.

Numerous personal experiences, countless anecdotes and negative reviews, comments and discussions on and offline talk about the airline not caring or negative interactions with staff.

In an era when customers not companies define brands, and they define those brands based on the economic, experiential and emotional value those brands deliver to them, the rebranding of Malaysia Airlines will be successful only if the firm gets to know its customers and staff are primed to deliver consistent, knowledgeable, exceptional, personalised engagement with each of the very diverse audiences.

It maybe that Mr Mueller doesn’t want to go this route. That the investment will be too much and his ‘start up’ will be a glorified low cost carrier masquerading as a national carrier. The ramifications of such a move on the Malaysia Nation brand will be substantial and only negative. Let’s hope that’s not the plan.

I prefer to remain positive. Today is December 1st 2015. The country and the world is watching and waiting for the new brand. I hope they get it right. My next flight on Malaysia Airlines is on December 8th. I’ll let you know if anything has changed.

Communication is key to a successful Malaysia Airlines rebrand

Flying into Kuching this morning on Malaysia Airlines​ the haze was so bad the pilot aborted the landing and went around again. The same thing happened last week. The haze isn’t MAS MAB fault but it has a significant impact on its brand.

Last week, the pilot came on the PA and explained the problem, reassuring everyone with his confidence and authority. This time the flight deck was silent. So we the passengers are sitting there wondering why the landing was aborted.

Without any information and aware of the carriers recent issues, we start asking ourselves, “Is there a problem with the aircraft?” or “Perhaps the airport is closed?” In that case, “Do we have enough fuel to go elsewhere?” “Are the pilot and co-pilot ill or even conscious?” An intimidating situation such as this one can have a negative effect on the brand. Yet at the same time, it can be part of the rebranding process.

It’s the little things that make or break a brand. Especially one that is already broken. A simple 30 second explanation was all that was needed to calm everyone down and earn a little bit of respect. Communication is a key part of branding. Successful brands have an emotional connection with consumers.

MAB has a credibility problem and that credibility problem needs to be fixed. One of the problems is the lack of an emotional connection. How can consumers connect with a brand that doesn’t communicate? If there is no connection the rebrand will fail. It certainly won’t be fixed with pressing the flesh, a new name, new livery, new advertising and a new logo.

It’ll be fixed by creating an emotional connection with customers and delivering economic, experiential and emotional value to those consumers.

Seriously, is #todayishere the new Malaysia Airlines tagline?

According to marketing magazine, the new Malaysia Airlines brand was launched with what they call ‘a new branding campaign’. Now personally I don’t think you can have a branding campaign. In my opinion that’s an oxymoron but let’s not go there for now.

Marketing magazine reported that a new hashtag #todayishere is the new tagline. A hashtag is the new tagline? Is that from MAB or is that an assumption? And besides, what does ‘todayishere’ mean? Does it mean we can simply forget about the past? And what about tomorrow? How does todayishere reassure me that it is safe for me to fly or put my kids on Malaysia Airlines?

And how is todayishere going to improve the experience of interacting with Malaysia Airlines? Does anyone know? How is anyone going to build a brand narrative around todayishere? Perhaps the agency Prophet from Hong Kong can share with us the next stage of their rebrand strategy because I want to know if there is anything else to come?

Are the crew going to be trained to represent this ‘new brand?’ What improvements have been made to the key touchpoints of the brand? How will a first time user be engaged at the booking engine? Has the broken booking engine been fixed? If not, why bother with a new hashtag/tagline/rebrand launch? Why not wait till that key component of the experience is at least working properly?

Although I don’t consider ‘todayishere’ to be a tagline, it is borderline criminal to believe you can rebrand any organisation with a tagline. Just ask the Malaysian government. Almost 2 years ago to the day, they tried to launch the Malaysia nation brand with a tagline.

But you can’t retrofit a brand around a tagline. Branding is about delivering value, at every touchpoint and at everytime and on the customers terms. It’s actually very easy, provided you start from the right place, the organisation because the organisation is the brand. Not a tagline, not a hashtag, not an ad campaign, not a campaign, not a new logo. Please, someone pass the message to the Malaysia Airlines board.

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.