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.


Rebranding Malaysia Airlines starts here

It has been scientifically proven that almost everyone remembers negative events more clearly than positive ones. Apparently it is something to do with spending more time processing negative information more thoroughly than positive information.

This probably explains why most of the mass media and consumer generated content about Malaysia Airlines is negative.

Of course its disjointed and poorly thought out marketing tactics and privatization programme aren’t helping but you can read about that here.

When a firm experiences a run of bad luck, it needs to be on top of its game when it comes to engaging consumers and restoring confidence in its ability. It also needs a bit of luck and that luck can appear in many different ways.

Yesterday Malaysia Airlines flight MH2 from Kuala Lumpur was carrying the irrepressible London Mayor Boris Johnson who had been working his magic on a trade trip in the region. During the flight a passenger described by one of Mr Johnson’s staff as being ‘off his head’ got abusive and had to be restrained by the MAS staff, with a little help from Boris.

MAS crew perform admirably in difficult situation
MAS crew perform admirably in difficult situation

Police met the plane in London and the passenger was taken away and later charged. When asked about the Malaysia Airlines crew, the Mayor’s staff had nothing but praise. Eileen Burbidge travelling with Mr Johnson said, “so impressed w/MH2 cabin crew (Kuala Lumpur-LHR); amazing professionalism/handling of passenger who was off his head.”

This small but significant event is a great opportunity to start the process of rebuilding the MAS reputation. It isn’t enough to salvage the airline’s reputation but it is a good place to start.

Here are six things the airline must do immediately to get the most out of this good news story:

1) Write a number of stories about the event from different angles. Include interviews with the cabin crew, other passengers and of course Mr Johnson. Share the articles across multiple platforms.
2) Meanwhile share the mainstream press stories across social media and encourage others to also share them.
3) Share the video of the event across all channels.
4) Get cabin crew involved on TV chat shows to talk about their lives with MAS, the event and other events and how they deal with them.
5) Hold informal internal coffee mornings for other staff to interact with the crew and learn from them and build morale.
6) Monitor social media discussions about the event and contribute to those discussions. Also comment on discussions and articles and follow up with responses to those comments, even if they are negative. Not from a corporate perspective but from a human one.

The rejuvenation of the MAS brand and its reputation will take more than privatization, a new name, renegotiated supplier contracts and redundancies.

The airline must restore consumer confidence in its ability to offer a professional, competent, efficient and effective service. The performance of the staff in this potentially explosive situation is the first step in that process and it must be leveraged effectively and organically to maximum effect.

Has the Malaysia Airlines marketing department lost the plot?

I was shocked to see this ad appear on my Facebook page this morning.

Poorly conceived ads like this are terribly insensitive
Poorly conceived ads like this are terribly insensitive

Is anyone in control of marketing at Malaysia Airlines at the moment or has the transition to the new company already started? At the same time as the world’s media is showing terribly sad but dignified video and images of the crew of MH17 returning to Malaysia in flag draped coffins, the airline’s marketing department launches an advertising campaign with a grammatically incorrect tagline telling us flying with Malaysia Airlines is fun.

Are they mad? Does the marketing team really think they can convince us that the experience of flying MAS is going to be fun? Should they be trying to do that? Do they think they can change global perceptions of MAS with a grammatically incorrect tagline? Actually they are not trying to change perceptions, they are trying to change reality, with ads! Not only is it offensive, it is ignorant and they really should know better.

This is the second poorly conceived tactical ad MAS has released online in the last month and it smacks of desperation. There is enormous pressure on the management at MAS but they need to get their act together and start rebuilding the brand and not simply throw out poorly thought out tactical ads or what I can only assume are seen as quick fix solutions. The rebuilding of the brand will start by rebuilding trust and faith in the brand but not with this rubbish.

Hardly a compelling tagline or call to action
Hardly a compelling tagline or call to action

Last year, when JWT India created an offensive ad featuring Silvio Berlusconi in a Ford Figo with girls bound, gagged and crying in the boot of his car JWT fired the executives responsible and Ford apologized.

Tasteless Ford ad forces agency to sack executive
Tasteless Ford ad forces agency to sack executive

MAS doesn’t need to apologise but the management must reevaluate their marketing team and their ad agency needs to fire the clowns who created this nonsense.

Then the managment needs to understand that rebuilding the reputation of the brand is a strategic initiative and not a tacticial one. And the CEO needs to have his finger on the brand pulse otherwise this sort of incompetence will continue and there will be a further erosion in the brand’s reputation.

A real time example of what’s wrong with the Malaysia Airlines brand

This is the biggest weekend of the year in Malaysia as families across the country go home for the end of Ramadhan Eid holidays. As Monday and Tuesday are public holidays, many people will have a nine day break.

For me personally I’m looking forward to some quality time with my family in Sarawak, one of the best kept secrets in Asia. I’m flying business class to Kuching about an hour and forty minutes flying time from Kuala Lumpur.

When I get to the airport they tell me my flight is delayed. Now I’m a little bit annoyed by this because I’ve been a member of their FFP since it began and they have my email address and mobile number so they could have let me know the flight was delayed. But hey, that’s a minor issue and besides, if it’s a technical problem I’d prefer them to discover it on the ground and not in the air. Incidentally when I checked in, there was no apology from the girl at the desk.

MAS is carrying out renovations to its lounge at KLIA so I am directed to a temporary lounge. When I get to the lounge I show my boarding card to the person at the counter who looks at it and hands it back. There is no mention of flight announcements. The greeting isn’t rude but it’s hardly enthusiastic.

I sit down and get online. The lounge is quiet, I’m in a good mood, and considering I’m at an airport and about to get on an MAS flight I’m relaxed and excited at the prospect of spending some quality time with my family in a beautiful place.

30 minutes later I get to that point in an airport where you feel like you need reassurance that everything is alright. So I go to the counter and ask about my flight. I’m told it is delayed (like I didn’t know that) and the staff member points to a time on the boarding card and mumbles something incoherent.

I don’t know about you but when I’m at an airport there are so many distractions, so many unusual assaults on the senses that I rarely pay attention to announcements however, a little later, I suddenly look up and realize I haven’t heard an announcement about my flight or for that matter any others. I ask one of the MAS staff in the lounge what is happening with my flight. She goes to the desk and comes back and tells me my flight has left!

I’m stunned and ask someone to explain what just happened. The explanation revolves around the fact that it is a temporary lounge and they don’t make announcements and anyway, there is a sign on the desk stating that there won’t be any announcements.

Now bearing in mind getting passengers to the plane is a fairly important part of an airline’s responsibility, the sign below can hardly be described as adequate, especially with all the other messages on the desk.

The pathetic sign stating there will be no flight announcements
The pathetic sign stating there will be no flight announcements

Understandably I’m not impressed. This is business class, there aren’t many people waiting and it wouldn’t take much effort on the part of the staff to inform the few passengers in the lounge that their flight was boarding. Furthermore, if one business class passenger is late arriving at the departure gate, how much effort does it take for the staff at the gate to call the business class lounge and ask if the passenger is there? Aren’t these the little things that help passengers justify paying more for a ticket?

For some reason I’m then sent to the flight transfer counter where I listen to a staff member explain my situation to other staff members who all look like the last thing they want to be doing right now is deal with this issue. No one tells me anything. Eventually after interrupting the conversation I learn that my luggage has been sent to lost and found and I have to go and get it and not to worry, I will be put on the next flight.

I then go back to the lounge and 10 minutes later another member of staff tells me that I have to go and get my luggage because he doesn’t have the authority put it on the next flight which is odd because someone had the authority to take it off the previous aircraft and send it to lost and found but most galling of all, he tries to nickel and dime me for RM150 penalty to change to the 5.55pm flight!

He’s not very happy with the fact that I’m not very happy but obviously is just following a procedure and not interpreting the situation as it is. I realise he doesn’t have any authority so ask him to send a supervisor to talk to me. He walks off to the desk and sits down. 30 minutes later he is still there and making no effort to update me so I have to go and find out what is happening. He tells me the supervisor will be here in 10 minutes.

25 minutes later I get up again and go and ask him what is going on. He says the supervisor will be there soon. As we’re talking the supervisor arrives. She manages to talk to another supervisor who agrees not to charge me the RM150 penalty. It has taken me a lot of effort to get to this stage.

But it doesn’t get better just yet. It transpires that I wasn’t put on the 5.55pm flight, I was put on the waiting list because the flight was full. No one told me this. I asked what time is the next flight, answer 6.30pm but it is also full. The next flight after that with seats is 7.30pm. By the time I board that flight I will have been at the airport for six hours.

So how is related to the problems at MAS?

Throughout this horrendous experience I felt that on the whole, with the exception of a couple of members the staff were sympathetic to my predicament and wanted to help. But the problem is they just didn’t have the knowledge or the skills to deal with the situation effectively.

Being told repeatedly that the lounge is temporary and therefore there won’t be any announcements is not good enough but it isn’t the fault of the staff. It suggests the company doesn’t understand the importance of the customer. Especially highly profitable business class passengers.

It’s great that you are renovating the lounge but it doesn’t mean you lower your standards in a temporary lounge. It might be temporary to you but to every passenger, it is still the lounge. It’s not like I’m paying less for my ticket because I am using a temporary lounge. Does it mean that when you lease an aircraft from another airline you lower your engineering or safety standards?

And besides we’re talking about the worst time in the airlines history. Shouldn’t every customer willing to spend money with the airline at this difficult stage be appreciated more?

The attitude of the lounge staff was at best adequate. I got the feeling they were doing the job but nothing more. And having flown Malaysian Airlines for over 20 years I have to say I’ve felt this way for the last 12 – 15 years.

If the MAS brand is to survive, those that make the decisions on training have got to understand that the airline is not doing passengers a favour. Numerous reports released over the last 5 years point to service as being the main factor influencing consumer brand choices.

In every report I have read recently, the averages percentage of people who switch brands because of poor service is around 70% and goes as as high as 80%. It is universally accepted that customer service is critical to the success of a brand. That service comes from effective and timely training based on the changing needs of customers.

The issue is that what may have been considered acceptable customer service yesterday is no longer acceptable today. Moreover, as more and more companies raise the bar in terms of the quality of service they deliver, consumers expect more. Training needs to be updated and reinforced.

Nowadays, for an Asian carrier to thrive let alone survive, it has to have a culture not of customer service but of exceptional customer service. The ability to deliver exceptional customer service is the only way brands can build the loyalty that will differentiate themselves from other competitor brands.

Armed with the skills and tools needed to deliver exceptional customer service, staff will have the ability, confidence and enthusiasm to go the ‘extra mile’ when dealing with their customers.

Malaysia Airlines is a service product in a very competitive space. Despite the two very tragic incidents in the last 5 months numerous customers such as my family and I have stuck by them.

Right now it is tough being loyal to MAS and it isn’t made easier when they can’t even get the basics right. I, like many loyal customers don’t want any special treatment but I do expect a decent level of service.

As I write this, there is talk in the UK newspapers of a strategic review of MAS that may include renaming and rebranding the airline. I don’t know what they define as a rebrand but it’ll take more than a change of name to save MAS.