Malaysia Airlines must find new ways to restore confidence in the ailing brand

What was once a globally respected icon of the aviation industry is in danger of becoming the laughing stock of the world and an embarrassment to all Malaysians.

The arrival of Christoph Mueller seems to have done nothing to challenge the status quo. Last Tuesday we saw MAB make the extraordinary decision to introduce baggage limitations for long haul passengers to Europe.

Citing safety concerns, the carrier temporarily banned check in luggage to destinations in Europe. No details were given but MAB seems to be in panic mode after the previous tragedies.

What a branding disaster! I presume that senior management made the decision only after a great deal of discussion that should have focussed on the likely reactions of consumers who were slowly coming back to the airline.

Unsurprisingly, the market erupted and the carrier was ridiculed globally with plenty of negative banter on social media. Unsurpringly, in less than a day MAB made a humiliating U-turn.

Malaysia Airlines - is this how you restore confidence in an airline?
Malaysia Airlines – is this how you restore confidence in an airline?

I for one am absolutely gobsmacked at this latest branding disaster. We were told last year that a new brand was to be launched in December yet there is no sign of the new brand. And the lack of an announcement about the rebrand delay needs to be addressed.

Following the fiasco, management attempted to justify the decision by claiming ‘unseasonably strong headwinds’ and a circuitous route was the cause.

Three days later, the carrier released a press release informing us that the overhaul of the airline was “bitter, and the fitness programme required to bring us back into shape would cause a lot of sweat and sometimes tears. But it would be rewarding in the end.”

I won’t reproduce any more of the press release because it goes on to suggest more effective competitors from the Middle East have increased MAB’s costs by 20% and that the deal with Emirates is a good thing for Malaysians. It also talks about ‘rebuilding confidence’ and a new ‘collaborative style’. You can read the full press release here.

I’d like to know how the airline is going to rebuild confidence when departments and management appears to be doing anything but collaborating. And if there is collaboration, then someone should have stood up and stopped this farce before it began.

The rebranding of MAS has already started and first impressions are good

The new Malaysia Airlines CEO Christoph Mueller has begun the process of rebranding MAS by stating Monday that the carrier is ‘technically bankrupt’ and that a brutal restructuring exercise is the only way forward. He went on to say that the rot had set in years before the mystery of flight MH370 and the tragic one-in-a-billion shooting down of MH17.

Christoph Mueller leading the MAS rebrand
Christoph Mueller leading the MAS rebrand

Of course this is nothing new but by stating what we all know and confidently but empathetically, he has shown us that he is serious and perhaps most important of all, he is prepared to do what no previous CEO has been prepared (or was allowed) to do, namely to do what it takes to rebuild the damaged brand.

He has begun by announcing three high level areas – pillars that will over the next 3 years put Malaysia Airlines back where it belongs, at the top of the Asian aviation business.

Phase one requires massive job cuts to the bloated workforce, new contracts for staff, the renegotiation of supplier contracts (as well as cutting the number of suppliers by 90%), the axing of some international routes and reducing the flight frequency on others, reviewing the 777-200ER fleet and selling off 2 Airbus A380s. MAS thought the A380 could help turn the carrier around and at one stage put in an order for 60 of the mighty jets.

But the huge, fuel guzzling A380 has had mixed reviews from airlines and pilots and rumour has it there has been little interest in the 2 aircraft MAS is looking to sell. I’d be surprised though if they sell off the 777s unless they intend to replace them with more modern, fuel-efficient alternatives.

MAS wants to sell 2 A380s, reducing the fleet to 4 despite once ordering 60
MAS wants to sell 2 A380s, reducing the fleet to 4 despite once ordering 60

Phase two will focus on transforming the carrier and apparently more than 40 areas for improvement have already been identified and the third phase will look at sustaining the new position of the airline.

So although the name hasn’t yet changed, the new Malaysia Airlines Brand is up and running.

Before you can go anywhere with a brand, you need three things. The first is a solid product offering. If you don’t have that, it doesn’t matter how much you spend on selling, marketing or advertising, the brand will not grow. We’ve seen that over the last 5 years as MAS spent more than RM1 billion trying to resuscitate the brand with advertising campaign after advertising campaign without addressing the brand’s structural issues.

Instead of trying to WOW customers with their product, former MAS CEOs cut costs, sold assets and ignored the passenger experience. The very heart and soul of what makes Malaysia unique – its people and the way they are – was ignored and instead cosmetic, shallow clichéd taglines were created and tacked together in a series of immediately forgettable tactical campaigns that did little for the brand.

The second thing you need when building a brand is a CEO who is prepared to look where others prefer not to look, who understands what needs to be done and is prepared to do what it takes and make the tough decisions, even if that means taking apart the existing brand and rebuilding it, brick by painful brick.

And the third key component is people who understand that the organization is the brand and that brand is part of a community. And this community, made up of people within and without the organisation will make or break the new brand. The new team will have to embrace and engage the community and understand that it is the community not the staff who make the MAS brand.

The new culture of MAS must be connected not aloof
The new culture of MAS must be connected not aloof

This team will need to create an environment where people work toward a common, clearly defined organizational goal and not a personal one. Arrogance, ignorance or the ‘tidak apa’ culture will have no place in the new environment. Instead a humble, collaborative, connected and engaged culture based around delivering value, not on the company terms but on the customer terms will be the order of the day.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned anything about the new livery, logo, brand architecture, uniforms, positioning, celebrities, the brand story and so on. That’s because they are irrelevant if the three points above are not addressed first.

Rebuilding the MAS brand was never going to be easy but the early signs are good, long may it continue.

Is this the last throw of the dice for Malaysia Airlines?

Today marks the beginning of a new (and possibly the last) chapter in the life of the national airline of Malaysia. A new CEO Christoph Mueller officially starts work today, 1st May 2015. Many in the aviation business revere Mueller, primarily because he is credited with turning around the Irish carrier Aer Lingus in a stagnant, competitive European market.

MAS is selling it's A380s & rebranding
MAS is selling it’s A380s & rebranding

But his achievements at Aer Lingus will pale into insignificance when he starts peeling back the complicated cultural corporate layers at Malaysia Airlines (MAS).

What was once one of the most respected, envied and profitable carriers in the world has become a mere shadow of its former self. MAS is under fire from domestic and regional LCCs and if it stops flying to Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris will only be left with a couple of potentially lucrative long haul destinations servicing the kangaroo route from Heathrow to Australia. And these will come under further pressure with the return of British Airways flights to Kuala Lumpur from Heathrow at the end of May 2015.

MAS is hugely inefficient. It’s annual revenue per employee is down to about RM850 compared with RM1,675 at Cathay Pacific and RM2,250 at Singapore Airlines. MAS has 183 employees per aircraft compared with 138 at Singapore Airlines, 125 at Cathay pacific and 31 at Ryanair. Little wonder then that it has racked up debts in the region of US$2 billion since 2010.

Mr Mueller will no doubt focus on improving that revenue per employee and reducing the number of employees per aircraft. At least 6,000 staff are being offered redundancy and the airline has already announced it is selling all 6 of its Airbus A380s and four Boeing 777-200ER super ranger jets. The good news is that he has the support of the government and fuel prices have plummeted but that’s not enough.

He’ll also need to focus on rescuing the MAS brand and its reputation. And that won’t be easy because despite cutting costs and offering attractive incentives to agents in key markets such as Australia, the carrier is struggling to get bums on seats. And after the tragedies of 2014, years of poor management, low staff morale, and little focus on anything other than advertising, the MAS brand is in free fall.

Carpet bombing consumers with weak advertising will not rebrand MAS
Carpet bombing consumers with weak advertising will not rebrand MAS

Which is why the airline issued a rebranding request for proposals (RFP) a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately the signs aren’t good that the people responsible for the brand understand what constitutes a brand and what is required to rescue the brand and its reputation.

We weren’t invited to submit a bid so I can’t comment on the contents of the RFP but I understand those invited were only given about two weeks to submit a bid as the deadline for submissions is 8th May 2015 with the rebranding supposed to be launched in July 2015.

Those are insane deadlines which is why cynics in the industry are suggesting the advertising agency tasked with carrying out the rebranding has already been chosen but there is no hard data to back up this claim. Rest assured though that the industry is watching developments carefully and if a certain agency gets the bulk of the work, there will be plenty more accusations ‘flying’ around.

Rumours aside, my worry is that those tasked with managing the rebrand will focus on a new name, new livery, new uniforms, new logos, new signboards and mass advertising creative campaigns but place very little attention on the key areas that need to be addressed, such as the ability to deliver economic, experiential and emotional value to all segments, at every touchpoint, at all times and on customer terms.

The first stage in the rebranding of MAS will require a cultural change that may have to come not just from the airline but the country itself. To rescue the brand MAS must move away from a centralized, top heavy organization staffed by employees trained to do as management says and not challenge questionable decisions.

The firm must move away from an ingrained belief that business is a one off transactional, price driven initiative and that every customer is purely a source of money, irrespective of their relationship with the brand, their influence and their loyalty.

In a social media world, where consumers not companies or advertising agencies define brands, changing the name, logo and livery of the airline and announcing the ‘rebrand’ with a global, one size fits all corporate driven communications campaign will actually have a negative impact on the brand and possibly do more damage than the twin tragedies of 2014, the years of mismanagement and the sweetheart supplier deals have done to date.

Instead the first stage of the rebranding must focus on creating a collaborative, personalised, relationship based, retention driven organization that understands customers and their needs.

Failure to focus on the internal branding first and getting it right will make any other investments an expensive exercise in naive futility. Which will see the end, sadly of a once iconic brand.