Slashing prices will not rebuild trust in MAS. 6 top tactics to resuscitate the MAS brand quickly


The recent announcement by the Malaysian government that it will invest RM6 billion of public funds to revive Malaysia Airlines (MAS) is a good idea and one that should be welcome by every Malaysian.

MAS a national icon worth saving
MAS a national icon worth saving

The national carrier is a source of immense pride for Malaysians and so it should be. In the broader perspective, MAS has an exemplary safety record, provides direct and indirect employment for thousands of Malaysians and was profitable for many years.

Furthermore, when managed effectively and innovatively and when the importance of morale was understood, the national airline played a major role in defining the Malaysia Nation Brand as it was the first touch point for many of the more than 10 million passengers carried annually.

Moreover, through MAS, Malaysia got the opportunity to reach out to consumers with a physical product, develop a relationship with them and build a profitable business at the same time. Many of the millions of Europeans who flew the ‘kangaroo route’ from Europe to Australia and New Zealand became brand ambassadors for the carrier.

Much of that goodwill has been eroded but the brand is still intact but there is a lot of work to be done to rebuild global trust in the brand. The recovery plan that will require sweetheart deals to be renegotiated, staff numbers to be reduced and other major restructuring initiatives are just the beginning. Rebuilding internal branding and developing a strong, innovative, customer focused external brand strategy will be just as important.

While the airline restructures, it needs to continue to operate. In June 2014, when MAS CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told shareholders that the MH370 incident had “sadly now added an entirely unexpected dimension, damaging our brand and our business reputation, and accelerating the urgency for radical change”, I was expecting, well radical change.

Externally, it looks like that radical change consists of nothing more than slashing prices!

Slashing prices won't build confidence in the MAS brand
Slashing prices won’t build confidence in the MAS brand

MAS is reported to be offering cut price ticket prices from the UK, Australia and New Zealand to Kuala Lumpur in an attempt to do what regional senior vice president Lee Poh Kait termed as, “inspire and encourage customers to dream, plan and book their next holiday, and help rebuild trust in Malaysia Airlines.”

Mr Lee also told Australian news site news.com.au that, “With unbelievable savings, these deals are a very competitive offering as we build a stronger Malaysia Airlines.”

He also went on to say, “We are committed to regaining the confidence of our customers and sending them on memorable holiday experiences as a trusted five-star carrier.”

In addition to slashing prices, MAS also launched ‘My Ultimate Bucket List’ competition with 12 return flights to Kuala Lumpur and 4 iPads as prizes.

Its not uncommon for bricks and mortar retailers to slash prices in the face of poor sales and it’s a familiar tactic of low cost carriers looking to sell excess seats. The idea is you attract new customers who might not have bought from you and you get a spike in sales that will get you through the lean times. But we’re not selling soap powder, software or biscuits.

An international airline that competes in the same space as Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and the increasingly aggressive Middle Eastern carriers and is reeling from two tragic events is not going to build a stronger airline or rebuild trust by slashing prices.

Slashing prices gives the impression the project is cheap, something MAS cannot afford to do. It also smacks of desperation and lowers the value of the product to that of a low cost carrier and may well cause customers to lose not rebuild confidence in the airline.

THe lastest MAS online ads are easily forgotten
THe lastest MAS online ads are easily forgotten

Furthermore, by slashing prices, MAS is throwing away all of the pricing power it has built up over the past few years, power that will take years to win it back.

The regional senior vice president also said “We would like to thank all our travel agency partners and passengers for their relentless support during what has been a difficult period.” I understand that MAS has also doubled the travel agent commission rate to 11% till mid September.

At the same time as this seat sale and travel agent incentive is launched, the MAS frequent flyer programme (FFP) Enrich is sending emails out to 14 year olds offering them the opportunity to earn extra air miles if they book a hotel with the MAS hotel booking partner. Not many 14 year olds book hotels.

Enrich marketing is sending out up to 8 emails a month asking members to play golf at the Mines, get double miles when they fly with Firefly, take advantage of a sale at shoe shop Lewre and various other offers.

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

After flights, the airline is also sending an email to travellers asking them to complete a survey that asks questions such as “At which airport did you board/leave this flight?” and “Class of travel” as well as questions that the answers might be good to know but don’t identify causes of dissatisfaction or provide any real actionable data.

Meanwhile, while MAS offers travel agents double commission on bookings, MAS loyalists who have flown more than 20 times since MH370 went missing in April 2014 haven’t received personalized communications from the airline thanking them for their support or an offer of free air miles, upgrades or other shows of appreciation.

Based on this evidence, it would appear MAS has essentially ignored its existing customers and frequent flyer members and instead gone out and offered special deals to all and sundry in the hope that enough of them will take the bait and fly the airline.

This discounting approach will do little to regain trust or repair the battered brand. Here are 6 tactical initiatives MAS should be doing to rebuild trust before slashing price:

1. Existing customers are more likely to buy than those who haven’t bought before

Right now a focus on gaining new customers or market share is a misguided approach. Yet MAS, like so many firms is attempting to do just that whilst ignoring its existing customers. The MAS FFP Enrich is rumoured to have more than 1,000,000 members. The database of Enrich members is a potential gold mine of revenue that needs to be cleaned and leveraged properly and quickly with a well planned and implemented programme.

 2. All data is important

OK, MAS probably doesn’t need to know the name of every FFP member’s pet but it does need to know enough data to know what products should be sold and to whom and how to increase share of wallet.

Consumers are willing to share more information than ever before and MAS needs to start collecting data and sending the right offers to the right people. Sending invitations to book hotels to 14 year olds is sloppy and shows a lack of professionalism and that will do nothing to rebuild the brand’s reputation.

Good to know but how can the answers help rebuild the MAS brand?
Good to know but how can the answers help rebuild the MAS brand?

 3. Leverage the power of social media

Each customer’s experience is defined by the economic, experiential and emotional value of each ‘moment of truth’ when interacting with the brand so mass advertising campaigns either online or offline and slashing costs are not going to rebuild the MAS brand.

There is a great deal of sympathy out there for MAS and a bright, real, transparent, honest and consumer driven campaign on social media about real people travelling on MAS will inspire more people to develop a relationship with the airline (and relationships are the goal, not selling seats) than any seat sale with a weak call to action.

4. Branding is about experiences and relationships, not one off sales

Few consumers are going to develop a relationship with a brand based on a one off sale. And besides, legacy carriers can’t compete with LCCs and the moment MAS tries to increase prices, those customers won on price will go elsewhere. MAS must start building relationships with its customers and leverage those relationships to increase sales.

The success of those relationships will be determined at every touch point which means the website booking engine, check in staff, customer service representatives, ground and airport staff, cabin crew, in flight entertainment, comfort and service, baggage operators, communications, helplines and more must be all be ‘on brand’ and on top of their game at all times.

5. Stop being lazy and start re building the MAS brand

There is no short cut to rebuilding the MAS brand. It is going to take a lot of effort strategically and tactically. Slashing prices and flooding the Internet with forgettable, price driven ads won’t turn the company around. The MAS website has been a mess for too long. No matter what the cost, funds must be made available to fix the booking machine and fix it quickly.

It’s also time to retrain front line staff as they currently do not have the skillsets required to deliver a premium brand that can compete with the aggressive ME carriers.

6. Think customer not customers

The customer is only interested in one thing, what’s in it for me (WIIFM). Yes many of them care about the airline but they aren’t about to risk their lives or those of their families.

Every single customer flying MAS in these difficult times has to be made to feel special (this should be part of the brand strategy but is particularly important now).

Those customers flying MAS now are the saviours of the brand and must be nurtured to become brand ambassadors and brand advocates who will be talking loudly about the fact that they are flying the airline now.

Make the experience a memorable one and they will talk loudly and for longer and do more to rebuild trust that any corporate driven advertising or PR campaign.

None of this is rocket science but these 6 top tactical tips will lay the foundations for the rebuilding of the Malaysia Airlines reputation quicker and more effectively than slashing prices.

Singapore Airlines Suites, branding blunder or recession victim?


There have been numerous branding blunders and you can read about some of them here but rarely does Singapore Airlines feature. Singapore Airlines (SIA) consistently leads the industry in profitability and manages to ride out turbulent times better than most in its class. It has always been aggressive, acquiring aircraft and expanding its fleet quickly, in 1979 it set a record at the time, when it traded relatively new aircraft for an updated version of the B-747 for a then record of S$2.2 billion. SIA also differentiated itself early on with its adoption of the Singapore Girl as the face of the airline and service as the unique selling point.

But the world of today and the world of the 1970s are very different. The 1970s were the halcyon days of the mass economy. In the mass economy, with its mass markets and mass media, perhaps a little bit of help from the government and a large dose of nationalism. And by broadcasting the same message to large audiences who had limited sources of information, it was a lot easier for an airline to establish a brand.

More of this and more of that and better this and better that or bigger this and bigger that coupled with large advertising budgets worked well. As competition increased, consumers became more segmented and media choices fragmented, like many other industries, airlines turned to positioning as a strategy.

Positioning
Positioning consisted of creating a position in prospects minds that reflected the strengths and weaknesses of the offering as well as those of competitors. Ideally, this position was based on being first in a particular category. If someone was already first in a category, then companies attempted to redefine themselves in a new category to be first. In the airline business, this tended to be related to passenger comfort or service. The effectiveness of positioning depended on the ability of advertising to drive branding perceptions in the mind of consumers. To do this, airlines often made promises they were unable to keep (admittedly, often due to third party issues out of their control), failed to meet traveller expectations, often because dynamic competitors moved quickly and so raised the bar, which in turn led to brand disillusionment.

Positioning was ideal for the mass economy. It was also ideal for advertising agencies and marketing departments because it gave them enormous power without the responsibility of accountability. Al Ries and Jack Trout invented the concept of positioning. The preface to one book states, “Positioning has nothing to do with the product,…. (it) is what you do in the mind of the prospect.” So, essentially this means that the consumer can be made to believe, through extensive advertising and PR in the right conduits to consumers, and other vehicles, what an offering means to them.

Airbus A380
When Airbus announced it’s super plane, the Airbus A380, ever aggressive, SIA was one of the first to sign up and the first A380 delivered was delivered to Singapore Airlines on 15 October 2007. It entered service on 25 October 2007 with an inaugural flight from Singapore to Sydney. Passengers bought seats in a charity online auction paying between US$560 and US$100,000 for seats. Understandably, the new aircraft, a clever publicity stunt and an inquisitive general public, generated a lot of media coverage and by the end of February 2009, a million passengers had flown with Singapore Airlines on the A380.

Suites
But the majority of those passengers are flying economy. The problem has been getting passengers to use the suites, positioned as, “a class beyond first.” When the new A380 service was launched, in the way that has always done, SIA used global TV, print and online advertising and PR campaigns to launch the new A380.

Beautifully executed TVCs were developed for the Suites by a top advertising agency using taglines such as “your own private bedroom in the sky”. Other taglines included “an unprecedented level of privacy” in a “cabin unlike any other”, and sleeping on a “standalone bed that was not converted from a seat”. Givenchy Beddings (and pyjamas) Ferragamo toiletries and Krug or Dom Perignon were also part of the deal.

But despite a unique product, some slick marketing based on a huge investment in a one-size-fits-all message to mass markets using mass media, consumers and corporations haven’t bought into it. Why not?

Lack of research
One of the reasons could be that SIA didn’t talk to customers and prospects about what they might want from such a service, and, more importantly, how much they would be preparred to pay for it. In fact, it appears that SIA didn’t even engage with members of its Frequest Flyer Programme. SIA simply went ahead and developed the product and then, in a traditional 4 Ps (product, price, place and promotion) and positioning strategy, tried to sell it.

To make it even harder for themselves, and despite charging a premium of more than 50% over the first class fare, SIA would only reward loyal members of its Frequent Flyer Programme (FFP) Krisflyer with 10% more miles than a regular first class ticket! Moreover, any redemption of miles could only be for economy, business or first class and not for the Suites!

According to Shashank Nigam, “Several HR departments of companies, including civil service departments in Singapore, issued circulars or directives stating that “Since the Singapore Airlines Suites are a class beyond first, officers who are usually eligible for First Class travel will be ineligible for Suites”. So by now, SIA had upset its two most important customers, its own government and elite members of the frequent flyer programme!

In 2008, as the economic crisis began to take hold and suite sales nosedived, SIA maintained its pricing strategy, making it even harder for financial institutions, already under scrutiny for lack of risk management, to justify such extravagance.

Another reason for the poor response is probably related to the ground experience. Although positioned as a class beyond first, elite passengers were expected to use the same check-in facilities as passengers travelling in first class, the same lounge and essentially, the same food as first class passengers.

Premium revenues drop by 40%
By the middle of 2009, SIA was feeling the heat on a number of fronts. The economic situation gripping the world caused international premium passenger numbers to fall by 18% year on year in the first 10 months of 2009. At the same time, premium revenues dropped by up to 40% over the same period (IATA). Another challenge was from competitors such as Emirates and Qantas who don’t offer Suites but do have exceptional first class experiences including cabins on their A380s that feature a Bar and bathrooms with showers, limousine transfers at departure and arrival (not available to SIA passengers, even those using Suites).

SIA reviews incentives
SIA scrambled to recover some marketshare. The first incentive was a free night’s accommodation at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore for all passengers flying Suite class. Neat, but hardly enough to justify a 50% premium over first class. Then SIA remembered the people who have made it such a success story in the past, first class passengers and lucrative members of Krisflyer. SIA relented on the bonus miles and began offering 300% bonus miles instead of 10%. Definately a step in the right direction but perhaps too little too late as it is rumoured that a significant number of key SIA customers have defected to Emirates and Qantas. If this is true you can be sure these airlines will make it harder for these premium passengers to leave than did SIA.

So what could SIA have done better? Here are 5 things I would have done although, if they had done number one the rest would have been redundant. What else would you have done?

1) Research. Your existing customers are your best source of information. Talk to them, find out what they are looking for and match attributes to their requirements for value. If SIA had talked to its premium passengers and its own government departments, it would have realised that the market could not support the suites product.
2) Mass market branding with a focus on the 4 Ps is no longer effective. Brands today are built on relationships, access, personalisation and relevance.
3) SIA should have focussed on developing more profitable relationships, not a more profitable product. Brands evolve when companies start buying for customers instead of selling to them.
4) Branding is an organisational not a departmental responsibility. And the organisation is the responsibility of the CEO. To expect a passenger to pay a 50% premium over the price of a first class ticket and not offer a limousine service on the ground when all competitors offer it to first class passengers shows a real lack of judgement.
5) Retention is key to brand building. Companies no longer sell a product, customers buy a product. And once they’ve bought the product, companies should do everything possible to hang onto those customers.

SIA is a great brand. As I write this, I am sure SIA is working out what to do with its Suites. If SIA aims to meet customer requirements for emotional, economic and experiential value, then the airline will bounce back stronger and better for the experience and the Suites can be written off as a victim of the recession. If they don’t the suites may become yet another branding blunder.