Oh British Airways, someone please give your Marketing team an intervention....

You've morphed into Baby Jane.

As the brand launches yet another top-dollar campaign presenting a brand so unrecognisable to its customers, I can’t help wonder how its advertising has, once again, so staggeringly missed the mark. As an advert that celebrates the diversity and make-up of our shores it cannot be faulted, it made me deeply proud to be British, but as a brand ad…. well….Ogilvy and the Marketing team are positioning and presenting a brand ideal that its passengers haven’t for the past twenty+ years, and it could well be its undoing.

Travel has changed, considerably so. And like so many traditional businesses, BA has lost its place and identity in the market. Etihad and Emirates swooped in and took luxury. easyJet jumped from budget stag-do skybus to become credible, efficient, affordable short-hauler for leisure and business travellers alike. Virgin has kept its place as owner of experience (more on that later) and the champion of customers. Ryan Air and Norwegian? Budget, and proudly so. British Airways? Who knows?

BA used to be solid, premium, dependable, deliver the experience you’d expect from a quality restaurant in the sky; you knew they’d serve the G&T just right, always have a spare posh shortbread to hand, be there with the blanket before you asked. It was a stalwartly and proudly British company and experience; a Princess Anne of the skies if you will. But as flying became democratised and commoditised, as competition crept in from all angles, as higher fuel costs led to tighter margins, when it really needed to really excel to compete, to fly, to serve, to over-deliver, to step up, it simply rested on its laurels. The teams writing the creative briefs are reminiscent of Baghdad Bob, Saddam Hussein’s deeply passionate hard-lined spokesman so dogged on the brand, but a little removed from reality.  

Where to start.

Well, with what matters most; experience. As a self-appointed premium carrier, customer experience has to surely drive every part of the journey and business. Where Virgin Atlantic has excelled is putting the customer at the forefront, and no part of the Virgin experience feels disjointed or out of synch; from the initial website visit to the call centre, from check-in staff to safety videos, the grand advertising campaigns to the choice of food and entertainment in-air, it all feels like it was designed and implemented by the same team, department, person. It feels like someone was looming over everyone’s back, challenging them to be better, spark more joy, raise a smile, do the unexpected. It’s all connected, and beautifully cohesive, well-thought-out, totally on-brand. Pleasurable to experience. Even as I write this my colleague, whose bag Virgin Atlantic lost two days ago (partially inconvenient when you land in New York and it’s -8˚c), is emailing everyone in the company he can about the excellent customer experience; their fvck up created an advocate for life.

British Airways, as experienced by the customer, is all over the place; cobbled and patched together, inconsistent, disconnected, disjointed, at times even triaged to make-do. The teams behind the website, app, CRM, check-in, and flight – I assume - are siloed, and it shows; the website and app feel like two different airline companies. The app polished, pretty, intuitive while the website is clunky; hawking hotels, upgrades, cars, bolt-ons like a shameless tout. Yes, this is the age and reality of modern travel, but there is only so much ‘premium’ veneer you lipstick the pig with. Be affordable and proudly up-sell, or be premium and integrate into the price. You can’t do both.

The travel experiences can be radically different dependent on routes; Heathrow’s Terminal 5, home to BA, is incredible. Yet walk across the bridge to Terminal 3 and the check-in desks are miserable, shabby, rough around the edges. The last BA flights I took had seen better days; from the tattered seats to the staff just about enduring the journey, and it seemed, the customers they were serving. The rent-a-celeb ‘comedy’ safety video felt deeply inappropriate; the jokes fell short, the skits awkward at best, cringe-worthy at worst. So dire. So off-brand in every way. So out of touch. What part of BA’s brand DNA was it laddering up to? Who signed it off??

And it is with this that BA’s strategy feels so doomed to fail. So siloed. So stuck in its past it can’t critically see its present or determine its future.

BA’s focus needs to step back from promoting the airline it isn’t anymore and hasn’t been for a long while. It is not all doom and gloom however. It is modernising its fleet, with a reported £4.5bn investment. It has brought back the short-haul sandwiches it had tone-deafly cut form short-haul flights. It has the funding to change track, it has the network of premium routes, it has extensive information on its customers from years of loyalty data, so it is in a good position to sort itself out.

My advice, if I may….

Firstly, get Ogilvy and the Marketing team to experience Virgin from the customer’s side. And then BA. Note how mismatched BA is, how all parts of the experience hand off from one to another so schizophrenically. Navigate the multiple discords that is a BA booking and flight experience, and start to stitch it all together. Connect the company’s most important asset, its people, to get them to work together to bring the airline’s character to life. Cheer them up. Smile a bit more. Work together.

Stand for something; work out what place in the market you can be, or want to be, need to be, and align strongly with it. Validate it with real customers. Start afresh. Find a space and own it.

Read customer comments – they are a vocal lot the BA flyers – and you’ll quickly see where you are failing them, what their expectations are, and who they choose to fly with instead. Even the doggedly loyal ones have gripes, but their reasons to stay.

Be humble. Listen. Try harder – try hardest, even. Fight for your spot in the market and be the best somewhere, or at something. Realise your vulnerability. Spark Joy. Your tired fleet may not get a facelift in the short term, but the power of your staff to make someone’s journey better is a huge opportunity.

Save the indulgent star-studded adverts for then you can proudly live up-to, and defend them.

We are rooting for you BA, but please please please, before you spend a penny more on advertising your customers sneer at or see right through, spend your time, money and focus on sorting out the basics.

Over and out.

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Paul Finch
Paul Finch

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