Comment: BA’s brand remains as powerful today as ever

Ryan Frost, executive creative director at brand specialist Landor, applauds the British flag carrier as its 50th anniversary approaches

Warren Buffett once famously observed that “if a far-sighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favour by shooting Orville down”.

But 101 years on from when Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first manned airplane flight ushered in the aviation age, its commercial evolution has not always run smooth. Many of the companies that have taken passengers to the skies have come and gone, some quietly, some spectacularly. As British business magnate and founder of Virgin Atlantic, Sir Richard Branson, once remarked: “The quickest way to become a millionaire in the airline business is to start out as a billionaire.”

And this makes British Airways something of an interesting exception. This week it is 50 years since BA was created through the merger of two rival carriers, BEA and BOAC, a milestone that is both a cause for celebration and a chance to pay homage to one of Britain’s most powerful and enduring brands.

Indeed, BA and Great Britain are practically entwined, indivisibly linked for better or worse. As the national carrier, BA leans heavily into the iconic and defendable foundations of the national brand – arguably better than Great Britain itself does these days.

This symbiosis is reflected in the visual aspect of the BA brand. Simple, timeless, it is skilfully designed to represent the nation and engender national pride.

As the national carrier this approach was all but inevitable when the company launched. But it’s important now today to put this into perspective. Maintaining such a relationship in an era of hyper modernity and globalisation is challenging.

At BA’s birth, air travel was still a novelty, out of reach of the many. Taking a flight was a magical moment in people’s lives. This made the journey as important as the destination, arguably more so. Today, though, flying is often prosaic, decidedly unmagical. People fly chiefly to get somewhere.

Competition has exploded and new airlines have mushroomed. These carriers have no legacies to draw on and are untethered from their nation host’s identities. Rather their business models – and their brands – are focused on key segments and markets that transcend national boundaries.

Customers have changed, too. They are digital natives who have come to expect a seamless experience from the many carriers they can choose from. Schooled by online guides into getting the best deal, they are acutely value sensitive and expect to be in control of what is, ultimately, a transactional relationship.

These key shifts have weighed heavily on airline brands. In 1974, when BA was born, branding an airline meant establishing an identity that personified the brand, ensuring it was recognised on billboards, in magazine adverts, at airport check-ins and even the liveries that adorned the runways.

Branding an airline today is very different. It is about finding a way to connect with customers that is both relevant and differentiated – a difficult achievement in an era of crowded competition and heightened expectations that plays out in real time in both the analogue and digital spheres.

Design can play an important role in bridging these discrete worlds -helping airlines to demonstrate to customers that they truly care about them, that they are with them all the way. But for this approach to be successful, design needs to take a central role in the business and lean into the rich, multisensorial experience that a modern airline offers. In so doing, it can be a powerful tool to unite an airline’s many different departments and ensure they turn up consistently across the customer relationship journey.

Amid a half century of unprecedented change, BA has consistently offered a masterclass in owning its story through its relentless commitment to excellent service and by celebrating and channelling key British values.

A comparison with another company that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year is instructive.

Virgin Airways draws on differing qualities of Britishness from its older rival. Where BA perceives high-quality and trustworthiness to be two essential parts of the Great Britain narrative, Virgin the quintessential challenger brand, embodies a more playful and creative interpretation of the same story.

Two brands, two different interpretations of Britishness, two success stories. But in each case the brands are fundamental to the companies’ business strategies. Customers clearly understand what the brands stand for and the values proposition they advance. In a complicated, shape-shifting world this focus can be the difference between an airline’s survival and its extinction.

For BA there has been the odd diversion along the way – Mrs Thatcher’s famous handkerchief episode in 1997, when the airline tried to reposition itself as a global carrier, an approach that backfired in the blaze of a hundred flashbulbs – a particularly notable example.

But these have just been spots of turbulence. BA’s brand remains as powerful today as it has ever been. And there aren’t many fifty-year-old airlines that can say that.

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