On Message: A global branding challenge for British Airways

On Message: PR Week editor Danny Rogers on marketing and branding

BA has secured its tie-up with Iberia, and there’s a PR shake-up in the pipeline. Will the brand hang onto its ‘Britishness’?

As I write British Airways has just officially become Anglo-Spanish airways. On Monday BA’s shareholders agreed the merger with Spanish flag carrier Iberia.

The new airline actually has the snappy moniker International Airlines Group, but thankfully the full British Airways brand will be retained (alongside Iberia).

For those of us who have been covering the marketing world for long enough, it is ironic that BA, once slammed for trying to remove the Union Jack from tailfins and replace them for ‘ethnic’ designs, is now indeed a multi-national conglomerate.

Although the headquarters of the new company will shift to Madrid, the ‘operational’ nerve centre – including the group CEO Willie Walsh – will remain in London, which is another good sign for those of us who value BA’s ‘Britishness’.

Because despite the revolution in BA’s competitive set over the past two decades – and a number of damaging disputes with its staff – there is still something reassuring about the older, more experienced cabin crew that one tends to experience on a BA flight. And, personally speaking, the continuing provision of allocated seats and complimentary snack and drinks make a welcome difference to the travelling experience.

However, BA’s marketing and PR teams are about to endure a period of great change. We learned on Monday that the airline was reviewing its global PR arrangements with the intention of having a new network of new agencies (Fleishman-Hillard is set to lose the global work) in place by April 1. BA’s marketing team tends to view the world in terms of priority markets, with the UK and the United States having dedicated resources, and the ‘rest of the world’ with its own team.  

This is not to say that BA’s global marketing is not integrated, but it should perhaps be more so, particularly now there will soon be two brands (British Airways and Iberia) to promote. There will certainly be pressure from Walsh to start finding ‘efficiencies’ within what will be quite a large combined marketing function.

Indeed it will be interesting to see whether BA’s advertising and PR now focus more on the airline’s ‘Britishness’, or less. Bearing in mind the increasingly international nature of the operation, and the fact that the top man is Irish, I would predict the latter.

Finding the right brand character for a fast-changing airline will be fascinating challenge. BA’s look and feel derive from its unique heritage, but increasingly it will be competing against many other international conglomerate airlines (such as Lufthansa/Swiss/Austrian) and needs to find a more compelling global positioning.

I don’t think we will see a return to those ambitious ethnic tailfins – which so horrified Margaret Thatcher that she threw her handkerchief over the model on display – but we can expect to see similarly dramatic changes in approach over the next five years.

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