Rethinking regional airport branding

As the UK’s regional airports begin an era of unprecedented expansion, Gina Lovett examines the changing ways they brand themselves

At a time when the debate about the expansion of Heathrow has thrust one of the world’s busiest airports into the spotlight, and its operator BAA is the subject of a UK Competition Commission enquiry, attention is once again turning to regional airports.

This week sees the launch of a new-look Exeter airport in the South West, while later this month a £35m overhaul of Carlisle airport in the North East is expected to receive approval. Both airports will unveil branding that their consultancies claim will mark a ‘sea change’ in the way regional airports promote themselves.

Regional airports are gaining ground for a number of reasons. Directives set out by the Government’s 2003 White Paper – The Future of Air Transport – and its subsequent Civil Aviation Bill of 2005 specify that best use of the existing aviation infrastructure must be made before any new developments, with one of the key drivers being the economic regeneration of rural areas.

Regional and City Airports (Exeter) bought Exeter International Airport from Devon County Council for £60m in January 2007 in a deal that was described as ‘good news for the airport’s future and the county economy’.

Stephanie Drakes, regional director at consultancy 23red, the group behind the Exeter Airport identity, explains that the growing choice of airports across regions is driving them to raise their profile and clarify their propositions.

Drakes explains that, for example, those living in the East Midlands can now choose between at least three airports – Luton, Stansted or Manchester. She says that the decision-making process is not based on final destination alone. Other considerations are convenience, customer service, ease of travel and facilities, considerations which regional airports ought to refer to in their identity.

23red has attempted to introduce more humanity into the Exeter airport identity by creating a ‘multitude of characters in a variety of colourful situations’.

‘Up until now, regional airports and main UK airports have based their visual brand language on the conventional, corporate approach of the airways. Since airports have to increasingly liken their offer to hospitality, leisure and retail, this sort of branding doesn’t accurately reflect what is going on. Brand values, therefore, need to be built around warmth and friendliness,’ says Drakes.

Although Exeter competes with Bristol and Plymouth for traffic, it is already an established hub for scheduled commercial airlines such as Flybe. Carlisle, on the other hand, has up until now only serviced the private jet market. It is now set to use its identity as a way of promoting the area as a tourist haven, in a bid to entice airlines into the airport.

Attracting airlines is one of the more ‘subliminal reasons’ for regional airports branding themselves, according to Raymond Turner, of Raymond Turner Associates, and one of the consultants on Heathrow Terminal Five.

‘Airports are in the business of attracting airlines, maintaining them, and securing more routes. The real challenge is how to get them there in the first place, which is where raising the profile of the airport comes in. It’s about showing connections with tourism and the desirability of a location,’ he says.

One of the problems that regional airports have is the amount of competition between them, says Turner. Unlike the Heathrow and Gatwick big boys, regional airports do not often have the catchment population to secure commercial airlines, and therefore need to develop a clear proposition.

Such is the challenge for the £35m airport development at Carlisle. Aptly named Carlisle Lake District Airport by its owner Stobart Air, the development is expecting planning approval to be granted within the next three weeks.

Based near the Lake District, and at the foothills of south-west Scotland, Carlisle is attempting to position itself as a ‘gateway’ to what is usually seen as an inaccessible region, as well as to northern Europe, says Stobart Air director Richard Gordon.

As a result, the branding, currently being developed by Glorious Creative, will take its cues from the surrounding landscape and natural aesthetics to convey the attraction of the area, says Glorious Creative managing director Scott McGubbin.

Air business

• The UK airports market is worth about £3bn
• Passenger numbers are growing each year
• Growth is stimulated by ‘the travel bug’, affordability and access
• Traditional airports are operating to capacity
• Opportunity for regions to play a key role
• More than 70 regional airports in the UK (planning restrictions are such that it is more likely that current airports will expand, rather than new ones emerge)
• 61 of these airports serve passengers
• All major cities in the UK have an airport with international flight schedules
• Regional airport traffic grew by 3.7% a year to 98.2 million passengers in 2006
• The fastest growing airports are Liverpool and East Midlands

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