Identity crisis at BA

The defining sight bite, of course, was Lady Thatcher’s confrontation with the model plane at an exhibition and covering the tailfin with her handkerchief. She was expressing her dislike, not so much of the new design, as the disappearance of the old one. Alas for her, she had no Union Jack in her handbag.

I wish to take the flag out of the discussion. Nationalism, patriotism, the image of Britain… all cloud the issue. At the core is British Airways’ professionalism – or rather its absence – in the areas of judgement, research and identity.

But first, a personal note. In the autumn of 1997 a BA executive I met at a dinner in Scotland gave me his card. He turned it over to show me a multicoloured and intricate design, rather like a miniature wallpaper sample. Interesting, I thought.

A week or so later, as an executive club member, I received a mailing exalting the design and explaining the thinking.

“In our search for a way to express outwardly the new British Airways, we hit upon a simple and elegant solution: World Images. We believe they capture the essence of our new style of service – more global, more caring, more modern, more cosmopolitan and more open.”

So BA commissioned images from across the world. “Art is a truly global form of expression,” says the design consultant. The images evoke “the dreams” of all the world’s communities. “The result,” says the leaflet, “is an unparalleled set of images that express our own global citizenship.”

In January 1998 I addressed the Corporate Reputation Review conference in Amsterdam. My talk was entitled “It may be corporate, but is it communication?” I chose to question BA’s policy. Was the solution really “simple”? Did “our global citizenship” mean BA’s? Presumably. But what of the customers? “BA turned its fins into a global art gallery. Is this what the traveller wants?” I asked.

“Now imagine”, I continued, “a traveller at an airport lounge checking he’s in the right line for a BA flight. He looks out on the tarmac. All he can see is a tailfin. A tailfin he does not recognise. ‘Ah’, he says to himself, ‘if I don’t recognise it, it must be British Airways.’ Strange? But true. I was that passenger at Belfast airport.”

Attracting the world’s travellers and identifying with them is commendable – and good marketing practice. But to do so at the risk of losing your own identity is perverse. And isn’t there just a hint of opportunism, not to say colonialism in appropriating the world’s designs and flaunting them externally in the area till then occupied by the national emblem. More importantly, isn’t it making recognition (identification for God’s sake) difficult and potentially dangerous?

None of this, of course, has been mentioned in BA’s announcement of its U-turn. Instead we read: “The 60 per cent of our passengers who come from abroad keep telling us they love the world images, but the people of Britain believe their community is not represented as well as it should be (The Guardian).”

Research is, therefore, cited as the reason. But presumably BA researched the design change before implementation? If it did, how did the results differ from those post facto? And if they did not, why not?

Research is often used, not as an aid to judgement, but as a substitute for it. In this case also as an excuse for bad judgement – especially in regard to an understanding of identity.

Visual identity is part of branding. (I make no apology for stating the obvious because clearly BA needs to be reminded of the basics.) Branding is of two sorts – perceptual and physical. Perceptual branding comprises those actual and emotional attributes which are attached (or attach themselves) to a product and turn it into a brand. A brand is essentially the sum total of all the facts and impressions the consumer receives, the values it represents.

Physical branding is the impressing of the owner’s name or mark upon the product. The logo, typeface, colour scheme are today’s equivalent of the rancher’s burning metal brand on the steer. And it is no coincidence that the Latin word “identidem” means “over and over again”.

Identity (like branding) is about consistency. Equally, it is about distinctiveness – individuality. Superficially this seems a paradox. You are saying that a brand is the same and yet different. Which, of course, it is. Both. The same over time and different in space (eg the marketplace, the shelf, the consumer’s mind or the runway).

BA’s previous tailfin was both – consistent and distinctive. The ethnic smorgasbord was neither.

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