Mo Saad, a Brand Strategist and Creative Director offers his suggestions on how Middle East Airlines can build and sustain its brand moving forward.
In the last month or so, those of us living in Lebanon and those of us flying in or out in fact, have had no choice but to be reminded of the “exuberant” 70 years of aviation our country has reveled in. If the overabundance of cedar tree billboards couldn't grab your attention, a cheaply produced music video featuring Assi El Helani gesturing in a recording booth might have.
The tone of this opening shouldn’t mislead you for I’m a big proponent of celebrating brand heritage when appropriate. But I’ve yet to understand how dressing up in 70s fashions and producing 70s-inspired memorabilia (notice, these aren’t actual reproductions) work as brand activations that should make me want to “love” Middle East Airlines (MEA) more and strengthen my loyalty to the brand.
Much like the people that made it and those who keep it afloat on a day-to-day basis, Middle East Airlines reflects the image of the Lebanese people. Except, the image of the Lebanese people today is—let’s face it—disjointed at best. Does the failure of the people to find common ground on identity reflect the brand’s failure in finding its own positioning and tone of voice? Can we assume the logo and livery change in the early 2000s was an inevitable consequence of a political power shift? Perhaps. But no matter what the reasons, the reality remains blatantly clear; Middle East Airlines has failed to see the value in building a “design-driven brand”.
So what do I mean by a “design-driven brand”? Products and services are abundant—a default of any ecosystem. But brands only really come to life when a well-engineered user experience is created with “design” being the main driving force.
Although MEA may be investing in a young fleet and is training and employing a younger generation of employees, one can’t help but feel the brand is “aging”—contrary to its own claims of becoming younger—and that has a lot to do with its outdated design direction and the lack of a coherent and consistent passenger experience.
Typically, brands mature; they don’t grow old. They evolve with the times and ensure they stay current. But MEA’s weak brand innovation keeps it lagging behind. It’s no wonder then that I remain skeptical of the most recent campaign tagline, “Old Never. Young Forever.” Never mind the grammatical English errors, but the lack of authenticity in this claim when the brand remains shy and distant on social media makes me cringe.
But all that criticism aside, one can’t question the success of our airline industry and its resilience against wars, aggression and financial troubles. Nor can one deny the effort and hard work behind sustaining a turbulent airline business for so long, especially under Lebanon’s unstable conditions. Nor can one deny the dedication of those in service for decades—and in some cases generations! But one also has to wonder about the next 70 years and whether a brand that has succeeded in restructuring and eventually turning a major profit yet failed in building brand loyalty can actually sustain itself for the future.
I could go on forever criticizing the more than 70 branding mistakes made in the last 70 years. I could point out design faux pas in the service design and user experience model that is nearly non-existent. I could tear apart the inconsistencies in the brand’s image and personality. I could easily pinpoint which touch points are repelling consumers and those that are completely missed as opportunities. But in the spirit of celebrating three and even four generations of dedicated pilots, flight attendants, engineers and ground staff, I’m choosing to take the road less travelled and look at 7 major opportunities for saving the brand and turning it into a design-driven success story.
1. FIND YOUR POSITION
If there’s one thing that leads brands astray is the fact they take no own-able position in their market(s). What’s MEA all about? Is it about Lebanese heritage or is it about a modern fleet? Is the cedar tree even that relevant anymore when there are but three or four that remain rooted in Lebanese soil? The lack of positioning is what’s made MEA seem moody in the last decade. Whereas most iconic heritage brands embark upon gradual refreshes to their identities based on a consistent, locked position and allow ample time in between for their consumers to get used to these changes, MEA seems to change directions more frequently than a chameleon changes colors. This lack of positioning also begs the question, “what makes MEA special?” That is yet to be determined in the minds of the younger generation. Find your calling; find your audience; find your vision and you will find loyalty.
2. DEFINE YOUR PERSONALITY
Think of your brand as you would another human being. How does it act? How does it sound like? Is it mature and wise or young and wild? Your brand's personality drives every touch point and serves as your guiding compass. It defines how you speak to your target consumer; it defines your colors and what typefaces to use. If we’re looking at MEA as young and “old never”, then the use of a serif typeface in the logo—heavily resembling a deformed Times New Roman set in Microsoft word—should be considered a major faux-pas. And as you define that personality, make sure that “approachability” is a key trait to consider. Airlines that seem distant with their consumers risk being perceived as arrogant and unhelpful—an idea that many already have of the MEA brand.
3. MAKE A PROMISE AND KEEP IT
Many will wonder, “why risk making a promise if I’m not sure I can keep it?” It’s true. A brand promise is only good if it can be delivered on. But it’s more rewarding to make a brand promise when you’re confident enough in your abilities and in your brand’s customer experience. It makes it easier to differentiate yourself from all other brands and puts you at a unique advantage. It’s also more likely that passengers will choose an airline that delivers on its brand promise. Virgin Atlantic delivers on its promise to be “genuine, fun, contemporary and different in everything [they] do”. That’s why they serve ice cream and play pop music onboard—I go for that choice any chance I get. And you have smaller airlines like New York-based jetBlue that promises its passengers no checked baggage fees and extra legroom when everyone else is trying to cram in elephants onboard and charging a leg and an arm for bags. jetBlue has been able to genuinely deliver on their promise against all other competitors and have turned the brand into “THE brand of choice” for those who care about their blood circulation and wallets. MEA on the other hand has always played it safe; it’s made no real promises in the last 70 years and that in turn has led to poor brand loyalty. If brand loyalty seems to exist to some, it’s merely a consequence of having only one locally based airline limiting a consumer’s choices. Perhaps it’s time to turn that around and find something unique about the brand?
4. CREATE A HOLISTIC PASSENGER EXPERIENCE
An airline’s brand experience isn’t restricted to a pressurized cabin. It begins at home; at the very second your consumer decides to make a ticket purchase. Every touch point needs to be considered and given the same weight and thought—from online bookings, to checking-in at the airport, to airline menus (which is the only major innovation MEA has done in decades, FYI). God is in the details and so is the brand! If Beirut’s airport was looked at as an opportunity for brand activations by MEA rather than just a port of departure, more passengers would be willing to arrive ahead of schedule knowing that boredom and a monopolized coffee experience worth $7 a cup would no longer be the only option. This in turn could mean more on-time passengers lessening flight delays, which is a major perceived weak point for MEA. Like I said, the brand is in the details.
5. BUILD AUTHENTICITY
Consumers are more and more in control of brands these days especially in the digital realm. Twitter, blogs and review platforms like Yelp have given power to the consumer. The slightest misstep can cause an avalanche of backlash on the Internet. All of this has given more and more reason for brands to be honest and true. Brands that over promise and those that try too hard risk being perceived as fake and unreliable. It’s important for MEA then to find a positioning and promise now more than ever that it can deliver on. When we claim we’re “Old Never. Young Forever” and yet continue to disregard current airline trends, we’re not only alienating our millennial and Gen Z audiences, but we’re creating a recipe for disappointment. You do not want a disappointed customer—at least not in this age of heavy competition when alternatives are abundant. Give your passengers what they want and do it with care. You’ll reap the rewards of honesty in the long run; we call it Brand Loyalty!
6. BRING DESIGN TO THE TABLE
Over the last decade every major fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) company turned to design to achieve better products, better brands and better experiences. Internal “Design Innovation Departments” or “Design Centers” have become an integral asset ever since consumers began to value and expect design as part of their every day. So-much-so, that design is now a major factor in a consumer’s decision-making process. Airlines haven’t been blind to this and many big names have invested heavily over the same decade in similar departments that have embarked on brand refreshes and uplifts, innovative products, smart brand activations and a variety of collaborations signifying their alignment with what’s “hot”. Look no further than the suddenly trendy inflight safety videos that now feature more Hollywood celebrities than regular advertising endorsements. And let’s not forget the heavily overplayed fashion designer collaborations for crew uniforms and travel kit amenities. These may sound like costly and perhaps frivolous investments to some, but in a recent study by the UK Design Council, research has shown that “every £1 spent on design can give you over £20 in increased revenue.” Should we argue with that?
7. GUARD YOUR BRAND
Finally, and most important of all, someone should maintain the brand and ensure that consistency is played out. And when I say “someone”, I mean an internal “Brand Communications Department” charged with guarding the MEA brand and responsible for every little detail that portrays it—from the look and feel of the airplanes, to what advertising campaigns look and sound like, to the shape and size of brochures and even to the type of lavatory toilet paper used inflight. Many companies leave important branding decisions to CEOs or even marketing departments who more often than not are unqualified or make branding decisions based on personal preference rather than on what’s inline with the brand’s position and personality. This usually leads to the biggest problem of all, brand inconsistency. MEA is no stranger to brand inconsistency. To this day, female ground staffers wear red uniforms and striped shirts reminiscent of the earlier days, where as inflight crew members, up until recently, wore ill-fitting turquoise skirt suits that have no relevance to the brand. The introduction of 50 shades of the color “blue” to the brand’s palette remains a baffling mystery and has made its way to airplane interiors, serving trays and amenity kits creating a very disjointed design language between the visual identity and its accompanying applications. It hasn’t even spared the beautifully-designed new crew uniforms released this month that at first glance resemble Air France’s iconic uniforms instead of proudly and loudly shouting out MEA. This trend of indiscipline in creating and managing brand assets could spiral out of control if it’s not properly overseen by those qualified to maintain one consistent experience under one defined position and promise.
There are probably another 70 points that can be made to help stop Middle East Airlines’ downward spiral into brand oblivion. But if there’s one point to take-away from all this is that it’s time to reconsider how a brand is made and sustained. Where as marketing has always been utilized as a push tactic to sell the brand outwards, branding is now becoming a vital part of the process, serving as a pull tactic to bring people inwards and in turn build brand loyalty. This is how you thrive in the age of the consumer.