Does British Airways' restructure mark an end to big-brand marketing?

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BA: will management changes signify an end to big-brand marketing?
BA: will management changes signify an end to big-brand marketing?

BA commercial officer Andrew Crawley is taking over marketing, promising a focus on customer experience

This month, the news broke that British Airways is splitting its management to bring its commercial department closer to its marketing department, with marketing falling under the remit of BA commercial officer Andrew Crawley. But does it spell the end of big-brand advertising?

Paul Tullo, group chairman of TMW, who worked with BA for 12 years and is familiar with both the business and most of its senior marketers, argues that BA to its credit has become more strategic and considered in its approach to marketing.

"I think BA has been doing good stuff," he says. "It’s moved away from the big-brand approach, that sees an idea trickle down with a waterfall effect before moving on to another idea in six months. They’ve become more sophisticated marketers than when we were working with them."

Even so, structural reworkings at BA have been dramatic and are thought to presage further change. Frank van der Post, BA managing director for brand and customer experience, is leaving next month. Current retail boss Sara Dunham will become head of marketing, retail and direct, responsible for marketing communications around British Airways’ loyalty scheme, Executive Club, and all global marketing activity for the airline.

Meanwhile, Abigail Comber, BA’s current head of marketing, will fill the newly created post of director of customer experience and will report to van der Post’s successor.

Customer experience at the heart

For Tullo, customer experience should lie at the heart of an airline's business.

"An airline is like a hotel," he says. "And the experience of consumers when they arrive is 80% of your marketing in a sense. The better the experience, the more likely they are to fly with you again."

While BA’s motto "To fly. To serve" still stands — it has been stitched into the uniforms of every member of staff for decades, while moves are continuing to ensure that the customer is at the heart of its $5 billion investment into updating its aircraft, lounges, food and digital products — it has arguably not been brought to life in the brand’s advertising.

Tim Duffy, group chairman of M&C Saatchi UK, reckons that BA’s business is defined by how it operates centrally versus regionally, and between its sales and marketing functions, "how the two relate."

Bringing sales and marketing closer together

Crawley’s appointment expanded remit could bring the latter two aspects of the business together.

"From my perspective, putting Andrew Crawley in charge of marketing is a brilliant idea," Duffy says. "I think he’s an incredibly smart and brave businessman.

"When BA is at its best is when the people running the airline understand the value of advertising and creativity."

Duffy harks back to the halcyon days of BA as "the world’s favourite airline," when M&C Saatchi was its creative agency. Duffy himself ran the account for the agency, so was more than a mere witness to the brand in its rudest health.

"If you go back to when the airline was aligned creatively and commercially, great things happened. Right back to Colin Marshall, who understood the power of brand and what it can do for a business."

"Bloody awful"

Marshall, who died in July 2012, became BA’s CEO in the 1980s and was credited with turning around the fortunes of the ailing airline, when customers had been using the abbreviation BA as shorthand for "bloody awful."

Marshall, a marketer at heart, successfully combined commerce with creativity and was behind the "world’s favorite airline" slogan. He was subsequently knighted for his leadership in transforming the business from loss-making disaster to profit-making success.

"I think that Andrew Crawley is in that mould," Duffy adds. "He gets the value of creativity."

But Tullo thinks that Crawley is a more nuts-and-bolts marketer, and all the better for BA. "Andrew — who used to work for us years ago and went to BA in a very junior role and worked his way up — is just the right person to move away from the Colin Marshall ‘Let’s make us famous’ approach."

Changes to BA’s creative strategy are currently underway, with a review of the airline’s global digital advertising account, potentially out of incumbent agency OgilvyOne, while BBH last year retained its hold on the main ad account, while also grabbing its CRM business.

Being a British brand

But Duffy reckons that while BA had a "good moment around the Olympics creatively," that its marketing output has perhaps been lacklustre and lacking gravity.

Meanwhile, Tullo thinks that from a brand point of view, BA needs should embrace its roots, and the word that makes up one half of its name. "The interesting thing about BA is that it’s always been a British brand and it has very seldom talked about being a British brand. I suspect that 90% of the world sees BA as a personification of Britain. A polite and respected airline that works. ’Fly to serve’ is bang on that.

"Perhaps it needs to go back to reaffirming its values as a British institution."

For Duffy, Crawley is the man to ensure that BA maintains the balance between big brand marketing and commercial strategy.

"He’s got the intellect and he’s a great leader, he’s brave and audacious," he says. "My instincts say that he will handle the business brilliantly and that creativity will come to the fore."

This article first appeared on marketingmagazine.co.uk.

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