The headline of this article was indeed the slogan of Boeing Corporation in the 1970s, before Airbus turned up to be a worthy competitor. In 2019, however, the consecutive losses of the 737 Max 8 aircrafts have raised serious safety questions about this model. From a branding perspective, there are a few noteworthy nuances, worthy of study.
Firstly, the total blurring between B2B and B2C in this sector, replaced instead by equal-interest experiential stakeholders. Strictly speaking, this is a B2B crisis, as the airlines must sort the issues with the manufacturer, while ensuring maximum safety for the customer. However, the airlines over the years have used new-age equipment as a supplementary source of consumer pull, to bolster their undifferentiated service credentials. True for the Dreamliner and the A 380 and the A 350, true certainly for the 737 Max 8 as well.
So, today, there are multiple personas reacting to this loss in confidence. The regulators are keeping an eagle eye, the operators are routinely suspending flights and even customers are opting out of specific flights operated by this aircraft, easily noticeable on booking sites. Everybody here is an experiential stakeholder, like many other tech categories, protecting a unique set of interests that are complementary and thus, adding up to a larger whole.
The second area of interest is the quality of Boeing’s response to this disaster, upsetting industry folks for its lack of urgent intent. “We are taking every measure to fully understand all aspects of this accident, working closely with the investigating team and all regulatory authorities involved. The investigation is in its early stages, but at this point, based on the information available, we do not have any basis to issue new guidance to operators.” Senior pros believe that two such consecutive incidents represent nothing short of a full-blown crisis, yet Seattle is still playing a wait-and-watch card. In fact, the move by nations such as UK, Australia and Singapore to ban Max flights over its sovereign territories is intended to accelerate this very pressure. With so much at stake, it is always difficult to strike an accurate balance between business and societal interests, even for the most responsible organisations.
The third aspect is that the impact of such disasters goes beyond just the suffering brand, for industries which thrive on a collaborative equilibrium. If there is a general loss of confidence in one maker then it trickles down to the industry at large, especially since Ethiopian happens to be a carrier of stature. Thus, it will also be in the interest of Airbus, Embraer and Bombardier as well to clear the air urgently, for normal market conditions to take over. It is quite like the Pharma or the beverages industry – the failure of a chemotherapy drug or a health slur on a Cola drink affects everybody. Thus, there will be pressure on Boeing from every responsible stakeholder to sort this matter urgently.
The fourth and enormously attractive dimension for a student of brand strategy is the role of the key outsourced ingredient in the value proposition. In airlines for instances, the emerging players often over-engineer the state-of-art equipment to establish premature parity with the established players. Lion Air, for instance, tried just that to shrug off the dismal Indonesian safety track record, falling flat in the process. A default value proposition for many such airlines become the mint-fresh fleet, in many cases not working hard enough to establish a differentiated experience – where the plane is just one piece of the puzzle. In times of crisis, it looks odd when the airline separates itself so clinically from the very maker whose credentials it proudly flaunted. Brand custodians must integrate the equipment tactically and intelligently, for premiumisation like the A380 or for establishing a point of parity or address legacy safety concerns. However, this must never be at the cost of an endearing and imaginative brand story.
Finally, an area under increasing focus will be the sharpness and customisation of pilot training in an increasingly computerised cockpit. Boeing itself has departed significantly from its fabled seat-of-pants control designs to far-greater automation. Historical instances prove quite decisively that better-experienced pilots can manage crises better, the challenge is to up the learning curve for the younger commanders. This too is a brand experience challenge, quite like the upgrade of legacy surgeons to unfamiliar but inevitable mechanisation. Can our learnings from other categories lead to a newer and more effective cockpit interaction culture?
Boeing is today facing a trust crisis, the most fundamental challenge for any brand. To regain cruising altitude, it must urgently muster a sustainable solution, instead of being dangerously defensive. Meanwhile, there is a lot to learn for practitioners of brand management from the biggest aviation-engineering crisis of our times.
(Shivaji Dasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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