I have been on my travels in the past week. And as usual I had my eyes open for what brands promise, and what they actually deliver.
I flew on SN Brussels, which we all used to know as Sabena. Now it is not often I get a chance to fly on a totally new (to me) airline. So I was all eager anticipation, with a touch of anxiety. As I left my office a colleague who used to run customer service for SAA , shouted " good luck!", which was naughty of her. SN Brussels turned out to be absolutely ... fine. The check-in was smooth, the aircraft was modern and spotless, the crew were courteous and polite. The entertainment system worked, but the food appeal was limited by the budget SN are prepared to spend with Nairobi Airport Services. And this was obviously tight, and marked for me a brand disconnect.
Now, I honestly had no idea what the SN Brussels brand positioning is. It has never spoken to me.
So, as you do, I expected the national carrier to represent in some way its nation of origin. When it comes to Belgium I know it is the hub for the EU, one of the biggest bureaucracies on the planet. I know it lies on a well established invasion route. I know its people are divided in two by language and culture. And I know that the food and drink they produce is exceptional. But not on this airline. They have gone for the value for money option from NAS, which demonstrated (as always) that the VFM option is just another way of saying disappointment for money. I have toured the NAS facilities and seen them making everything from exquisite canapés for Emirates first class to juice and biscuit boxes for internal flights. I left SN Brussels as I found them, without clear brand definition.
Whilst in the UK I travelled the length of the country on a Virgin train. I have had the pleasure to work on the Virgin brand. And by the way it was a pleasure, not least because everyone at Virgin Atlantic believes in branding and loves to have fun with advertising and promotion. Applying the twinkle in the eye, inclusive and egalitarian brand personality of Virgin to trains is hard work. Trains in UK are grubby, crowded, and often late. Virgin have chosen an innovative design of high speed train, which tilts deliberately as it rounds corners. The tilt has been damped down over the years, as too many passengers were being sick over one other. But it is still pronounced, so much that I had to take several long pauses while adding to this piece.
The train was clean, for a British train. The food was ok. But the staff did do a good job of delivering the brand while they delivered the service. They were cheeky chappies and jovial lassies, a mix of Liverpudlians and Glaswegians. They chatted way as they worked the train, and made otherwise dour passengers laugh, or at least crack a smile. Their service was attentive without deference. It reminded me of a rumour I once heard that Virgin Atlantic's original recruitment policy for air stewardesses was 'tarts with hearts'.
The final brand I encountered was very established. It has been through some tough times in the past 30 years but is in tip top condition now, as it has re-established its customer connection. I am referring to the British Royal Family, which still unites a Commonwealth of countries, many of them in Africa, who see some benefit in maintaining the connection. Despite dark moments in their shared histories, and occasional fallings out.This brand is people focused, and is delivered through a small but professional cast of characters. It works on emotion.
I had the opportunity to chat with Prince Charles, who expressed his concern for the security situation in Kenya and its impact on ordinary Kenyans. As he left he turned to me as an afterthought and said:' Make sure you take care.' He made a profound impression on me, as he did on all around me. They were all Scots, and most will vote 'Yes' in the upcoming referendum on becoming an independent Republic. But anyone he spoke to would have found it hard to tick that box that afternoon. I believe the recent royal tour of Australasia has had the same effect.
So, that is the most powerful and energised brand I encountered on my travels. Delivered through on-brand behaviour by customer facing staff. A lesson for all marketing led companies.
Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising. Most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside; an international company that helps organisations deliver their brands and strategies through their people. www.thebrandinside.com