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January 19, 2019

Taking Flight? Brand Activity In East Africa's Airspace

It’s a matter of record that airline brands struggle with differentiation and relevance. It is a hard industry: highly operational; beset by external challenges as diverse as fuel pricing, volcanic dust and terrorism.

Sometimes it is slowed by combative employee relations, scheduling failures and variable airport handling. There is a lot going on every day and marketing often doesn't get a look in.

Most national airlines try to capture the essence of their national character. At times that works: Singapore Girl is still the most famous example. Turkish Airlines have eschewed this route to align their brand with a soccer team. A shrewd move, as they have no control over whatever ills or blessings fate bestows upon their country!

Less bold airline marketers taking the national character route have struggled to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. I mean ‘friendly’ and ‘hospitable’ are neither hugely motivating (we expect it) nor hugely different (even the MacDonalds gave the Campbells dinner before the massacre).

Differentiation and relevance are really important to brand health. They imbue a brand with vitality with the energy to move forward confidently, bringing a loyal public with you.

So it’s good to observe some positive developments in brand experience in our region. Although I would like to begin by mourning the perhaps temporary passing of Air Uganda. This smart little airline, operated by the commercial arm of the Aga Khan’s influential community, was a welcome addition to our airspace. On the Kampala-Nairobi route – which I heard recently has the highest ticket price per mile flown of anywhere on the globe – Air Uganda was a breath of fresh air. Small, clean jets, well-flown, well-serviced and with a timetable that suited many business travellers. Even when full, their interiors rarely resembled the Akamba bus experience because their crew didn’t allow the occasional flier to cram their entire household contents into the overhead bin.

Air Uganda has been grounded, press reports tell us, because the Ugandan Civil Aviation Authority is currently not licensed to issue Air Operator Certificates. Whatever the reason, it is a shame for Uganda and for passengers.

However, South of the border, others are seizing new opportunities.

The UK’s Easyjet has launched Fastjet and based it out of Tanzania. Fastjet nonetheless has ambitions to provide a pan-African service, delivering the same product as its European low-cost counterparts. To see how amusing this low-cost service might become, go to YouTube and look for ‘Omar’s life jackets – come fly with me – BBC One’.

I haven’t met anyone who has flown Fastjet yet, but the concept of a low-cost airline is good news for Africa. Any other form of travel on the continent is tedious and hazardous; and there are obvious societal and economic benefits to enabling more people to fly.

Jambojet, Kenya Airways' new low-cost subsidiary, is KQ’s second attempt to open up a new air passenger market. By the look of things, it is succeeding. As a brand, Jambojet is pink, cheerful and accessible.

I had a chance to compare the demeanour of its check-in staff the other day. They seemed to be enjoying themselves and, as Sir Richard Branson knows, if the staff are happy then passengers tend to be happy too. People who have flown Jambojet say the service is good. It is short haul, so why would you worry that you have to pay for a cuppa? Or indeed for the bag with your mother-in-law hidden inside. In Mombasa, Jambojet even has a coach to get you into town for Sh250.

Finally, good news for the Kenya Airways brand experience. KQ has refreshed its own short haul service by deploying snazzy Embraer 190 business jets. Something has also happened to the people; they seem to enjoy being part of a slicker, more modern offering. The pilots sound more ‘Top Gun’, clipped and professional. You can feel them handling the aircraft positively, rather than waiting for the ground to rise up – like the rest of us. The cabin crew has more than its fair share of seniors who are attentive and safety minded. I bet they are glad to be off long haul too. The cabin is clean and spacious despite the narrow fuselage. I must sign off before this turns into puff. Nonetheless, credit must be accorded where it's due.


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