Think about one of the strongest brands from Asia, and chances are that Singapore Airlines (SIA) and its long-serving, almost iconic Singapore Girl easily come to mind. SIA has consistently been one of the most profitable airlines globally, and has always had the reputation of a trendsetter and industry challenger. There are several good reasons for this. Most relates directly to the strong brand management driven primarily by the SIA boardroom and top-management, and the healthy brand equity as the result of a dedicated, professional brand strategy throughout a diversified, global organisation.
The Singapore Airlines brand has been instrumental for the airline from the early start. It serves as one of the leading brand cases from Asia for other established brands as well as any aspiring brands. The Singapore Airlines brand is unique in the sense that the boardroom takes dedicated leadership of the brand strategy unlike many other Asian companies.
A case in point for such leadership came in 2007 when Singapore Airlines was ranked the 17th in Fortune’s “World’s most admired companies” rankings. Furthermore, Singapore Airlines is Asia’s first and the world’s third airline that has been accredited by IATA with the IOSA (IATA Operations Safety Audit).
Singapore Airlines began in 1947 as Malayan (later Malaysian) Airlines in a joint venture between the Malaysian and Singapore governments, serving primarily the South East Asian region. In 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia, and later the two governments agreed to set up separate airlines. Singapore Airlines was born in 1972.
Singapore Airlines was in a different position than most other airlines at the time. There were no domestic routes to serve it was forced to immediately start competing with international airlines for routes, getting access to airports, securing flight slots and landing rights, and attracting a new customer base. Unlike most state-owned entities, Singapore Airlines was subject to heavy competition from the onset and this tough start created a driving spirit to compete and also a dedication to branding, especially in the boardroom. These factors have prevailed within the organization since then, and served the airline very well as the following will illustrate.
Building the Brand
Singapore Airlines decided on a fully branded product/service differentiation strategy from the very beginning. Innovation, best technology, genuine quality and excellent customer service were to become the major drivers of the brand.
Throughout the course of their 32-year history, Singapore Airlines has remained true to their brand attributes. They have pioneered many in-flight experiential and entertainment innovations, and strived to be best-in-class. SIA was the first to introduce hot meals, free alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, hot towels with a unique and patented scent, personal entertainment systems, and video-on-demand in all cabins. The company keeps driving innovation as an important part of the brand, and the cabin ambience and combined experience are key factors of their success.
On the technology side, Singapore Airlines still maintains the youngest fleet of aircraft amongst all major air carriers, and keeps to the stringent policy of replacing older aircrafts for newer, better models. They have always been first in line to take delivery of new aircraft types like Boeing 747 jumbo jets, Boeing 777, and they will become the first airline to fly the Airbus Super jumbo A-380 in 2006. Even the aircrafts are sub-branded like 747-Megatop and 777-Jubilee to further distinguish SIA and its brand from competitors. Singapore Airlines also flew Concorde between Singapore and London in the late 70’ties in collaboration with British Airways (BA). The aircraft was painted with SIA’s colors and logos on one side, and BA’s on the other, and it carried crew from both airlines.
Keeping in line with its strategy to be the pioneer in every aspect, SIA was the first airlines in the world to fly Airbus A-380 on the 25th of October 2007 between Singapore and Sydney, Australia. Marred by almost a year and a half in delay, this first A-380 flight, named flight number SQ380, garnered tremendous amount of worldwide publicity. It further helped SIA’s brand image that all the revenue generated by flying 455 passengers on this first flight was donated to three charities in a ceremony the next day in Sydney. SIA has later started to fly the A-380 to London and Tokyo with additional destinations to follow as Airbus delivers new aircrafts.
The strategy behind the technology program is clear: It enhances cost efficiency to use the latest aircrafts and at the same time, SIA uses these events for marketing purposes. An example of this was the new non-stop services to Los Angeles and New York launched in 2004, which attracted huge publicity in global media and kept the innovation promise of the brand alive. The special aircrafts for these long-range routes (Airbus 340-500) are for example sub-branded Leadership to further distinguish the brand promise.
Singapore Airlines recognizes that each innovation has a relatively short life span. Once other airlines adopt it, it is no longer considered “innovative”. Therefore, SIA continues to invest heavily in R&D, innovation and technology as an integrated part of the business strategy to further differentiate itself.
The Singapore Girl
The personalization of the Singapore Airlines brand is the mixed male and female cabin crew, where especially the flight stewardesses commonly referred to as Singapore Girls have become very well-known. SIA engaged French haute-couture designer Pierre Balmain at the inauguration of the airline in 1972. He designed a special version of the Malay sarong kebaya as the uniform which later became one of the most recognized signatures of the airline. A very designated and visual part of the entire brand experience.
The Singapore Girl strategy turned out to be a very powerful idea and has become a successful brand icon with an almost mythical status and aura around her. The Singapore Girl encapsulates Asian values and hospitality, and could be described as caring, warm, gentle, elegant and serene. It is a brilliant personification of SIA’s commitment to service and quality excellence. The icon has become so strong that Madame Tussaud’s Museum in London started to display the Singapore Girl in 1994 as the first commercial figure ever.
Singapore Airlines also runs one of the most comprehensive and rigorous training programs for cabin and flight crew in the industry to make sure the SIA brand experience is fully and consistently delivered.
Communicating the Message
Singapore Airlines has been as consistent in its communication vehicles as in its brand strategy. The primary message “Singapore Airlines – A Great Way to Fly” has been consistently conveyed in exclusive print media and also in selected TV-commercials of very high production value to underline the quality aspirations of brand. All communication messages are featured through the iconic Singapore Girl in different themes and settings.
When Singapore Airlines recently launched their comfortable Space Bed seats in business class, they ran a 60-second commercial of a highly emotional and mythical character to underline the aspiration of the brand and the Singapore Girl, and to set their airline brand apart from competition.
Interestingly, Singapore Airlines has chosen to focus on one aspect of the experiential brand strategy-in-flight hospitality and warmth featured by the Singapore Girl-rather than trying to communicate the entire brand benefits through its messages. A dangerous trap, which many other brands often fall into in their efforts to communicate all at once. This has led to a focused and consistent message for SIA during the last 32 years. This in itself is a great achievement for any brand.
The Singapore Girl has contributed immensely to the success of Singapore Airlines’ brand strategy and its entire positioning around customer and service excellence.
Using the Brand to Drive Revenues
While other airlines have also pursued high service/quality brand strategies, none has been able to match Singapore Airlines in consistency, commitment, and true permeation of the brand in every facet. SIA has been able to maintain their brand advantage by not wavering from their brand strategy. This is a particularly difficult position to maintain in a highly cyclical industry where the competition seems to react on a daily basis to changes in performance. This type of commitment takes dedication from the board, CEO and senior management team, and strong faith in the brand’s ability to pull through bad times. The management team and shareholders must maintain a longer term outlook to avoid making short-term, reactionary decisions which dilute the brand.
For example, pressure on US airlines stemming from low-cost carrier competition has caused a number of the full-service airlines to begin charging for on-board services which used to be free. Historically, business travelers were willing to pay a premium for full-service airlines, essentially because they provided these services. By abandoning their customer service strategy, even on restricted flights, the premium US airlines are diluting their brand in search of short-term profitability. This is creating a circular effect where the premium airlines are losing cost-sensitive customers to low-cost airlines, which causes them to reduce price to retain these customers. This in turn creates more cost pressure. This cost pressure causes them to start reducing the premium services which made them distinct from the low-cost airlines in the first place.
(To be continued in the next issue)
Print ed: 11/08