Brand plan stalls on the runway

BA has been one of the few pioneering companies when it comes to service marketing. Yet its latest effort to retrain staff as brand ambassadors seems to have crash-landed. This ‘laudable’ goal requires a quantum leap in management techniques,

Most marketers’ kneejerk reaction to disputes such as the one at British Airways is mentally to file it under the heading industrial relations, in other words irrelevant, so they can get back to the pressing issues at hand.

In the case of BA, however, there is an important sense in which marketing and branding lie at the heart of it. At issue is the degree to which a company can rely on its staff to become brand ambassadors and under what sort of circumstances it can achieve this laudable goal. For many, the lesson may be that brand ambassadorship is wonderful in theory but impossible to practise.

The notion of truly engaging staff commitment and energy to transform a company’s service is relatively new. Until recently, marketing prejudice was firmly tilted in the opposite direction. Look back only ten years, for example, and you’ll find the greatest marketing visionary of them all, Theodore Levitt, following a simple but compelling logic: brands are all about consistency, brand management is therefore all about control, and people spell trouble for control.

In services, he noted in his pathmaking book The Marketing Imagination, the delivery and production of the product are “virtually indistinguishable”. But “the more people-intensive a product, the more room there is for personal discretion, idiosyncrasy, error and delay”.

What services marketers need to do, he argued, is to follow Henry Ford’s example in manufacturing – to “industrialise” it: embrace “managerial rationality” to create a “rationally designed machine… that depends not on the idiosyncratic artistry of a single craftsman but on simple standardised tasks performed to simple routine specifications”.

This is a mind-numbing, personality stifling vision of service marketing and BA has been one of the few pioneering companies to really challenge it. Only a few months ago Martyn Bridger, who heads BA’s cabin crew side, was admitting that after years of steady improvement the airline had hit a plateau in customer satisfaction levels and that it now needed another leap forward.

BA had begun to “train our crews out of their ability to be themselves”, he confessed, launching a 7m training programme in which all BA staff would be put through a three-day residential programme to retrain them “to provide their own spontaneous service which treats passengers as individuals”.

Speaking in an interview about this programme last February, John Ackland, a senior manager within cabin services, stressed that moving to these new levels of service wasn’t just a technicality but a profound change. BA would have to rely on each individual staff member’s motivation and judgment instead of rules, routines, and manuals. “It’s a huge leap of trust,” he told me. “Breakthrough [the name of the programme] is a generic name of a complete culture change – a change in our style of service and the way we manage.”

Yet here we have the same staff telling newspapers things like, “we did not agree with everything Lord King or Colin Marshall did. But they respected their staff. Bob Ayling just wants cheap labour. He doesn’t like us, he loathes us”, while around Heathrow airport there are bits of graffiti scribbled on notices, such as “BA: Buggered by Ayling”.

A simple case of time-honoured corporate hypocrisy – one story for the press, another for the staff? Or of appalling internal communications? That’s unlikely. What’s more probable is that aligning management attitudes and practices to what’s needed to implement breakthrough service marketing of this sort is far more difficult than appears at first sight.

It all depends on the company’s ability to elicit the active, as opposed to passive, co-operation of their employees. But that, as researchers are beginning to point out, is easier said than done. Thus, as researchers Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne wrote in the Harvard Business Review, if managers can truly build employees’ trust and commitment and unlock their ideas they can “achieve even the most painful and difficult goals” (including cost cutting).

But acceptance of these goals, they warn, is conditional on what they call “fair process” – and while most managers think they are fair, they fail to really embrace fair processes because they feel it undermines their managerial discretion and power.

Similarly, business leaders’ tendency to view companies as “rational, calculable, controllable” wealth creation machines is a suicidal notion. So argues Arie de Geus, a former senior Shell planner in his new book The Living Company.

“Companies die because their managers focus on the economic activity of producing goods and services, and they forget their organisation’s true nature is that of a community of humans,” he writes.

The result of this machine-like thinking, adds Peter Senge, apostle of the concept of the learning organisation, is that in practice the day-to-day climate of most organisations is “toxic” – the product of “endless struggles for power and control [creating an] environment that stifles rather than releases human imagination, energy and commitment”.

There are indications that consumers are beginning to think this way too. For example, Dragon International notes from recent research on corporate reputation that consumer concerns about organisations’ impact on society is shifting from environmental policies to the human aspects of their business. Dragon’s Keith Wells says one emerging litmus test of reputation is the question “what would it be like to work there?”.

If these researchers are on the right track, effectively recruiting employees to the sort of brand ambassador role sought by BA implies a completely different style of management. Now, perhaps that sort of management can only flourish if change is forced through and obdurate unions are crushed. On the other hand, perhaps obdurate unions are simply a sign that managers have failed to change their own attitudes and practices as far or as fast as the changes they demand of their own staff. Doing one without the other might be like jumping half way across a river – better not to have jumped at all.

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