Is British Midland set for US take-off?

British Midland is rebranding as part of its flight network expansion, but it may have a bumpy ride overcoming government regulation.

British Midland has come a long way since its humble origins in 1938 as the Air Schools training base at Burnaston in Derbyshire. Its appointment last month of Bartle Bogle Hegarty to handle £10m ad campaign signals that it plans to go a lot further.

The airline, which flies to 31 domestic and European destinations, is seeking to become a trans-Atlantic carrier and eventually to spread its tentacles across the globe.

But as competition from cut-price operators and a tough air travel market take their toll at British Airways, the recently installed management team at British Midland will be examining the steps it needs to take to catapult the airline into the big league.

Last month British Midland sold 20 per cent of its business to Lufthansa to become part of the Star Alliance. This expands the airline’s opportunities for joint marketing with some of the world’s biggest airlines, such as Lufthansa, SAS and United Airlines, and it links it to a group that will have 27 per cent of Heathrow take-off and landing slots.

The move was timely. The airline has been campaigning for the US and UK governments to change the present rules and operate an “open skies” agreement, allowing other airlines to fly to and from the US using Heathrow Airport.

Under the present rules, only four airlines have permission to operate these trans-Atlantic flights from Heathrow: British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, United Airlines and American Airlines.

Even with these obstacles, British Midland is confident it will become a trans-Atlantic airline.

A British Midland spokesman says the company is rebranding through design agency Landor, which is looking at everything from the airline’s corporate colours to what plates its food is served on. The rebranding exercise “is about the development of our business” he says. “The last time we had a major rethink was 1985.”

The company is concerned that the “British” in its name could confuse non-UK travellers, who might think it is part of British Airways. The Midland tag is also perceived as irrelevant to people outside the UK and confusing for those inside.

One travel analyst says: “They have been particularly proud of their Derbyshire roots in the past. It might be time for a rethink on the name. If they are going to compete with BA and Virgin, they are going to have to be as good as them in everything.”

A potential name mooted in the press is “Bluebird”, the codename given to the rebranding project. But Bluebird is unlikely to be part of the airline’s new identity, since it conjures up images of Donald Campbell losing his life on Coniston Water in 1967, as he attempted to break the world water speed record.

As rebranding can be done when the planes are repainted, every two to four years, the change could be a confusing and lengthy process. British Midland will also have to acquire more planes. If it chooses to launch the rebranding through this mechanism, the airline will have a communications headache.

The addition of trans-Atlantic flights means British Midland’s positioning as the “Airline for Europe”, created by Edinburgh-based Faulds Advertising, will have to be reviewed.

The company’s spokesman says: “Clearly, our positioning is part of our rebranding. ‘Airline for Europe’ won’t be relevant in the US.”

When Faulds inherited the business in 1995, the company was on the cusp of changing its emphasis to become a business alternative to BA. Faulds, which had its business for four years, created TV advertising showing high-flying business people relying on the airline.

But British Midland now flies further afield, including to countries where it has no brand heritage.

John MacDougall, who ran the airline’s business at Faulds, says: “British Midland has a job on its hands to appeal to the customers who travel at the back of the plane.”

BBH’s advertising is likely to be a two-pronged attack on business and other travellers.

There must be furrowed brows among senior personnel of BA and Virgin. British Midland not only threatens to poach customers, it is also vocal about what it calls the “falsely inflated prices” airlines charge to travel to and from Heathrow. Flying to US destinations from other European airports such as Frankfurt is on average 30 per cent cheaper.

Earlier this year, BA announced its intention to target more business travellers. BA is already in trouble, with increased competition – particularly from Virgin – and has seen its profits slump in recent years.

British Midland will not be a welcome newcomer, particularly as it will sell business customers cheaper fares.

As part of Star Alliance, the airline will have to offer a seamless service to the other airlines’ customers. Pushing its product closer to BA, it will add first class to economy and business on long-haul flights.

BA and Virgin have the high brand awareness that British Midland lacks. If Derbyshire’s contribution to the shrinking globe is to compete on the same level, it will need to extract the very best work it can from BBH and Landor.

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