It’s not the ads that are BA’d

Despite much agency speculation to the contrary, advertising, for which read the relationship with Bartle Bogle Hegarty, is currently one of British Airways’ few consistent strengths.

Almost everywhere you look, this is a brand in trouble. And indeed there is a poignant symbolism in the fact that the imminent cabin crew strike, which threatens to seriously damage BA revenues, is over being sick.

It’s not simply that BA has been beset by a series of fortuitous hazards – over-zealous security precautions, and a resulting baggage fiasco, the Martin George faux pas and so forth. This is also a brand facing up to long-term issues which, like the proverbial chickens, have come home to roost.

War on two fronts
No need to be a student of Clausewitz to appreciate that a war simultaneously waged on two fronts is usually disastrous. Yet that is the uncomfortable position BA finds itself in. It has long since lost its premium positioning as the World’s Favourite Airline and these days (as former chief executive Bob Ayling came to realise) even being Britain’s is a bit of a challenge. Come to think of it, in the post-deregulatory, post-subsidy world of airline travel it is hard to discern what the advantages of being a national flag carrier are.

BA has attempted to straddle the polarised world of budget and premium with an increasing lack of conviction. Though, under Ayling’s successor Rod Eddington it cut short a flirtation with no-frills brand extension – by divesting Go – it has been unable to ignore the challenge of cheap flights – especially in Europe. Yet, despite the considerable investment in and a low-cost price proposition, it remains ill-equipped to challenge the low-cost brands at their own game. And it’s not hard to see why. One word, unions, stands for a slew of troubles. Most tellingly, perhaps:”After five years of restructuring, BA’s average costs per employee, 25% above Ryanair and Easyjet, remain among the highest” to quote today’s FT.

Slipping up on customer service?
However, BA’s necessary commitment to providing better value for money has distracted attention from its positioning as a premium service. As one reader rather caustically pointed out last week, BA’s idea of a superior customer service is not one invariably shared by it customers, consisting of “some fairly good but undifferentiated services (delivered) in a surly and slightly superior manner” I strongly suspect this is not a sample of one and the broader point he makes – that BA is falling behind the likes of Virgin Atlantic in the provision of top-end service – is well founded.

Waiting for take-off
All this is highly frustrating for BA (so much so that much of its top marketing cadre is leaving).Yet help is on the way: GBP100m is being invested in Clubworld, for instance. And the refit of existing BA lounges plus a fairly imminent opening of the showcase Terminal 5 ought to restore lustre to a battered reputation.

Then, and only then, can BA afford to embark on a badly delayed corporate advertising campaign, positioning the airline as something you might credibly wish to “Upgrade” to. Once, of course, the turbulence swirling around strikes, baggage mishandling and an enveloping pension crisis has abated…

All of which is little solace for BBH, which must stoically endure the speculative buffeting about its account tenure until conditions are right for take-off.

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