Mark Ritson: Thumbs up for BAA’s rebrand strategy

At first sight, the news that BAA – the much derided airport operator – was about to attempt both a rebrand and a significant shift in brand architecture at the same time might have led many to expect an imminent marketing disaster.

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And yet I am delighted to report that marketing and insight director Nick Adderley and his team at Heathrow have navigated the transition perfectly, despite the potential thunderstorm overhead.

The simple rebranding of BAA as Heathrow might look pretty bleeding obvious to the untrained eye, but it’s a job very well done. Brand managers around the world should note how the strategy has been executed.

For starters, the team has avoided the ridiculous and yet dominant approach of hiring a big-name brand consulting firm to create an entirely new, hugely expensive and incredibly foolish name with no interpretive baggage, heritage or identity. With less steadfast brand management, BAA could have gone the way of Consignia, Mondelez or, closer to home, Avios.

By opting for an existing brand name with heritage and a tangible presence, BAA has avoided the customer cynicism and media criticism that usually surrounds the birth of these empty, constructed brand names. A token review of the past three days of media reveals the BAA name change made the news but without the usual negativity.

The BAA team also played a blinder in avoiding any fanfare about its rebrand. There is only one thing worse than spending £2m to rename yourself as ‘Arrivio’ and that is spending another million on a big launch campaign to draw even more attention to your stupid name and naïve leadership team. BAA got the job done very efficiently and effectively on Monday morning with a 226-word statement. This lower profile, in-house approach appears to trump the high cost, high image approach so often touted by external consultants.

The timing for the rebrand was also right. Heathrow might be a name with global brand awareness, but over the past decade its brand associations have been a little, shall we say, tarnished. There were the drawn-out problems associated with the security crisis at the airport in 2006. A year later a survey of global travellers published by the TripAdvisor website cited Heathrow, along with Chicago’s O’Hare, as the world’s least favourite international airport. And then there was the horrendous saga of the opening of Terminal 5 in 2008.

But more recently the Heathrow brand has started to perk up. The success of Heathrow in dealing handsomely with the enormous traffic caused by the Olympics this summer merely served to re-confirm its emerging status and the newly rebranded company’s focus on its main airport can only serve to improve that performance in the years ahead.

As Heathrow chief executive officer Colin Matthews said this week: “Dropping the BAA name marks a symbolic break with the company of the past. We want Heathrow’s focus to be on its customers, to continue to improve its operational performance and to carry on investing billions of pounds in new passenger facilities. This summer, the Olympics and Paralympics showed the UK and Heathrow at their best. Now we have to build on that further.”

I like CEOs that talk like this about their brand. First, because they sound like they know what they are talking about. Second, because he isn’t boasting or gloating or making unrealistic vision statements – he is talking about improving further and focusing on consumers.

What wasn’t covered by the mainstream media was the second, equally important, shift in brand strategy that BAA also executed this week. It may have renamed its corporate brand as Heathrow (SP) Ltd but the company also has a new brand architecture.

BAA was an endorser brand that sat across a portfolio of nine very different airports. According to Adderley, this endorser approach is outdated: “From a passenger perspective, all that counts is having a smooth and stress-free experience of Heathrow. The name of the company that owns Heathrow makes no difference to passengers.”

Thanks to government pressure and BAA’s own attempts to focus operations, the new company will now consist of just four airports, Heathrow, Southampton, Glasgow and Aberdeen, all arranged in a house of brands structure in which each location exists as a separately operated concern.

In reality, however, the new company is much closer to a single branded house with Heathrow now generating 95% of the company profits.

In the space of just a few days BAA has lost a lot of negative brand equity, installed a superior and higher potential brand name and tightened its portfolio and architecture in such a way that it is prepared for the decade ahead.

Smooth flying indeed from the team at BAA… sorry, Heathrow.

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