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Why British Airways believes marketing and commercial can work together for the customer

Marketing and commercial are uneasy befellows, but British Airways has restructured internally in belief the two can work in tandem to turn customer experience into the brand’s key differentiator.

Last week, British Airways (BA) revealed a major overhaul to its marketing team, creating a new role for its former marketing chief Abigail Comber, designed to put customer experience front and centre of its strategy.

The move has seen Comber take on the role of head of customer, and she will report to the new director of customer experience - a role yet to be filled.

Meanwhile, Sara Dunham has become head of marketing, retail and direct with a remit to devise the global marketing strategy for the brand as well as the Executive Club loyalty scheme.

Both will report to chief commerical officer, Andrew Crawley - a structure which emulates the brand's belief that marketing and commercial teams should work together more closely.

The brand is the latest in a string of businesses to have overhauled the marketing function to put a stronger focus on customer experience.

For example, budget airline Ryanair - which was notorius for its lack of customer service - similarly overhauled its strategy to "start making the customer happy." The move has paid off, with the brand that people loved to hate seeing traffic grow four per cent, profits soar 32 per cent and revenues increase nine per cent. It has also turned around consumer perception, with YouGov crowning it among the most improved brands of 2014.

The Drum caught up with some industry insiders to gauge what the restructure means for BA and its customers.

Toby Horry, managing director, Dare

There's a lot to like about BA's recently announced restructure, principally the focus on customer experience. Modern brands are shaped by the experiences that their customers have so organisationally it makes complete sense to place greater emphasis on this area. And to do so with someone with such fantastic brand experience as Abi Comber is clearly a smart move.

The one watch-out is the (seeming) separation of the customer vertical from marketing, direct and retail. For customers, marketing, direct and retail are an integral part of the customer experience so to organisationally separate them could sow the seeds for a disconnected experience.

The additional challenge for anyone in a senior customer experience role is to have the power to influence departments as diverse as operations, digital, telephony, customer service, finance and HR. Without that power it is difficult to make an organisation genuinely customer-centric and only time will tell how this works within BA.

Simon Myers, partner, Prophet

The decision to split out customer experience from marketing, direct and retail is good news for those of us who want to see continual improvements in the BA experience.

By focusing on customer experience as a discipline in and of itself room has been created for change that perhaps in the past was subsumed in the overall marketing agenda. BA's executive chairman has done the airline and those who fly it a favour.

Jim Prior, chief executive of Lambie-Nairn/The Partners

BA has made some progress with its brand in recent times, with some significant improvements in the digital experience and some aspects of its communications. Where it still falls flat is onboard the aircraft where a lack of innovation and low levels of attention paid to the passenger often undermines other positive impressions.

If this change in structure is about deepening the impact that the brand has on the culture and behaviour of the organisation and the way it serves its passengers then that's clearly a good thing.

However, if it goes the other way and shifts focus away from improving the brand experience in favour of driving short-term commercial results then it will ultimately fail.

Matthew Heath, chairman and chief strategy Officer, Lida

Marketing has come of age as a value-creating commercial discipline so to some extent this is a further example of that coming of age.

Interesting though that this seems to narrow the definition of marketing into communications when the direction of travel has been a much broader remit than that.

At BA it seems customer experience has been separated from marketing - some would argue that creating an optimum customer experience that delivers a clear and relevant value exchange is at the heart of what marketing is for and how it creates commercial value.