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Brand Strategy Marketing

Why Cannes-winning advertising is only one ingredient of British Airways' brand building

By Amit Bapna, APAC editor-at-large

July 11, 2023 | 7 min read

How do you take 'A British Original' worldwide? The Drum meets BA's first chief customer officer, Calum Laming, in India to hear why the airline isn't resting on its Cannes Lions-acclaimed advertising to build its brand post-pandemic.

British Airways is all set to change

British Airways is changing its dress and much more

It is the quintessential British brand. But today British Airways has swapped Gatwick for Gurugram, on the outskirts of Delhi, to tell us where its marketing is headed next.

The airline’s first chief customer officer, Calum Laming, has touched down in the city as part of a delegation of top brass for the opening of its new global call center, CallBA. This is the coalface of customer service, where global travelers’ opinions of the brand will be formed by the treatment they receive. And it’s a long way from the glamor of Cannes Lions, from where the brand has just returned with a haul of advertising accolades, including the hotly coveted Outdoor Grand Prix.

For Laming, however, this is all part of the same story of a company making sure every part of its brand experience is being carefully considered. After all, what use is a great ad campaign if it’s let down by lousy customer service?

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How a Cannes winner took flight

With its new agency Uncommon, British Airways launched the now-Cannes-certified brand push ‘A British Original’ last year as a celebration of its people, its customers and its homeland. But getting the campaign off the ground was not straightforward.

London-based Uncommon started working on its first brief for the airline as the world was still grappling with what travel would look like in the aftermath of the pandemic. But as the UK threw off the shackles of the Omicron restrictions quicker than expected, Laming says some of the messaging prepared for a different context “just didn’t feel relevant”.

The brief was duly expanded to put the focus on the reasons why people travel. It had to be kept simple and center around an idea that could run through everything, Laming adds.

“The focus was on [brand building] because the industry globally had been in significant circumstances, including the UK.”

The campaign had to be respectful of the past but talk of modern Britain – and also have a point of view. “It had to be uniquely us and it had to feature our colleagues,” Laming adds, listing the criteria of the brief.

“We were very clear that it will be a brand campaign and not an advertising campaign as it’s much bigger than an ad.”

british airways a british original

It’s true that ‘ad’, singular, would not do justice to the body of work produced by Uncommon. As Laming explains: “There were 512 different creatives in the first round, making it the most expansive and spread-out campaign [BA] has done so far.”

Laming feels the Grand Prix victory is recognition for “great creative that was part of a much wider brand campaign”. And indeed, all touchpoints of the airline have been put under the microscope. “The food menu's part of it, the entertainment is part of it, the uniform is part of it and the safety video is part of it,” Laming says.

Laming is of the firm belief that everyone in customer and brand roles in the service industry has a role to play in how the brand is perceived. “You cannot deliver a brand or a customer experience without your experts, your colleagues,” he tells us. Menu changes on Indian flights came directly from the recommendations of crew, for instance.

Taking the British story global

For an airline that has serious global aspirations – it now operates more flights between London and India per week (56) than pre-pandemic, and has 2,000 staff in the country – the question must be asked: is there a danger basing its brand platform so squarely around British originality will alienate global customers?

Laming insists not. For one thing, he says, “Britain is so multicultural that everyone is represented as part of Britain”. But also, he believes travelers will seek out the brand because of its British values. “We are proudly a global brand that comes from the UK and flies our flag, we will never forget that,” he adds.

Laming arrived at BA this year after spells with rival carriers Air New Zealand, Etihad, Virgin and Vueling. He is the first occupant of the chief customer officer role at the company, but having wrote the thesis for his master’s course on airline customer experience back in 2011, he has long been readying himself for the task.

Ultimately, whether here in India, back in Britain or 30,000 feet in the air, Laming is ensuring it is marrying its tradition with modernity.

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When the Queen died last year, Laming’s team set about figuring out how to stream the monarch’s funeral in flight using airplane Wi-Fi. “And the team managed to pull it off in record time,” he says proudly. “Our customers expect that from us.”

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