No campaign can save British Airways from its budget future
Britain’s national carrier used to represent the pinnacle of air travel. Now, it is straining under the weight of history. It’s time its marketing acknowledges this, writes Harry Lang.
British Airways used to be the king of the flying world. There was a time when Britain’s national carrier could dub itself the ‘World’s Favourite Airline.’ Now, it’s lucky to be Slough’s Favourite Airline.
For decades, its advertising made you proud to be British. This self-deprecating sense of humor was best characterized in its 1999 campaign starring famed US witticist P.J. O’Rourke.
BA had the best planes, including Concorde, the best flight attendants and stewards, and handsome pilots who’d greet you as you step onto immaculately liveried planes. It also had the best takeoff slots and the least awkward gates.
It was the envy of the flying world. Emphasis on was.
Cruise forward a couple of decades, and the only way to truly characterize this most British of British institutions is ‘plus ça change.’ It’s nosedived into the very archetype of a low-cost carrier - effectively a long-haul budget airline, cost-cutting at every corner in a desperate effort to keep up with newer, fresher and more refined competitors. It’s hardly surprising that British Airways owner IAG’s shares fell sharply recently as investors feared a weak outlook despite record quarterly profits.
A raft of high-profile/high-cost celebrities still feature in BA’s safety videos as it recruits from every socio-economic group on its passenger manifest. It also bundles in the same people who designed its uniforms and menus - presumably in some kind of weird C list ‘buy one, get one free’ deal. Little Simz, Robert Peston, Steven Bartlett (the poor man’s Richard Branson), angry chef Tom Kerridge and Kaya Scodelario of Skins fame made the cut. Emma Raducanu, a BA Ambassador since 2020, also features (no surprise - there aren’t many brands left in the world she’s repping).
But the planes feel tired, the entertainment is very Channel 5 (I’m watching Expendables 4 as I write this), and the staff looks generally miffed (especially in my section). One reason for his displeasure might be their new, neck-itchingly uncomfortable non-binary uniforms, belatedly rolled out in October.
Then there’s the food… I’m looking at it now, thanks to a spare seat next to me acting as a repository for all the things I thought I needed on this flight but now don’t: a blanket, nicotine gum, an eye mask, my Kindle, and on the tray, a piece of chicken resembling an Iron Age shoe found preserved in a peat bog. There it is, neatly juxtaposed with three carrot sticks that have, I assume, been on the boil since the Cretaceous period; a knob of frozen butter, intractable from its foil bondage.; a piece of cheese only identified as such by the necessary ‘Cheese’ headline on the packaging; a yogurt so watery you could inject it intravenously; a water biscuit that could dehydrate Lake Baikal; and a cake of some description, morose and suffocating in its vacuum-sealed sarcophagus, a few token milliliters of jelly injected into its insides like a sugary embolism.
You get the idea. I wish it would just admit defeat and hand over a Pret sandwich with a reluctant nod at check-in.
While BA struggles on the product side, its brand overhaul in 2022 was universally lauded. Created by agency darlings du jour Uncommon Creative Studio, the ‘BRITISH ORIGINAL’ campaign launched 500 individual print, digital and outdoor executions alongside 32 short films. It won a wood pencil at the 2023 D&AD awards, one step up from the chocolate teapot it would have won had any of the judges had the misfortune to fly to Cannes on an actual BA flight. The BA brand has the veneer of David Cameron - long ago held in some esteem, it now crawls towards the limelight on its Savile Row-suited underbelly, praying its followers somehow forget its litany of prior errors.
Recently, British Airways chairman and CEO Sean Doyle was interviewed in The Times, giving his thoughts on building a career in aviation and the future of air travel. His advice was sound for those planning to enter the industry, including this nugget: “Get out into the business. Engage in conversations with colleagues in all areas and listen to what they have to say”.
I’d actively encourage Sean to take his own advice and live the Terminal Five experience a little more frequently, except next time, turn right into economy. Then he’ll get to taste food seemingly gestated in an airing cupboard for several weeks, bore himself to tears with movies that Rotten Tomatoes refuses to review and experience a dozen hours squeezed into a torturous seat.
It’s crap, basically - understandably crap.
British Airways is up against a new breed of global airline. The ‘Middle East Massive’ of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar all piss on BA from a significantly higher cruising altitude, leaving British Airways as effectively a budget alternative without the budget price tag. But these new upstart rivals have a significant edge British Airways will never enjoy - like profit. They don’t quibble on such things because their purpose is very different:- they just want to wave shiny, A380-sized flags in the general direction of the west, deposit millions of customers in the desert who otherwise wouldn’t ever consider Dubai as a holiday destination and distract attention away from some human rights abuses.
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By comparison, BA waved goodbye to its Premier League positioning a long while ago, with no hope of getting promoted any time soon. There’s a lesson for hallmark brands in here somewhere - something between Icarus and the Tortoise and the Hare.
British Airways should look in the mirror, accept its new, diminished social standing and drop its prices to reflect the fact that it’s just an airline with a good safety record and a bunch of heritage - but it’s no longer anyone’s favorite anything.