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Revive The Culture To Revive A Brand


Revive The Culture To Revive A Brand

At the turn of the 21st century, Scandinavia’s top advertising agencies were invited to pitch for the most prestigious advertising account in Scandinavia: Scandinavian Airline Systems (SAS). One of Europe’s oldest airlines, SAS is owned to a large extent by the governments of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The pitch took half a year and I was the Scandinavian Creative Director of the winning agency, leading three advertising teams in each of the three countries. However, when we met with the SAS representatives for a briefing on the adverting we expected to start soon, we received a shock. Between the airline and its customers lay a barrier of total distrust. The situation was so serious that if there been any good alternative for the customers, most of them would have left and chosen to go with someone else. As it was, despite the recent appearance of low-cost carriers, SAS held a virtual monopoly on most routes in 2000; there was no practical alternative.

In describing the situation, our new client informed us that it simply couldn’t do any advertising until it dealt with the customers’ complaints and improve the bad service experience. SAS believed that its customers would only react with anger if SAS began a new advertising campaign at that time.

We were an advertising team and as we returned despondently to the agency that afternoon, I remember thinking about only one thing: how to get around the advertising ban. How could we start changing the perception about the airline in the minds of their customers without advertising, and create a trust on which we could build a come-back, change the service and later create ads to support that process?

Why Culture Is The Answer

The key lay in breaking the pattern that everyone, both internally and externally, experienced with SAS. The company culture was perceived to be retiring. It had lost the charisma it had been known for under a previous CEO, Jan Carlzon, who successfully transformed SAS into ‘The Businessman’s Airline’ by promoting the status of business class. Despite the flatter social class structure in Scandinavia, this focus remained successful until deregulation and the emergence of new competitors began to water down the business class service model. In his book, he explains how he rebuilt the corporate culture to encourage taking decisions at lower levels, making the organization flatter, decentralized and more effective. It was a fantastic backdrop for a new change. The internal culture was already in place, ready to use for a second change program, this time making it even more inclusive.

My idea was to rewind this old clock, energize it and break it out of its patterns by involving everyone. Beginning internally at first, and then developing external involvement by bringing in the airline customers, we literally bring them on board to help to change the airline. This was the first time I really understood the power of inclusion, the power that comes when both staff and customer participate, working together and committing to success. We brought everyone on board, with no one left complaining on the ground.

I learned another important lesson at that time as well: when your customers are furious at you and complaining loudly about your bad service, you still have a chance for your business to survive. It’s when your customers are quiet and silently turn their backs on you that you should be terrified and close down your business as soon as you can to stop the money drain. When people complain, they are still interested in you and still hope to see you improve and break out of the crisis. While you still hold the interest of your customers, even if they are forced to be interested in you because they have no alternatives, they are still interested in helping you recover. In fact, they want you to use them as advisors. The want you listen to them and give them the chance to participate in whatever small capacity they can. It is important that your customers feel that they are important to you and that you respect them as customers. When they feel that, they begin to respect you and believe that you can change your business to become better for them.

So, since we had been told we could not advertise, I decided to carry out a major research project instead. My own teams thought I was crazy – we were an advertising agency, not a research agency – but nevertheless, we asked our client if we could bring in some management consultants to sweep through the entire organization and find out what ideas the internal staff had for service development and improvement.

Since all lasting change begins internally through building confidence within the people inside the organization, this proved to be a very successful idea. Our massive survey resulted in a catalogue of over 100 change projects covering everything from ticketless travel to new uniforms to new food on board to new lounges. It also included some obvious solutions like  modern aircraft and excellent timekeeping.

From this list, we chose 90 projects and recommended that our client ask their real frequent flyers what they thought about each of them. These 250,000 Gold Members were the people who truly kept the airline in the air. The rest of the 10 million passengers who filled the planes contributed only marginally to the business. Our client was reluctant at first. Understandably, they didn’t want to irritate their already complaining core customers further by asking them 90 questions, even if they only asked for answers on a scale of 1 to 5. Their frequent flyers were business people, important and busy people whose time was too valuable to waste on lengthy surveys. Or so SAS believed. Fortunately, we were able to convince them that it was a matter of perception. A survey of only 30 questions would not be perceived as serious. A survey of 90 questions clearly took time and effort to prepare and implied that we had already invested enough in it to really be interested in the answers.

SAS gave us the permission we needed and we had a 95 per cent answer rate. Almost all of the busy frequent business travelers wanted to participate in making a change. They expected a change in the service. They expected improvement and believed that SAS could do it, and this gave the airline a tremendous boost to its internal self-confidence and increased its ability to perform better.

When we were finally able to return to our work as an advertising agency, we began with advertising in smaller formats to test the waters. Despite our clients’ fears, no one responded in anger at all, even though most of the improvements had not yet been made. But every ad was functional. Each ad described the improvement of a new service or product, introducing each improvement one by one. The ads were equipped with a ‘meter-box’ that displayed how many of the experienced business travelers had voted for and highly evaluated this particular improvement in our survey.

What was even more amazing was that, in our follow-up interviews, customers told us they felt that they had really participated in bringing the airline back on track, flying straight and smooth again and successful. The recovery in general customer experience kicked in quicker than expected; after only half a year, big changes occurred in the attitudes of passengers. The final step in turning around the airline was the packaging of all the improvements by a good design firm. A fresh corporate identity was launched with new aircraft livery, new uniforms and a new lounge design. The re-design was developed under the brand idea ‘It’s Scandinavian’. The airline looked smarter, more modern, more Scandinavian and the staff stood tall and once again became ‘The Businessman’s Airline’ that had all but collapsed 10 years earlier, proud of themselves. And their customers were happy and back on board.

Company Culture Is Branding, And Inclusion Is The Name Of The Game

SAS was able to turn its failing customer service experience around by including both its staff and its customers in the repair project and making everyone feel special. By asking people, internally and externally, what they want and how they would improve your company, you show them the highest respect and they, in turn, will respect you.

For this reason, it is important that your company is well organized and not too bureaucratic. It’s important to hire good people who can produce results, people with a little independence who are not easy to lead and who are a little bit crazy. This personalization of the corporate culture, this emphasis on ‘culture’ and de-emphasis on ‘corporate’, is important in bringing out people’s capacity to motivate themselves and lead themselves.

Successful brand cultures start internally and spread externally to customers, partners and suppliers. Therefore, it is important that the leadership creates a culture of openness and positivity for the people working in a company.

Finally, inclusion by definition creates a cooperative culture in which staff and customers feel that they are working together for the benefit of all. We are social beings and we need companies to include a social context. Where we work defines who we are. And while the social context will always be a reason for people to work for larger organizations, they do have to understand and cultivate their own culture and their own self-confidence.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Thomas Gad, excerpted from his book Customer Experience Branding, with permission from Kogan Page publishing.

The Blake Project Can Help: Please email us for more about our purpose, mission, vision and values and brand culture workshops.

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

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