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How Air NZ built an aviation brand consumers love

How did Air NZ become the best in the world? The little airline that could: deconstructing Air NZ's branding success

A tiny country at the bottom of the world (depending on which way you look at it) has shown the aviation industry for the second time in three years that its airline is the best flying the skies.

In fact Air New Zealand has won more Air Transport World Airline of the Year awards in the last decade than any other airline.

So how did a small Kiwi airline become the best in the world?

By implementing a plan that focused on three core strategies:

People and the employee brand

Air New Zealand’s previous thinking was that its most valuable assets were planes; however, a huge mind-shift has resulted in the airline recognising the value of people,,i.e. both the external and internal customer.

According to chief executive Rob Fyfe: “The airline industry is volatile and we believe the agility of our people to adapt and adjust our business to changing customer expectations, new competitors and uncertain economic conditions has enabled Air New Zealand to outperform most of our peers both financially and in terms of the genuine service we deliver.”

All this makes perfect sense considering the results of a survey conducted by American Express in 2011.

Its Global Customer Service Barometer found that businesses are failing to satisfy their customers and in an economic climate where consumers have less disposable income but more purchasing power than ever, it’s time for brands to realise there’s gold in them customer relationships.

In a classic cart before the horse scenario, a brand can’t deliver a fantastic customer experience if staff are not fully engaged and happy in their jobs.

It's a job for the internal brand team and it seems Air New Zealand has been working over time to understand employees, and making connections between personal values and behaviours and brand delivery expectations. It appears Air New Zealand has bought 100 percent into the old truism; if employees are engaged and happy, so too are customers.

Industry innovation

In between juggling hefty capital investments, fluctuating fuel costs and debt loads, aviation industry margins are damn tight. Hell even, investment genius Warren Buffett thought airlines were a bad bet – “how do you become a millionaire? Make a billion dollars and then buy an airline.”

Innovation in any industry plays a major part in any successful brand strategy as it helps to make the business flexible, create a point of difference and reduce operational costs.

With that in mind, Air New Zealand decided it was better to innovate than die, and tackled two of the biggest pains in the backside when it came to flying:

1. Check-in: by introducing new self check-in kiosks and gate scanners the check-in process has been cut from 10-15 to 1-3 minutes.

2. Uncomfortable seats: many airlines have made incremental changes to premium cabins over the years, but in doing so have neglected economy class. The award-winning Skycouch bridges the gap between providing a ‘lie-down’ experience without the cost of upgrading to premium class.

Delivering the Kiwi experience

You have a fantastic product, you have a receptive market, but you also have competitors that have the same planes, fly the same routes and have pretty similar price points. How do you ensure your product is preferred to that of the competitors? Hint: the answer lies within.

Being able to deliver a 360-degree Kiwi brand experience nobody else could – whether flying high or in the call centre – was crucial to delivering an ownable point of difference. Which brings us back to people: without buy-in from staff, this would simply not be possible.

It’s easy to be complacent when you’re sitting at the top of the world. But that's when businesses are most easily knocked off their perch.

So where are the gaps and what should Air New Zealand be doing next?

It must continue to invest in recruiting and retaining staff – in itself an expensive exercise. By all accounts Air New Zealand receives more than 50,000 job applications every year. But how many of these applicants are top of their field? Do they need to be more strategic in order to attract the best in class? That could include:

• continuing to develop the employee brand with a focus on using social media
• updating its careers website
• redirecting resources to actively pursue candidates
• developing a hyper-targeted smart campaign that separates the good from the very good

And while it has a global presence, is the brand and core proposition as robust offshore as it is in New Zealand? Is there a need to differentiate an international strategy from the local one? All questions to ponder going forward.

Kaleb Francis is brand strategist at Marque Creative