Swiss International Air Lines is set to complete a re-branding exercise meant not only to emphasize its close association with Switzerland and the country’s core national values, but also to remove any lingering impressions of Swiss cliché associated with the branding of predecessor national carrier Swissair.
Begun in 2004, two years after Swiss International Air Lines was established in the wake of Swissair’s demise, the re-branding has been an exercise lasting more than seven years and involving a host of projects.
These have ranged from re-designing Swiss International Air Lines’ aircraft livery to refurbishing its six self-run premium-class lounges, and from revamping most of the cabins in its long-haul Airbus A340-300s to re-designing the carrier’s premium-class menus.
(Because Swiss International Air Lines – which likes to style itself ‘SWISS’ – has taken delivery of a new fleet of 11 Airbus A330-300 twinjets to replace an older fleet of A330-200s within the past two years, all of the new aircraft were delivered with the newly designed First Class, Business Class and Economy Class interiors already in place.)
Dr. Holger Hätty, a former Lufthansa Group board member who resigned his post to joint Lufthansa subsidiary Swiss International Air Lines as its chief commercial officer, was the primary architect of the re-branding. Hätty argues that, since past days when four out of the five CEOs of Lufthansa were engineers, “The industry has changed. Now it’s marketing that’s more important.”
In past times, says Hätty, most airlines based in Europe – including Swiss International Air Lines – were “in the middle of nowhere”, in terms of their brand and service-quality positioning. But when he joined Swiss International Air Lines, Hätty felt that instead of the carrier’s relatively small size being a disadvantage in competing against larger airlines, it could be a significant source of strength.
“The smaller you are, the closer you can be to the customer,” argues Hätty. In an industry where the service models of low-cost carriers and legacy network airlines were quickly converging, he reckoned Swiss International Air Lines had a couple of advantages which could help it to differentiate itself from the herd in a way which would resonate with customers.
First, as a non-EU market closely monitored by the Swiss government, Swiss International Air Lines’ major hub at Zurich Airport couldn’t be attacked by low-cost, short-haul carriers in the same way that, for instance, Hamburg and Stuttgart have been – with Lufthansa consequently finding itself under fare-price attacks in those markets.
The only real low-cost competition to Swiss International Air Lines at its Zurich hub is Air Berlin, which bought Swiss carrier Belair. In any case, Air Berlin itself now operates a hybrid service model which is not truly a low-cost, low-fare model; and Swiss International Air Lines has its own low-cost subsidiary, Edelweiss Air, which uses a fleet of A320s and two A330s to operate charter flights on both short- and long-haul routes.
Long-haul competition was a different matter for Swiss International Air Lines, where the competition (particularly from Middle East carriers) remains intense; but Hätty felt that if his airline had a strong enough brand identity, competing successfully against the likes of Emirates would be possible.
Second, Switzerland has always been fiercely independent and it was natural for the country’s new flag carrier Swiss International Air Lines to pursue a branding strategy emphasizing its own, and Switzerland’s, independent nature and unique characteristics. Parent Lufthansa gave its blessing for its Swiss subsidiary to begin branding itself independently from the other carriers in the Lufthansa Group.
Swiss International Air Lines’ brand-positioning statement was clear. “We are the airline of Switzerland, in terms of image the leading country in the world,” says Hätty. “We have the name and the cross,” duplicating the Swiss national flag bearing a white cross on a red background. Meanwhile, “The Swiss commitment to quality means we can deliver higher quality. And because we’re smaller, we can deliver higher quality.”
It is much harder to establish a reputation for quality and consistency with a service product than with a material product, because service products rely on a multitude of intangible human factors, both in the person serving and in the customer. But Hätty felt that Swiss International Air Lines could successfully establish a reputation for quality by sticking to a simple value system.
“It’s very simple – we are true to ourselves and we don’t pretend to be something we aren’t,” he says. “We do things properly or we don’t do them at all.”
By the very nature of the employees it hired, Swiss International Airlines believed it could make sure this philosophy adhered, in ways both large and small. Hätty reckons the airline’s focus on quality has become evident in a host of small ways.
For instance, pilots routinely say goodbye to departing passengers at the exit door of the aircraft; they aim to keep passengers well-informed about their flights, with in-flight announcements in four major languages; and flight attendants aim for charm and spontaneity (rather than Swissair’s stiff formality) with premium-class and economy-class passengers alike.
To reinforce its brand image, Swiss International Air Lines changed its television and print advertising campaigns to focus on the most important visual evidence of the airline’s identity – its aircraft. “Little boys and girls always want to be pilots, but airlines never show their aircraft in their advertising,” notes Hätty. “Our new campaign shows the aircraft.”