Every year the Brand Directory, BrandZ, Forbes, Interbrand and other institutions rank the value or ‘belovedness’ of brands, presenting and analysing the performance of the top 100 or even the top 500 brands worldwide.
And while Apple, Microsoft, Google, Coca Cola and IBM consistently hold the top rankings, it is interesting to observe that aviation hardly makes it to the top 500, with the exception of the leading aerospace and defense contractors, the two prominent aircraft manufacturers and eight airlines.
Whereas airports catered in 2013 for more than six billion passengers, there is no airport brand featuring in these rankings.
Before investigating the absence of airports in the top brands list, it is worth defining what a ‘brand’ means. The initial definition of ‘brand’ was the name given to a product or a service, therefore initially, a ‘brand’ would be similar to the current meaning of the word ‘trademark’.
During the 1970s, marketers began to understand that there was more to the perception of distinctive products and services than their names.
They realised that they could create a particular perception in the customers’ minds regarding the qualities and attributes of each product or service, and they called this perception ‘the brand’.
In other words, ‘the brand’ is how the customer or the public perceives the brand offering – both factually and emotionally. And, therefore, while the ‘brand name’ exists objectively and people can see it, the ‘brand’ exists only in someone’s mind.
This distinction between the brand name and the brand is easily demonstrated in the airport industry when passengers refer to specific airports.
For example, airports like Heathrow, JFK, O’Hare, Frankfurt, Atlanta or Tokyo Narita relate mostly to the location, therefore they are perceived as simply brand names.
On the other hand, Singapore, Amsterdam, Munich, Dubai or Hong Kong are perceived as more than just a location, having distinctive passenger experience boosting attributes such as being caring, customer-centric, easy-to-connect, good shopping and a clean and clear logo, making them true brands.
Going back to the absence of airport brands on the top 500 list, it is mostly because only over the last 15 years marketing and branding have evolved into a key strategic instrument for certain airports around the world.
Contrary to other industries – such as fast moving consumer goods (FMCGs), telecoms, banking, car manufacturers or even airlines -– airports have been slow in understanding the role and importance of marketing and brand building in their overall strategies. Consequently, very few airports have built their products and services around a well defined brand.
This is partly down to the fact that the airports have only really transformed into private or self-financed businesses with commercial goals in the last 20 to 30 years, so perhaps it is little wonder that they are lagging behind others in terms of brand awareness, even though they hold such large customer bases.
But why should airports build their brand? Increasingly, we see consumers holding brands to higher standards. Reputation has never been more important as customers expect brands to operate in accordance with higher ideals and greater responsibility.
The best brands understand and appreciate more than just what people ‘buy’ or ‘use’. Instead, they seek to understand and deliver what people ‘buy into’. So, aligning an airport’s brand values with those of its passengers isn’t just about doing good; it’s about good business.
And, since there is a significant trend for airport marketing to shift from a B2B to a B2C focus, brand building becomes of real essence.
Therefore, developing a higher brand value, relative to other airport brands, should be a result from an airport’s ability to appeal to passengers with a particular balance of being ‘meaningful’ (meet expectations and generate affection), ‘different’ (unique in a positive way) and ‘salient’ (the brand of choice).
The key characteristics of successful brands include:
In the case of airports this does not relate so much to the prices as such, but to the value of the products and services offered during the passenger’s stay at the airport. Dubai and Amsterdam Schiphol are good examples where passengers perceive the shopping experience at these airports to be of great value.
It is essential for an airport brand to remain relevant to the passenger experience. Singapore Changi continuously builds its brand around delivering the best passenger experience, using branding in all its aspects of operation and marketing, and therefore consistently ranking for the past 30 years in the top positions of passenger perception as one of the best airports in the world.
While technology is usually associated with operational efficiency at airports, it is becoming more relevant and very useful for brand building. Wi-Fi at airports, for example, in combination with social media are transforming the interaction with the passenger, making it direct and immediate, allowing the airport in many cases to have more effective communication versus customer agents on information counters.
No airport can afford to be out of touch nowadays; being social and available 24/7, is one of the best ways to build its brand. And actually, it is an oxymoron that technology becomes the means for a more human and informal communication with the customer.
Heathrow, Dublin, Los Angeles and Gatwick are among the most successful airports in using social media to reach to their passengers.
While an intangible concept, having a good reputation can benefit an airport in a multitude of ways including consumer preference; support for an organisation in times of crisis or controversy; and, the future value of an organisation in the marketplace.
Brand strength, what you stand for, is a valuable component of a good reputation.
By achieving ‘neutrality’ – the highest ranking – in ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation programme, Swedavia clearly demonstrates its environmental responsibility as a company. And this underpins a good reputation.
Customers will stay loyal to brands that meet their needs; even more if they see them as ahead of the game in setting trends.
While airport loyalty is difficult to define, since the main reasons for using an airport is not usually the airport per say, in the case of airports competing for the same catchment area, being a ‘meaningfully different’ brand can provide an advantage.
The location, nature and passenger base of London City Airport are the elements that have allowed its marketing strategy to successfully build a ‘meaningfully different’ brand.
A distinctive brand character is more likely to generate customer passion and create brand advocates. A brand personality is something to which the customer can relate, and understanding a brand personality enables the brand owner to deliver a consistent brand experience that connects with customers and leaves a deeper and more sustainable impression.
In the case of airports, Singapore Changi and Munich have developed strong brand personalities that extend beyond the passenger base to the greater local and international public.
Singapore’s personality includes traits such as enjoyable, efficient, trustworthy, innovative and customer focused.
Munich has a brand personality that reflects assertiveness, efficiency, sophistication, corporate responsibility, and sociability.
Globally local or locally global
Airports are gateways of globalisation serving on a daily basis a mosaic of travellers. Whereas every airport has a different passenger profile, all passengers expect that their specific needs be met.
It is therefore necessary for an airport brand to combine the aspirations of its international clientele with the local characteristics that can differentiate it from the other airports.
Copenhagen, Zurich and Hong Kong airports are good examples of airports that deliver truly international brands with local touches.
A great branded experience
A brand is only as good as its last experience. Recommendation and word-of-mouth are powerful forces that can make or break a brand even faster in this connected world.
Once again Singapore Changi has built its reputation, based on its innovation and customer focus on delivering an unforgettable ‘Changi experience’, therefore providing a great customer experience.
Building a brand is a difficult task that requires commitment by airport management, a carefully planned brand strategy that can combine the above elements, an effective implementation plan and time to see the results. But primarily, airports have to consciously take the role of managing the whole passenger experience at the airport, enriching it with its key brand values.
As airports turn their focus on consumers, brands that make them stand out from the crowd will help them increase their non-aeronautical revenues, build loyalty, add value to the airport-company, and, hopefully, see them on the top 500 global brand ranking.