As Air New Zealand looks to revive its business on the back of the pandemic, David Nothling-Demmer asks what it takes to get a (re)brand strategy off the ground and flying high. The airline’s General Manager Brand & Marketing Jeremy O’Brien has the answers…
We fly for you’ – that’s the simple message behind Air New Zealand’s latest brand campaign which launched in May when the national carrier entered a new phase of quarantine-free regional travel. The brand ad firmly places the customer in the cockpit as the business takes flight with its reimagined strategy ‘Survive, revive and thrive’. Forced on the airline as a result of Covid-19, it’s a strategy that’s been almost a year in the making, and one that, according to General Manager Brand & Marketing Jeremy O’Brien, is being billed as much more than a tagline or ad campaign, going back to the core values of the brand as it looks to rebuild from the ground up.
Rewind 15 months and you can imagine the impact the pandemic had on the airline industry might have felt similar to the uncertain, queasy one you experience when a plane hits turbulence – but prolonged, for the better part of a year. Lockdowns around the globe resulting in severe travel restrictions have devastated the tourism industry and meant difficult but necessary industry-wide organisational restructures – and Air New Zealand has been no exception. Significant redundancies, market closures and plane groundings (a 95 percent reduction in travel) have caused the airline to return to ground zero and enter into a phase of organisational survival and rebuilding.
“It’s certainly been one of the most complex challenges I’ve experienced in my career, both personally and professionally,” says Jeremy. “Just as Covid-19 was becoming a thing, my family and I relocated to the US, where I was to head up Air New Zealand’s North America region. Within a few weeks of being there, I realised this was going to be quite big – and it was. To put in perspective the impact the pandemic has had on the business and myself as a manager, I had to take the team of 57 staff in that region down to five before repatriating my family.”
Returning to New Zealand and his current position in June, Jeremy says the devastation was felt across the business. As they were coming to terms with being a casualty of Covid, the reality of rebuilding was upon them. He says the first challenge was to get back in formation and rediscover the team mojo – what they were all about, who and what they represented.
“I think when you get a massive shock like that, it’s easy to forget the fundamentals of what got the brand and business to where it is today. This was the basis for rebuilding our brand strategy – rediscovering the purpose and promise of the Air New Zealand brand and reminding people of its core values – starting with our staff.”
He says at this point, it all started to come flooding back. “Yes, we do know who we are, we can get through this. Our purpose is to enrich our country by connecting New Zealanders to each other and New Zealand to the world. Our values are ‘Can do’, ‘Be yourself’, ‘Welcome as friend’ and ‘Share your Aotearoa’. Every Air New Zealander knows and understands the values and all New Air New Zealanders are exposed to our values playbook when they’re inducted into the business.”
Emerging from the initial ‘Survive’ stage – getting through the worst of the Covid storm – Jeremy says the first phase of the ‘Revive’ part of the strategy has involved rolling out a purpose and values refresh in-house ahead of a new external campaign platform, all centred around the customer. He refers to this as the backbone of the master-brand strategy.
“Having clarity within the business of our purpose, values and promise gives us the confidence that we can authentically deliver on our brand campaign platform – everything in the business is being orientated towards delivering to our customer.”
For obvious reasons, the pandemic caused the brand’s corporate reputation to take quite a knock, and as part of its strategy rebuild, renewed trust was going to be crucial. “We had to make hugely challenging decisions and tough choices in order to react quickly for the survival of the business. Inevitably, our corporate reputation took a hit, however this is where the years of consistent investment in the business, our people and the brand paid off.”
Jeremy says Air New Zealand has done a huge amount of work in terms of building trust into its broader business strategy. “We first undertook an extensive research programme with Kantar that involved testing a number of territories for our promise across nine different customer audiences and three staff audiences across five geographic locations. The outcome of this first round of research resulted in us selecting ‘People’ and ‘Service’ as the attributes of Air New Zealand that New Zealanders thought represented us at our best.
“We then sought insights from TRA on the New Zealand cultural codes and specifically how the mood of the nation had been impacted by Covid-19. This told us that culturally, New Zealanders were reflecting a global shift towards greater empathy and authenticity from brands – less brash and chest-beating, more real and relatable.”
The Air New Zealand promise is ‘Manaaki – taking care further than any other airline’, and Jeremy says this wording is quite deliberate. “It’s an all-encompassing kind of care born of our country’s culture, which makes it differentiated. No other airline anywhere in the world can aspire to deliver the kind of care that is manaaki – it’s uniquely New Zealand. And why ‘taking care further’? Because it’s an ongoing journey of customer obsession. Any airline can take care, but to take care further you need to be always looking for the next improvement, the next opportunity to do things a little, or a lot, better.”
As the business has stabilised and Air New Zealand has been proactively back in the market, both operationally and as a brand, its corporate reputation has steadily grown back to previous high points. In May, Colmar Brunton’s Corporate Reputation Index 2021 put Air New Zealand on top for the seventh year in a row. If anything, the brand’s strategy scores high on resilience.
“The fact that we maintained our leadership position [in terms of] corporate reputation, even at our lowest point, speaks volumes for the resilience that’s been built up for the brand,” says Jeremy. “We’re very conscious that we need to continue to work hard every day to maintain this position and every single Air New Zealander has huge passion to continue on our proud legacy.
“We recently did some more work with Kantar on the relationship between our corporate brand and our competitive brand power, and it showed that a third of the power of our competitive brand is derived from the strength of our corporate brand, so we know this investment will provide a long-term, sustainable pay-off in market share.”
With a strong domestic network and borders opening to Australia and the Cook Islands, Air New Zealand is continuing along the path of its ‘Revive’ strategy as it invests in the brand now to prepare for the future. It’s looking to external partners to help bring its strategy to life and convey its messaging to customers. Jeremy worked closely with several agency partners on the ‘We fly for you’ campaign. Shine led the creative strategy, dentsu led the media strategy, and Jamie Lawrence was brought on board to direct and, along with his company Eight, produce the campaign.
Jeremy says most New Zealanders have grown up with Air New Zealand, be it the first flight they ever took and the excitement associated with that, travelling to celebrate a big milestone, going on a memorable holiday, or the anticipation and nervousness of a business trip.
“Everyone’s got those memories of Air New Zealand and it becomes quite ingrained,” he says. “It’s this overarching story that has informed our mater-brand strategy and the resulting creative ‘We fly for you’. It’s a story of everyone having a reason for flying and that our reason, as Air New Zealand, is you.”
Efficiency of production and longevity were two key strategic objectives Air New Zealand sought from their agency partners as the brand developed the campaign platform. “Over 10 days, we shot 34 different scenes, and these became the base content for a range of pick-and-mix 90-, 60-, 30-, 15- and 6-second video pieces that can live across a wide range of media channels,” says Jeremy. “The beauty of this approach is we can change content in and out of our story to maintain freshness and relevance.”
As the business continues on the ‘Revive’ path and looks to remain relevant in the ‘Thrive’ phase, optimising the opportunities available from market recovery and delivering long-term success, Jeremy reflects on the marketing process thus far as being a great privilege. “The Air New Zealand brand has always been special to New Zealanders and I feel like I have an awesome responsibility to continue on the legacy of a number of great marketing professionals who’ve contributed so much to the brand over its history.”
Things are looking good from a business perspective as a result of the new strategy. “We’re already seeing positive green shoots of growth from the Australia and now Rarotonga borders opening, and with vaccination programmes starting to gain momentum globally, there’s certainly light at the end of the tunnel. Our challenge is to continue to track insights and customer behaviours to evolve our business and brand in a world living with Covid-19.”
This article was originally published in the June/July 2021 issue of NZ Marketing. Click here to subscribe.