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The brand as a seamless, holistic journey

Sometimes a seat is just a seat. Yes, it needs to be well-designed and reconcile that impossible tension between passenger comfort and operator revenue that we wrestle with in this industry. Hopefully the seat is lightweight so it lowers per-seat fuel costs, while offering premium comfort at the same time. It should also be easy-to-clean, durable, ergonomic, and integrated with the airplane’s cutting-edge IFE system. Basically, it should be dripping with designfullness. But unless that seat is exclusive to a single operator, here’s what that seat is probably not: a brand touch point.


In aircraft interiors right now, there’s a lot of bandying about of words like 'seamless' and 'holistic' and 'journey'. I don’t have any objections to the ideas these words represent – after all, the best design does inspire cohesive experiences, consider the whole instead of just the parts, and create meaning within the task of moving between A and B. But these are just attributes of a designed experience. They are not at the centre of a brand. As a brand strategist, my chief complaint about all these holistic seamless journeys is that they are really all about details. And details are never at the centre of a successful brand. That’s because the human brain actually struggles quite a bit with details. Brain science demonstrates that our minds are really proficient at recognising exaggerated characteristics, and practically inept at recognising details. It’s why police sketches of crime suspects almost never work (see the FBI’s sketch of Unabomber suspect Ted Kaczynski), while political cartoons and even boardwalk-drawn caricatures are instantly recognisable. Police sketches ask you to see a whole from a bunch of very specific details, and that doesn’t work. Caricatures call attention to a single, exaggerated characteristic – like Mick Jagger’s large lips or a friend’s distinctive nose – so you can recognise the whole. And that does work. Because that’s the way our brains are wired.


Consider the human brain’s preference for big, exaggerated characteristics within the context of a one of those seamless holistic journey cabins. Yes, these cabins look fantastic – when they’re empty. But how does that interior hold up when you cram nearly 200 travellers into it? Does that seamless holistic journey stand out in this chaotic, detail-heavy scene of humanity and luggage and drink carts? The answer is, of course, no. It doesn’t hold up. All those details become practically invisible. The whole isn’t anything recognisable from a brand standpoint; it’s just a cabin filled with passengers. So while the empty cabin looks great in a magazine case study, the passenger never sees it like that. Sure, a fantastically designed cabin built on details is better than a not-so-well-designed cabin. But that’s it. It does almost nothing for an operator’s brand.


That these seamless holistic journeys are not effective brand touch points is a huge mistake. For operators, a compelling and effective brand helps resist commoditisation – a.k.a. charge a premium price, and if there was ever an industry in the history of industries that needed a reason to charge a premium, it’s the modern airline industry. A strong brand also communicates that the business is, at its core, different, and that difference is immediately evident.


This is precisely what happens within another set of highly competitive physical spaces: retail. Visit a shopping mall almost anywhere and, minus the retailers themselves, the spaces are remarkably similar. Parking lots. Food courts. Escalators. Potted plants. Easy-to-clean floors. The mall platform is consistent and unremarkable; rectangular volumes for lease. But then the retailers make these standard spaces entirely their own, and it’s definitely not through details! Lego’s hands-on bins bursting with colour (pictured above). Apple’s shiny whiteness. Lush’s chalkboards and handmade aesthetic. Urban Outfitters' constantly evolving hipster flea market. Brooks Brothers' throwback, preppy charm. If you were blindfolded and led into any of these successful retailer’s unique spaces, you’d know where you were within seconds of the blindfold’s removal. No seamless holistic journeys here. Retailers thrive on big design presences borne of in-your-face characteristics. Retail is so intensely competitive that retailers know that they have to differentiate their physical spaces through big, exaggerated characteristics – again, what the human brain wants – or they’ll fail. It’s engrained in their organisational DNA that differentiation isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have.


Airlines should’ve started thinking of themselves as retailers at 30,000 feet a long time ago. Some of them, of course, have done exactly that and are more successful for it. Compare the brands of Emirates, Virgin, and airBaltic through the lens of their respective bold characteristics. Emirates’ modern take on luxury, Virgin’s clubby sexiness, and airBaltic’s lime-on-everything playfulness. These brands couldn’t be more different from one another – and that’s the point! What they share in common is a brand-driven design presence that doesn’t require its customers to notice the details to “get” the brand.


So why do so many other operators not get it? Why are just a few airlines thinking like Lego and Lush and Apple, while all the rest are thinking like JC Penney and Sears? The answer is so straightforward that it’s painful. The real reason airline brands are so long on details and so short on bold brand presences is people. This isn’t a design problem; it’s a people problem.


Never mind that the typical operator will fly the same interior for more than a decade (try selling that idea to retailers!) Instead, sympathise that the typical operator has to involve a kazillion different internal stakeholders – spanning marketing and operations and finance – each with a kazillion different opinions on what kind of design works for them. Unsurprisingly, they often disagree. The marketers want pop and zing, but disagree among themselves on what that means. The operations folks want stain-masking patterns and for everything to be easy-to-clean. The finance guys want cheap and easy-to-replace. The result? Lots of blues and greys and benign-ness. This is design that doesn’t offend, but doesn’t inspire either. It’s not differentiation, it’s the long road to the middle, flying at 600 miles per hour. That’s why all these seamless holistic journeys work so well within this complicated landscape of internal stakeholders; with so many details, there’s something to please everyone, and with no big, exaggerated characteristics, there’s nothing to offend anyone. This is, unsurprisingly, why the strongest airline brands in the world are run or founded by charismatic leaders like AirAsia’s Tony Fernandes, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and Southwest’s Herb Kelleher. Bold thinkers architect boldness. Committees architect beige.


So what does this all mean? First, let’s let go of this notion that these seamless holistic journeys do anything for airline brands. They don’t, because brands are borne of big, exaggerated characteristics – not details. We have to be bolder in the interiors we design if we want them to be compelling and differentiating brand touch points. Second, designing these boldly branded interiors will require more than bold brand design by itself. In fact, it will take convincing entire organisations that, just like in retail, differentiation is now an absolute imperative. Fancy talk about how all the pieces fit together (seamless, holistic), and a fancier word about travelling between A and B (journey) simply won’t cut it.


3 February 2013


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