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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

The awesome power of brands

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 18.59.17Volumes have been written about the emotional power of brands but brands connected with national identity can often go deeper, insinuating themselves, almost, into our very DNA. These brands can become powerful symbols and signifiers across the full spectrum of our humanity, connecting us to special times, places and people.

For many Irish the sight of KerryGold butter in a German supermarket, for example, conjures all sorts of images of heavily buttered potatoes served with Sunday roasts or of freshly baked scones with the butter melting into them. But for me one of the most potent Irish brands has always been Aer Lingus.

My favourite national brand: Aer Lingus

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 18.54.47Over the past 20 years as a meetings and events professional I’ve been privileged to visit all 5 continents and become acquainted with the rich and diverse cultural mosaic that makes up our global family. I’ve been from Argentina to Zimbabwe, and back from Zambia to Austria but, despite the marvels and magic of travel and destinations, I’ve also known the loneliness of corporate life on the road and experienced that deep yearning for my own bed, my own fireside, my own loved ones.

For me, even free WiFi is not as uplifting at an airport on foreign soil as the sight of the Aer Lingus tailfin parked at the gate from which I’ll start my journey home. And when I board, the genuine warm and chatty welcome you get from the crew – most of the time. Aer Lingus has always played a key role in my journey home and for this reason I was delighted to attend an event this week that showcased a buoyant national airline with a well-articulated strategy and a new appetite for investment.

Aer Lingus launches new business class product

The launch event took place at The Royal Hospital Kilmainham, one of Dublin’s most elegant public buildings dating from the late 1600s. The airline was launching its new business class cabin, a premium product, relevant to a relatively small percentage of its customers but hugely significant in relation to the positioning of the airline as a flagship transatlantic carrier and, of course, in relation to revenue. No expense was spared in the creation of a contemporary, customized space that took you on a 3 step product journey.

Aer Lingus has managed to weather the significant turbulence caused by an aggressive Ryanair and 7 years of recession in the Irish economy. In that time it has slimmed down a lot without losing its cuddly love handles. Its new cost base allowed the airline to create a premium cabin transatlantic product up to 30% cheaper than the competition. Likewise its extensive European network, and the US Customs and Border Protection pre-clearance in Dublin, facilitated major growth in through traffic to the US over the city, bringing Ireland’s capital into the top 10 European hubs for west bound flights (Dublin is currently seventh). This positions Aer Lingus as a major corporate player across the Atlantic and certainly merited the significant investment in an all new business cabin configuration.

How does it look and feel?

So what does the new product offer? Primarily it gives you a pretty good seat that allows you to work, eat, relax and sleep. Dimensions are generous and storage is particularly good but the crowning glory is the full lie-flat bed which, unless you’re a pathological insomniac, pretty much guarantees you a decent sleep. There will also be new dedicated check-in areas for Business Class, Fast Track through security both in Dublin and the US and a new arrivals lounge in Dublin, complete with showers. The product is also designed and manufactured on the island of Ireland with the seats coming from Thompson Aero in Portadown and the soft fabrics from Botany Weaving in Dublin.

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 18.50.55Mike Rutter (Chief Revenue Officer) and Declan Kearney (Director of Communications) performed a credible two hand reel in presenting the new product, taking us systematically through Aer Lingus’s corporate strategy and how this excellent new product fits into the big picture. I felt that frisson of pride as they outlined the airline’s commitment to job creation in Ireland, its careful selection of local suppliers and, essentially, how it understands that for many Irish people – me included – Aer Lingus is more than just an entity in the aviation business but part of who we are as a nation. When they used the term “unique differentiator”, however, I started to wonder.

Unique Differentiator?

The new business class product is not unique in that many of its elements have been available through other carriers for some years now. Irish corporates who travel east, for example, will have experienced a truly superlative business class experience on Etihad including home collection by limo, a truly upscale departures lounge and lie-flat seats with 100% aisle access (6 of the 30 business seats on Aer Lingus do not have aisle access). Price-wise Etihad has also been excellent (it helps when you own oil fields!) On the Atlantic route the US carriers have not consistently rolled out the flagship service (and flat beds) that exists on the London routes but we can be sure it’s on its way.

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 18.51.21My point is that “unique differentiation” is not really achieved by ticking the 5 P’s of marketing. Rather it’s achieved in and through truly memorable service experiences and, what Simon Anholt (in Places, his excellent publication on destination marketing) calls “symbolic actions”. These are actions that are especially “suggestive, remarkable, memorable, picturesque, newsworthy, topical, poetic, touching, surprising or dramatic” (Places p13). I’m pretty certain Aer Lingus will deliver truly memorable service in its Business Class Cabin. Intuitive, warm service is part of its DNA and I think we can rely on it being an integral element in the delivery of business class experience. But what about symbolic actions? At the event this week there weren’t really any. We were treated to a very impressive launch with great food and beverage and a fanfare reveal of the new product, complete with revolving stage and an appropriately loud soundtrack. The product looked to be at least as good as any existing business class product on the transatlantic route but what made it different?

Disruptive Quirkiness

I tweeted yesterday that I was seeking, but not finding, “disruptive quirkiness” – my version of “symbolic actions”. I suggested, half seriously, whole in earnest, that there should be teddy bears. I and my SoolNua colleague Patrick Delaney would be delighted to meet with Aer Lingus at their convenience to share how we think they could transform business class travel with teddy bears. We should know. We did it already in an award winning campaign for our former company Ovation.

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Pádraic Gilligan and Patrick Delaney run SoolNua, a digital marketing agency working with destinations, hotels and other tourism enterprises on the strategy for Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Events




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