Positioning versus execution – why the BA ad is not shit

Image courtesy of Mike 926

I have just finished reading Creative Mischief by Dave Trott. I think its really rather good. He is a first rate storyteller with a no nonsense approach to business, brands and communication. He reminds us that we can get too obsessed with the new and newfangled and bypass common sense – you could read a load of stuff on neuroscience or simply remember that when selling its quite a good idea to create desire and give people permission to buy.

Anyway one of the chapters – they are actually more like blog posts and probably were – is about the way in creative awards juries everyone is so subjective about the work. You either love it or hate it and no reason need really be given why. Trott complains that this is hardly a professional way to respond to the output of the industry. Its fine for normal people to think stuff is great or shit but not practitioners. We need to have a more objective and measured approach to critiquing work.
Which brings me to the new BA campaign – to fly to serve – by BBH.

I literally can find no one on this good earth that has a kind word to say about this work. I suspect that it hasn’t been turkeyed by Campaign magazine only because that’s very much against protocol where BBH are concerned – it would be like swearing in front of the Queen. Everyone thinks this work is shit. Shit idea, shit production values, shit VO from the Mastercard bloke that used to be in This Life and shit music.
Well I think this response smacks just exactly of the lack of professionalism of which Mr Trott speaks. Because it’s not shit, this campaign is precisely what the brand needed. Don’t get me wrong, it would have been better if this work had been made with any sort of executional panache but that alone doesn’t make it he wrong thing to have done.
Putting the BA pilots on a pedestal and invoking the power of the motto ‘to fly to serve’ is exactly the right approach. This after all is a brand struggling to elevate itself above the competition (or maybe even approach their altitude) that has suffered from a gruesome industrial relations episode and is up against the likes of Virgin at the cheeky chappy end of things and Emirates on the ring-a-ding bling end of things.
You see if I was having a go at the BA problem I’d start with the idea that Britain is no longer proud of BA, that its broken that bond and needs to get it back. Starting a journey on the back of the pilots feels like a smart way to go about this – assuming that there are some real changes afoot at the airline.
Indeed at a push I might almost call the campaign a 4th Emergency service kind of approach to positioning the airline. Because making successful work is not just about the pretty pictures, shock horror, its also about the means by which people change their behaviour in a category and that’s not down to executional prowess.
All of which puts me in mind of a little trick that the ex-HHCL planner Dave O’Hanlon taught me. I know I have talked about this before but it remains very handy in these situations. When you come across work that you hate, imagine that someone then pipes up that it is working brilliantly and then work out why on earth this might be given you dislike it so much.
Now that’s the kind of professionalism that even Trotty might appreciate.

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11 Replies to “Positioning versus execution – why the BA ad is not shit”

  1. Richard thanks for the timely post. We have been talking at length about the BA ad at The Nursery, and most (myself included) quickly jumped all over the negatives. But then perhaps we are not the target audience, who are desperate in these uncertain times to know that some things never change. Back to the Future

  2. I wonder whether a large part of the target for this might not be internal. In his ridiculously-titled book “Obliquity” (he obviously was wanting low sales calling it that) http://tinyurl.com/3mazcnv the wonderful John Kay talks about how companies that aim at “shareholder value” – i.e. at profits directly – tend to underachieve (even in terms of shareholder value) those which aim at being great at doing or making something – in fact one example he cites is from the field of aviation – Boeing http://tinyurl.com/6j6r2tu (the story is just pages 21 and 22 on that link).
    So it may be that BA are trying to rally their troops to just be great at being an airline – flying & serving – in the sure belief that if they just do this then profits will follow (this being aiming at profits obliquely – hence his title, all of which is inspired by John Stuart Mill’s oblique principle)

  3. Nice thoughts. It’s always good to think of the bigger picture. After all it’s what we are supposed to do in our thinking, so we should do it in our critique.
    Sometimes it’s easy to get carried away hating something that is bad, but we should always remember who it is aimed at and why it may have got there.

  4. I must admit I think the strategy is bang on – BA have nothing if they don’t have pride. I’ve always felt a sense about BA even when they painted the French national flag on their tail fins. Trouble is, this is a ‘be it’ model not a ‘tell it’ one. these days its easier for brands to act and for those actions to speak louder than old school big brand ads.

  5. It’s beautiful but it seems to glorify the heritage in a sort of ‘here’s how great we used to be’ way
    My main problem is that it’s just not believable IMO. I’m not a huge fan of Virgin Atlantic’s ads, although I am a huge fan of their service. Their marketing positions them as the sexier, more fun & exciting option, and it’s believable because what the brand does matches what they say. Inflight entertainment has Nintendo as well as films. Ice cream after dinner when you watch a film. Little touches but it’s just a much more enjoyable experience to fly with Virgin. And that’s just economy, before you get onto the joys of Virgin Upper vs BA Club/First.
    I see the BA ads and I just think it’s pretty meaningless. When I fly BA I don’t notice any really perceptible differentiation between BA and the other non-budget carriers. It’s certainly way behind Virgin for long haul IMO.
    So I find myself feeling exasperation when I see the money spent behind the campaign as I’d rather BA focused on trying to understand how they could improve their service offering instead of trying to create smoke and mirrors with advertising.
    Admittedly I’m a strategist who’s much more interested in experience planning and service design than advertising. But it goes back to the classics of a brand truth. BA may very well have ‘To Fly, To Serve’ as the motto that everyone works towards, but I don’t see the proposition translate into the brand experience.

  6. As ever there’s a lot of talk about the brand. I’m really interested in the customer experience so would like to talk about my own. I have recently flown on BA and on one of their main competitors – Virgin Atlantic. Whilst there’s no way the two flights could be directly compared (Virgin: Longhaul to/ from USA. BA: Shorthaul to/ from Amsterdam.) some interesting things did surface.
    The Virgin staff I found helpful and up for a little bit of friendly banter. That’s nice. They act in a way that seemingly transcends the brand/ customer relationship. It’s like they’re there with you as one of the group. They’re there to help you, but in a friendly way. The BA staff again were helpful but, for me, very ‘British’ – officious, efficient and briefed to carry out actions. They very much acted in a way To Serve – which suits their positioning. But I’d argue
    they are too concentrated on serving instead of actually listening and engaging. An example was a lady on my Amsterdam flight that wanted to
    visit the loo. The BA stewardess essentially said no to her and told her to wait as the steward needed to finish giving out her rolls and coffee. Her action of serving was deemed more important than actually putting the customer first. Typical British trait: carry out your orders so you can’t be criticised, even if it means putting your customers nose out of joint a little. But like I say, a 40 minute flight has very different pressures than a 9 hour transatlantic flight.
    When disembarking the plane I actually chatted to the pilot and one of the steward staff and asked them what they thought about the ‘To Fly. To Serve.’ campaign. They had a little wry smile and said they understood why it needed to happen but their feelings were mixed. I got the impression it was the kind of thing people would ask them at
    As touched on above, to me the job of this campaign goes well beyond the TV spot to change Joe Bloggs’ perception. For me this is a powerful rallying call internally. Trying to pull people together and motivate them after large scale industrial action. The biggest challenge BA have no is living up to it as I personally don’t believe their staff are any better than any other staff on airplanes. And to prove it, I acted a little like an arse on the flight back from
    Amsterdam. We were given a Deli Pack with some nibbles in it but I asked the stewardess for a beer. The in flight magazine said I could
    have complimentary drinks so I asked. She said no. I questioned her and told her I’d recently seen the TV ad and thought they were there
    to serve my needs. She gave a stock response: “We don’t serve drinks on this flight.” Sticking to the rules. Sticking to the scripts. No ifs, no buts. Very British indeed.
    The biggest question for me which proves the standing of BAs cabin crew would be if Virgin opened up a short haul airline that serve the
    UK and Europe. How many of us would fly Virgin instead? Surely that would be the biggest proof?

  7. I thinking that the long and short of this that the success of this campaign is down to BA and whether this is advertising in lieu of product performance or advertising to celebrate the improvement in the performance of the product. The former is understandable but indefensible.

  8. I am more concerned about the semiotic significance of the use of the moustache throughout the film – try counting them. Seriously.
    Although not partial to unnecessary facial hair I rather like the thought of the stewardesses donning a fabulous array of different styles from around the globe – from the Zapata to the Walrus. I would definitely fly with them – and so would you I would wager. Just a thought…

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