Based in a country famed for precise timepieces, Swiss International Airlines (Swiss) showed that same attention to detail when it refined its brand. As insurers build strategies to stand out based on customer-centricity, the brand work at Switzerland’s flagship carrier offers invaluable lessons.
Switzerland is legendary for product quality – from chocolates to watches – but that trait had become tarnished at Swiss, which, like other legacy airlines, operated in a tumultuous industry after the grounding of SWISSAIR 10 years ago. While Swiss began proudly trumpeting its “Welcome to civilized aviation” slogan, tough economic conditions lead to cost cutting, headcount reductions and the temporary launch of buy onboard service in 2004.
Following restructuring efforts, and Swiss’ acquisition by Lufthansa German Airlines in 2005, the airline returned to profitability and executives decided to focus the brand to reflect its renewed position.
“Rather than make a dramatic 180 percent change, we decided to sharpen our brand and re-focus on what we really stand for,” recalls Markus Binkert, Chief Commercial Officer, who oversaw the brand project in 2010 as Head of Marketing.
Markus asserts that the branding program was not simply about plastering a new logo on jet tailfins: “That task came absolutely last, after our team clearly defined how we could be credibly different from our competitors. We started with ‘What are we?’ ‘How do we describe it clearly?’ and ‘How can we drive this in a service industry?’”
He adds that Swiss did not simply emulate the customer-driven strategies of other carriers, even though research showed a correlation between customer service and profitability: “You can’t just copy a customer philosophy from the competition, since it must be credible and deliverable.”
Instead, the marketing team focused on the personality of the Swiss nation itself, known for quality of service, trustworthiness and its small size. “We recognized that, with a small market, we’ll never be a massive airline. Rather, our smallness lets us distinguish ourselves, with an easy-to-connect hub in Zurich, and the personal care we can deliver to our guests,” enthuses Markus.
The Swiss branding team knew that success depended on consistent execution at many touch points, especially among flight crews who were hard to reach in person for training purposes. They drafted a Values System to clearly express what the brand stood for in concise language. Stating, “Our sign is a promise,” emotional phrases describe how, “We look after the small things,” “We do things right,” and “We promise to remain true to ourselves, as the airline of Switzerland.”
Although Swiss held an intensive brand kick-off day, accompanied by an employee video and mountains of leaflets, the most crucial launch technique, according to Markus, was face-to-face meetings with employees, including pilots and cabin pursers, over the coming months to explain the whole brand story.
“We realized that you need the right resources – financial, human and time – to bring employees onboard and keep momentum going,” recounts Markus, adding that top down support of the brand from the Board and CEO are critical. “When a thunder storm hits, you can’t suddenly abandon your brand for safer, old tactics.”
But the biggest lesson goes back to the traits of the precision-minded Swiss watchmaker. Markus explains, “The key to doing it right is to carefully build an overall concept that really is consistent and think your whole story through. Then, be clear in how you differentiate yourself and what you are doing.”
“Like the airline industry, the insurance sector must address consumer skepticism about service, pricing and value,” observes Marc Goessi, Partner, KPMG in Switzerland. “But there is one important additional factor. When consumers buy airline tickets they know where they want to go, when and what class of service they are prepared to pay for. When consumers buy insurance they may have very little understanding of what they are buying and whether it will meet their needs.”
Marc adds that, “For insurers, an important take-away is to build a brand that reflects your current strengths or that makes credible promises. We noted in our Valued Insurer report that top brands focus on the customer experience, their emotional needs and helping solve their problems rather than the traditional product-driven approach often seen among insurers.”
Today, as Swiss International Airlines maintains a comfortable cruising altitude – by precisely defining its brand and executing flawlessly – it provides important clues to any firm that wants to beat turbulent skies and ascend with its customers.