Margaret Thatcher vs British Airways: a tale of tailfin trauma

The final instalment of our Margaret Thatcher trilogy focuses on brand.

Every brand is owned by its customers. This makes life hard for brand managers, but the challenge is most difficult of all for organisations that are national symbols and which carry national pride – especially if they can’t survive only from domestic demand.

An international airline, by definition, plays in a global market. Its brand is made up of a number of attributes and one of those is the reputation and attractiveness of its home nation. In the late 1990s (around the time of Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia) British Airways’ marketers came to the conclusion that their airline represented the stuffier traits of the UK. At the time, BA was expanding aggressively. It was, so it told us, the world’s favourite airline. But the UK is a relatively small country, so BA needed non-British customers. The airline decided it needed to show itself as cosmopolitan, sophisticated and relaxed. The revised corporate identity, with its mix of tailfin designs, was intended to cleverly change perceptions.

Now we know with the benefit of hindsight that the strategy failed. It might have worked if the first sets of fins had been the nine British designs (such as the Chatham Dockyard flag or the Chelsea Rose), to get people away from the idea that the fins need to be some kind of version of the national flag (not that the previous versions had been particularly flag-like). It might have been successful if it hadn’t been accompanied by strikes and cost-cutting, together with a downturn in Asian economies. But the tipping point against the identity is popularly believed to have taken place when Margaret Thatcher covered up the fin of a model aeroplane at the 1997 Conservative Conference, and declared:

We fly the British flag, not these awful things.

Thatcher had, of course, privatised BA ten years previously, at which point BA might reasonably have felt that her role in their corporate identity planning was somewhat reduced. Schoolboy error. For what was being talked about was not, in her mind, the marketing of a private transport company, the ins and outs of which she rightly knew nothing, but the presentation of Britain itself. (Heaven knows what she made of the London 2012 opening ceremony.)

When it came to defining ‘Britain’, a retired Margaret Thatcher’s knee-jerk reaction counted for more than the thought-through analysis from BA, their senior team and the Newell and Sorrell agency. To an extent it’s a cautionary tale to anyone who has elements of their brand that are external to the organisation itself. But I also wonder whether BA were a little unlucky to be handbagged by the former PM. When the former chemist from Grantham squared up to big business, there was only ever going to be one winner in the battle of the brands.

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