A daily bulletin of news & opinion

20 May 2013

Every saga needs a hero. Through the ups and the downs, a hero often makes a story human and relatable. Storytellers use this device and news outlets often misuse it to sell us a feature. So, given the cultural emphasis placed on a character that we can rally behind and sympathise with, there’s no mystery in the idea that a company might portray its very own sort of hero to sell a brand.

As I boarded a flight last week, I grabbed a current newspaper. Seated, half-focused on the print articles, my mind drifted to the things around me that were deliberately put there to enhance my flight experience. Was it the smell, the seat, the way the crew served pre-flight drinks? How was I made to care about this particular airline? The experience was well executed and a clear play for a more demure and refined experience.

A different approach for creating a brand’s identity happened to be in one of the articles in front of me. In a photo, Sir Richard Branson was donning a red skirt, heels and red lipstick. While the colour might be symbolic for the tycoon whose airline brands often find themselves in the red – logo and bottom-line wise – this time it was simply because he had lost a bet.

The Virgin megabrand founder was making good on a wager with AirAsia X CEO, Tony Fernandes. As the loser, Branson simply said he’d cross-dress and work as an AirAsia X stewardess on a charity fundraising flight from Perth to Kuala Lumpur.

Now, I know you’re wondering why this matters. What does a cross-dressing knight have to do with an airline’s brand and why is it important? Why is Sir Richard drumming up press for another airline?

Truth is, the move is brilliant in an airline world where most brands feel the same. Airlines are fighting to stay alive – stripping their offers of the most basic services and perks – they really only have one way to differentiate: Make noise. And, what better way than touting a hero in red heels and lipstick?

There are others in the airline world who do it in their own way. Sometimes it’s a terse, headline-grabbing statement pointed at Airbus from Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker who once said, “Airbus is still learning how to make airplanes,” after an impasse over a deal on plane orders. Or simply a brand character – like that of Porter Airlines’ raccoon – who gives Torontonians a fun reason to care about the company beyond its ability to get them from A to B. Who knows exactly what that raccoon will be doing the next time you see him pop up on a billboard?

The point is that no matter how you illustrate or dress them, many airlines need a few heroes right now.

Tristan McAllister is transport editor for Monocle.


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