Helen Edwards on Branding: Friendly fire

Helen Edwards on Branding
Helen Edwards on Branding

Emirates risks disturbing consumers with a strapline that hints at behind-the-scenes problems.

Confidence is enormously seductive, in people and in brands, precisely because it is so hard to manufacture. It is a quality that necessarily runs deep, or we smell fraud. True confidence is a wonderful elixir, easing away resistance and commanding respect. Coke has it, Dior bottles it, Apple exudes it.

These are brands that shrug off setbacks and seem impervious to the swirling undercurrents of commerce. It's not that they don't have their problems to solve and their dirty linen to wash; it's just that they don't expose this kind of thing in public. Confidence doesn't work like that.

So it comes as a shock when a confident brand somehow lets slip that the injustices of commercial existence are all getting just a bit too much. The aura of invincibility fades, and the brand comes down to size, fallible after all.

Emirates is in danger of allowing that to happen right now. Just one tiny sign is there, but it is revealing. In its latest European ad campaign, the airline has junked its higher-order tag, 'Keep discovering', and replaced it with 'A friend of Europe'.

The casual European consumer is left to puzzle why this declaration of friendship is suddenly due. It is odd, even suspicious, like a brand suddenly saying it is to be trusted; weren't the Gulf-based airline's intentions friendly before?

In fact, the consumer isn't the target at all. 'A friend of Europe' is a thinly-veiled riposte to Emirates' European competitors to stop sniping, and to EU regulators to stop blocking its way.

With Lufthansa in the vanguard, and British Airways not far behind, Europe's airlines have been the most vociferous industry detractors of Emirates' runaway success, claiming that it has been aided by unfair access to cheap local oil. Meanwhile, in Germany, the authorities have forced Emirates to raise its Business Class fares in line with Star Alliance competitors, implying that state subsidy is behind the airline's ability to offer better deals.

No wonder the Emirates senior team gets hopping mad. The very genesis of the airline was part of a drive to open up commerce for the one corner of the United Arab Emirates - Dubai - in which the oil was drying up. It no more benefits from what remains under the desert than BA does from the North Sea. In a 2010 article, The Economist confirmed that the airline pays the same for fuel as its competitors, and poured scorn on the state subsidy claim, for good measure.

So 'friend' is the airline's way of letting Europe know on which side its bread is buttered; it is attended, on the Emirates website, by a litany of ways in which Europe is indebted to Emirates and the UAE for trade, not least its $50bn commitment to Airbus. 'Back off' is the real message; 'friends can walk', is the implication.

As behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, this might make sense. Airing it in front of consumers is the error. They expect this global super-brand to ride out criticism the way its imperious A380s surge on through turbulence.

Emirates has long been a friend of travellers. It can boast innovative service breakthroughs, a superb fleet, and routes to secondary cities that national carriers cannot be bothered with.

None of its European competitors - strike-prone BA, unimaginative Lufthansa, struggling Alitalia - looks likely to match its standards, so the sniping will continue. The confident reaction is not to respond, but simply to rise above it.

Helen Edwards, PPA Columnist of the Year (Business Media), has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand, where she works with some of the world's biggest advertisers

30 SECONDS ON ... THE RISE AND RISE OF EMIRATES

- Emirates was formed in 1985, with just two leased aeroplanes, as a response to Gulf Air's decision to reduce services to Dubai

- Sheikh Ahmed, the airline's founder, brought in two formidable British aviation executives, Tim Clark and Maurice Flanagan (who was knighted last year), and briefed them to create an airline that 'looks good, is good, and makes money'.

The pair are still running the airline.

- Emirates has doubled in size every three to four years. It currently serves more than 100 destinations in 66 countries on all continents from its mega-hub in Dubai.

- The airline is the biggest buyer of Airbus A380 superjets, with a target of 400 by 2020, dwarfing the capacity of any other long-haul airline.

- Emirates has been in profit for all but its second year in business. In the recession year of 2009, when British Airways lost $758m and Air France-KLM lost $1.93bn, Emirates made nearly $1bn.

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