Opinion

Singapore Airlines’ lost opportunity to distinctly brand SilkAir

As Singapore Airlines prepares to cull its long-suffering regional brand, Suresh Kumar laments the failure of marketers and agencies to make SilkAir a brand passengers can truly care about

Singapore Airlines has just announced it will fully absorb its regional arm SilkAir.

By 2020, US$75 million will be invested in upgrading existing SilkAir aircraft and cabins to make them consistent with SIA. In other words, the SilkAir brand will no longer exist.

This announcement, and the fact that SIA recorded their highest level of net profit since 2011 (while SilkAir ended the year with net profits 57 per cent less than last year), went well with the key stakeholders.

The stock market also enthusiastically welcomed the news with shares trading at levels not reached in the last three years. After all, SIA now needs to promote a single brand instead of splitting the marketing budget and efforts between two – a major cost and operation efficiency derived in the highly competitive airline industry.

But from a branding perspective, was SilkAir a case of a lost opportunity?

SilkAir started off in 1991 as a brand that took people to exotic, leisure destinations – Pattaya, Phuket, Kuantan, Langkawi and Tioman. From the very beginning, this could have been an ideal and unique platform to build on.

As it grew, the brand could have added more leisure destinations – first in Asia and then in the rest of the world – imagine the communication that would naturally flow from such a distinct platform. Instead, somewhere along the line, the brand started adding regional business destinations like Jakarta, KL, Ho Chi Minh and Phnom Penh to name a few. One cannot be sure what the business reasons for such a move were, but this definitely diluted SilkAir’s brand essence.

What then was the SilkAir brand really about? Was it for the leisure traveller keen to explore new, exotic locales? Or was it for the business traveller looking for another efficient option to reach the business destination?

How was the SilkAir brand to be perceived? Granted, any brand is supposed to evolve depending on the prevailing winds. But not deviating from the defined core business a brand is in, is the first step in consistent brand delivery across touchpoints.

If SilkAir had stuck to its original core business of bringing the exotic to its consumers, everything the brand did – from their ad films to the flight attendant’s uniform to the food they served on board could have reflected the exotic. Not necessarily expensive, but exotic nevertheless.

Successive advertising agencies failed to distinctly position the SilkAir brand – surprising given an agency’s primary job is to help a brand stand out.

Advertising agencies of late – with the tacit approval of the marketing team no doubt – peddled cliched stuff like good inflight service or food in their SilkAir advertising – this in an attempt to compare the brand with a full-service airline, which it was not. In reality, SilkAir was slightly better than a good budget airline and inferior to a full-fledged airline. A full-fledged airline as we know, comes with its attendant, in-flight entertainment features for every seat plus other bells and whistles.

Somehow, there seemed to be little or no understanding as to why the customer actually flew SilkAir – at least that’s what its ad campaigns proved. Hence we had nicely done up SilkAir ad posters saying SilkAir gives out drawing sets to children on board. Or serves hot drinks and cookies. Good to have features? Sure. Distinct game changers? Of course not.

Compare this with SIA’s enduring positioning platform which led to ‘Singapore Girl, you are a great way to fly’. It magically captures the modernity and the romantic pull of the exotic South East that is Singapore itself – a platform that is at once distinct and globally recognised.

As SilkAir’s brand essence got diluted, the brand itself meandered into many unnecessary digressions and misadventures – four uniform design changes in the course of its life being one example.

Of course brands get ‘retired’ or ‘merged’ or ‘side lined’ by their owners for various reasons. Non-profitability is a valid and often a key reason. But the SilkAir brand story is different. 25+ years of existence and millions of sunk investment is enough to build and sustain any brand and make it very profitable. Especially a brand coming from the SIA stable with its training and efficient operations legacy.

A distinct brand image could have helped SilkAir harness its true potential and reach the heights it deserved.

Instead, it’s more likely the SilkAir story will end up as yet another case study on a brand’s disappointing failure.

Suresh Kumar works in the advertising industry in Singapore. This article was first published on his LinkedIn. 

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