The BA Brand Up In Smoke.

I was a victim of the wholly unpronounceable Icelandic volcano eruption that shut the airports. I say ‘victim’, but it’s relative. There are worse places to be stranded than Arizona. Iceland for example.

In reality, my discomfort was limited to the enforced rationing of underpants. The location in which I was stranded and the consequence of unexpectedly prolonged underpant usage is not, however, my point. I was surprised to find out how much reliance I placed on a brand I trusted and how well, or badly, it responded. It’s these formative experiences that shape an audience’s perception of a brand, so they’re important. Like pants.

My Flight was booked with BA. Any organisation that you enlist to carry you and your loved ones at a height of thirty thousand feet has to have a trustworthy and reliable brand. Despite industrial action a few days prior to our departure, our outward flight was unaffected and we had a great 2 week vacation.

The morning that we were due to fly back, my wife received an email from BA announcing that the Flight was cancelled due to the volcano. Not ideal, but at least we received the email. It offered no details about the eruptions, but gave 2 phone numbers (in the US and the UK) and directed customers to re-book their flights on the BA website. That was the ‘ordinary’ response to a cancelled flight but BA clearly didn’t have a plan for ‘extraordinary’ – certainly not one that they were able to share with me.

So with British airspace out of bounds, we were on our own and, basically, screwed.

The BA website wouldn’t allow us to change flights and, contrary to the email, the website continued to show our flight as confirmed and checked-in. The UK number simply didn’t work and the US number provided an automated service to nowhere followed, intermittently, by a call-holding system. I’m not sure when the last time you were ‘on hold’ for 2 hours was, but you’ll appreciate that with two small kids in the room, a wife doing her nut and housekeeping banging on the door, it’s not good.

During the 13½ hours it took to get through to the call centre, and the subsequent eight days I had to wait in Phoenix for the return flight, I had time to reflect on the power of brand perception. My considered wisdom is this – it’s all in the mind. BA has spent millions persuading me to trust BA in preference to other brands. It worked, because that’s what I did. But it’s when the shit hits the fan that you really need to manage customer perception and brand reputation. Reputations that have taken years to build can be blown in an instant. Or 13½ hours.

I have no doubt that in the UK, the volcano, the closure of British airspace and the impact on the beleaguered BA share price was daily front page news, but in ‘Pleasant Valley’ Arizona (really) I think it would be fair to say no one gave a shit. I relied on web news, CNN, Twitter, texts and email from friends and colleagues. The news was patchy and unreliable (often conflicting) but it was better than nothing, which is exactly what I received from BA – nothing. BA is the one brand that I should have been able to rely on for relevant, timely and accurate customer information.It failed to deliver in every aspect.

The very reason that companies invest in their brands and the supporting digital channels of communication is to shape perceptions in the minds of their audiences. Brands aren’t ‘things’, brands are what people, customers, ‘think’. Brands are the experiences people have and the stories, like this one, they tell other people. In our digital world, those stories can travel a long way. Further than Pleasant Valley. BA fundamentally failed to manage my customer experience and, in the absence of any other input, they have allowed me to form my own perceptions of the brand. So that’s what I’ve done. My perception of the BA brand is now permanently and indelibly etched in my mind.

Does BA still have a brand? Yes, but it no longer has the value or values that are important to me. The trust is gone and without it… well, a plane ticket I can buy from anyone.

Scot McKee