Strong headwinds will not prevent Sir Stelios from attempting take-off

September 28, 2011

Pride comes before a fall. No sooner had Easyjet smugly congratulated itself on an intoxicatingly funny parody of BA’s latest ad campaign (To Fly. To Savesee post below) than its fractious founder and biggest shareholder, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannu, spoiled all the fun with a headline-grabber of his own.

I’ve heard many reasons over the years for launching a new brand, most relating at least tangentially to a perceived gap in the market, or even market in the gap, with the prospect of profit – however evanescent – somewhere in the equation. But never one based entirely on spite and paranoia.

Yet this is what the board of Easyjet would have us believe; it took the initiative in disclosing that Stelios was plotting a rival airline, Fastjet, after fruitlessly engaging in years of guerilla warfare with the company he once set up.

Most commentators take the Easyjet line: that Fastjet is no more than an audacious, if alarming, bluff – a way of continuing Stelios’s war with the Easyjet board by other means, in order to extract extra concessions. And it is true that there seems no more present substance to the threat than a red-washed website and a brand name, not even trademarked.

On the other hand, never underestimate the power of the irrational. Especially when it is deployed by a gifted and demonically driven entrepreneur. Civil aviation may be wracked by recession and rising fuel costs; it may be saturated with low-cost airlines. But that does not necessarily mean Stelios’ bluff  will be called. He probably has the family resources to remain “irrational” long after others have ceased to be solvent. Where most (especially left-brain City analysts) see sector cul-de-sacs, entrepreneurs see opportunity (step forward Philip Green, Richard Branson and a host of others) and are prepared to back a hunch.

Besides, it may not be a new airline he is planning: merely a radical repositioning of an existing operation. As Paul Simons – who knows a thing or two or about airlines; he’s even tried relaunching one – points out, there are still market segments other than the low-cost sector worth targeting, particularly at the upper end of the social scale.

What, however, makes me reasonably confident that Fastjet is not simply an extravagant corporate warfare stratagem is the irreparable loss of face involved if it were revealed to be so. That really would make Stelios look like a spoilt rich kid who has thrown all his toys out of the pram.

For that very reason Easyjet and others should be wary of writing off Fastjet as an empty threat. The project may target a different sector of the market, it may well fail. But one thing we can be sure of: it will cause competitors some unwelcome turbulence if it ever heaves itself off the runway.

Whatever you think of the British Airways ad, for God’s sake don’t mention the War!

September 23, 2011


Long awaited; now we’ve seen it: BA’s first major corporate advertising campaign in over a decade.

It represents a litmus test moment for agency BBH which, frustratingly, has had to battle through years of turbulence, in the form of industrial unrest, corporate mismanagement and radical restructuring, not to mention volcanic ash-cloud and a recession, before being allowed to do its first major work since wresting the account from M&C Saatchi in 2005.

But what do we – the viewers, the BA audience – think of it? Does it magnify the brand, or is it simply grandiloquent? Does it, in sum, hit the right note?

To my mind, the 90 second ad rumbles along the runway well enough but fails to reach the soaring heights to which it aspires. True, it’s beautifully shot with what appears to be loving attention to period detail. And it’s hard not to be touched by the romance and heroic derring-do of early civil aviation that underpins this hommage to BA’s corporate history. Then there’s all that gleaming, nostalgic aerial technology: the primitive, wind-in-your-hair De Havilland DH-9; the elegant Dragon Rapide; that rugged warhorse the DC3; the once-ubiquitous VC-10, as we move into the age of jet propulsion (though not – I note – the more innovative and earlier Comet, with its unfortunate tendency to metal fatigue in mid-flight); and on through the sound-barrrier with the space-age Concorde, the fastest airliner ever built.

Stirring stuff. But here the epic narrative plunges into bathos, with the appearance of BA’s contemporary fleet of 747s – utilitarian, safe and (relatively) economic no doubt, but hardly the epitome of legend. Indeed, the ad’s closing sequence merely reminds us that the transcendent feature of modern-day civil aviation is its banality. Today’s pilots may be terribly well trained and reliable but, in an age of advanced avionics and autopilots, the risks they run hardly bear comparison with those of their intrepid predecessors.

That is not my only criticism, however. If you’re going to do a nostalgic commercial, make sure it’s glamorous rather than merely portentous. Virgin Airlines knew exactly what it was about with its 25th birthday tribute (crafted by RKC&R/Y&R) 2 years ago; it’s shallow, showy bling, but none the worse for that in imparting a sense of credible excitement.

With the BA ad, by contrast, we’re in trouble almost from the beginning with that overwrought voiceover addressing its paean to the heroic pilot qualities of a bygone age.

And then – and this is the corker – there’s that extraordinary catchline – To Fly To Serve; a motto, we’re told, pinned to the chest of every serving BA captain. Close your eyes, and you can imagine Guy Gibson touching down in his Lancaster after destroying the Möhne Dam. Actually, I’m not joking. “To Fly To Serve” is the English translation of Volamus Ut Serviamus, the motto of 691 Squadron – which was formed on December 1st 1943 with a brief to provide the Royal Navy with aerial training targets around the Plymouth area.

Unfortunate coincidence? Someone not done their homework properly? Probably. But also a subliminal clue that most national carriers (so I’m informed) are military in origin. BA, for instance, is a lineal descendant of Aircraft Transport & Travel (just glimpsed at the beginning of the ad), which was set up during WW1 with a fleet of former military aircraft. Not, I imagine, an aspect of BA’s heritage that its management would care to dwell on.

It would be no surprise to find this particular ad line experiencing a rapid upgrade.

European Court ruling forces Google to mince its AdWords

September 22, 2011

The world of marketing may little note, but long find itself remembering, an obscure judgement handed down by the Court of Justice of the European Union today.

It concerns the endemic practice of buying someone else’s brand name (or, more specifically, trademark) as a search term and then having all resulting enquiries directed, heretofore quite legally, towards your own enterprise. The practice is enshrined in such services as Google AdWords.

A good example of the wheeze in action is Virgin Media. Tee’d up for a mega-marketing launch back in 2006, it was mortified to discover that its principal rival, BSkyB, had bought up all Google search references to the VM brand name and was redirecting any interest to Sky.

Marks & Spencer sought to pull off a similar stunt when it “bought” the Interflora AdWord search term in 2009, with the intention of substituting its own online flower shop every time an internet user searched for “interflora” on Google.

A bouquet of barbed wire for Google

Sadly for M&S, Interflora had a sense of humour loss and sued in the English law courts – which referred the matter to the supreme jurisdiction of the CJEU.

Well, the ruling has come in and it’s not going to be to M&S’s liking, or that of any other brand owner seeking to poach a rival’s name online. The court has decreed that buying your competitor’s name infringes trademark law on two counts: the ability to identify the origin of goods and services; and the right to preservation of a brand proprietor’s reputation. Crucially, it has ruled that proprietors of a trademark (let’s call them brand owners) can actually prevent a competitor using their name where they can prove free-riding or brand denigration is taking place. Which in practice will have a chilling effect on AdWord activity.

The ruling will cause widespread dismay, not least at Google – which has heavy investment in the practice. And all the more so because in a previous case, that of Google v Louis Vuitton (2010), the court had seemed to lean the other way. It said that Google, as intermediary, did nothing wrong in allowing AdWords to promote the practice of buying other people’s brand names, and that the existence of the service in no way infringed trademark law.

What it did not do was rule upon the legal responsibility of the search term purchaser, as opposed to the intermediary. In other words, the subsequent M&S case is a landmark judgement, which will now be handed back to the English courts for enforcement.

In the words of Kirsten Gilbert, partner at intellectual property specialist Marks & Clerk Solicitors: “Brand owners will be encouraged that their competitors no longer have a completely free rein over use of their trademark as a keyword. But, the practice of purchasing rivals’ trademarks as keywords is widespread, and marketers may now have to think of other creative ways to advertise their brands on the web.”

How two-edged the sword of justice is.

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