It could be argued that there are fewer brands as strongly intertwined in the fabric of the nation than British Airways and Marks & Spencer. In 2012, BA flew the torch for the London Olympic Games in a plane specially designed by Tracey Emin. In 2016, M&S supplied beautiful hampers to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday at the Patron’s Lunch.
It was a surprise to many when British Airways recently announced that they would start charging for food on short haul flights. But fear not, said good old BA, this isn’t any old pay as you go airline food. This is M&S pay as you go airline food.
As many frequent flyers have made clear with a barrage of posts on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, it really is about the little things in the ever-more commoditised airline world. There is a potential brand reputation issue lurking behind this tie-up for both brands.
The problem for M&S is that beyond the glossy brochure located in the seat pocket in front of you (gorgeously shot, mouth-wateringly tempting, food blog worthy brochure), M&S has no control over how their product is sold and served on-board. On a recent flight to Hamburg, the BA crew had trouble working out how the filter coffee cup worked. On another flight they were serving one product in place of another, seemingly unaware of the difference. There have been tweets about the hot food looking like something not so great produced by a 12-month-old baby. This all comes down to staff training. The BA flight crew seem to be lacking knowledge about what they're serving.
This might not matter if they were dishing out no-name ham and cheese sandwiches or generic croissants. But they're not. They're selling M&S. A brand. One that has very high standards that presumably it wants to uphold.
On many flights in February 2017, the trolley didn't even make it half way down the plane as the crew were still getting their heads around serving a new product, taking payment and generally operating the new system. On our flight the credit card payment wasn't working. And if you don’t have Avios, no food or drink for you. Like The Queen, they don’t carry cash.
For British Airways, it opens up a whole other debate about value. Some argue that paying for food and seat selection makes them on par with RyanAir (but with captains with far plummier accents).
FutureBrand has a model for assessing how future-proof a brand is. The three elements of analysis are how customers choose your brand, if they connect with it, and how far they are willing to commit to it. Using this model, it seems people are choosing BA based on the assumption they will be getting a superior service versus low-cost airlines. ‘To Fly, To Serve’ says the advertising. ‘To Fly, To Serve…To Try To Work The Credit Card Machine’ seems more accurate.
The issue arises at the moment of connection; the moment when memories are made. This is when expectations are surpassed. Or not. I’ll never forget a Virgin cabin crew member subtly handing me a glass of bubbly in economy because she overheard me saying it was my first flight with Virgin Atlantic. For BA passengers, there has been genuine shock and surprise that on top of the already high ticket price there is now the added cost of food and drink. To add insult to injury, the quality of the service makes the experience all the more painful. As we see from the many posts and comments, the connection is far from positive. What was once a USP for BA is becoming a bug-bear. If nothing else, BA need to explain their decision in terms that benefit the customer, rather than feeling like a decision they felt they could take because they were ‘missing a trick’ from the budget airline model. Rather than singing the praises of BA (and to some degree M&S), customers are venting their frustration and will talk with their feet. In the past few weeks I’ve happily flown KLM and EasyJet.
If BA needs to charge for food and drink, that's their strategic choice but it will erode their brand equity in the long term. It's a shame they are dragging another respected brand into the argument. I doubt M&S need this contract as much as BA need M&S. It’s bad for BA because it's not what passengers expect of them. Where’s the value? It’s bad for M&S too because they're part of the frustration and annoyance.
My advice to M&S: head for the emergency exit and jump down that slide. Fast.
Jovan is an experienced client director leading the consumer division at FutureBrand London.
He is a creative and strategic thinker on a mission to inspire the best creative work, focused on building competitive advantage for clients.