Controversial posts are all the rage, so here are the reasons why I think Alan Joyce’s (the Qantas CEO, not the mistaken American student on Twitter) move around grounding the airline was a great idea, at least from a branding perspective.

Like it or not, the Qantas brand isn’t what it used to be. Think about the kangaroo a few weeks ago. What adjectives would you have used to describe it? Superb? Exclusive? Premium? I doubt it. I suspect words like ‘average’, ‘tired’ and maybe ‘old’ would have come more to the forefront. Commentators suggest Qantas is ‘iconic’ and ‘revered around the world’ but I’d suggest that’s some Australian wishful thinking – much like our belief that American’s love Australian comedy. Name me a world-famous Australian comedian? Exactly.

Outplayed by competitors in the last few years, the recent rebranding of Virgin Australia started hammering the final nails in the coffin. Sure, Qantas had 65% of the domestic market share, but the international space was being chewed up by Virgin, Emirates etc. I’d go as far as to say that internationally, the brand was in freefall. They were making massive losses and not competing on any front. If you don’t believe that, consider the fact that Qantas shares used to trade above $5; they now trade below $2.

Now Joyce was also facing the prospect of that brand being dragged even lower by continued action from three core unions, who were causing delays, cancellations and issues for passengers across the country. In fact, the union strike action had cancelled more flights over the previous months than the Qantas weekend of action had. Were they all complaining about the same thing? Was it pay? No. Outside of the ill-informed commentators ranting about his Friday afternoon payrise – a rise that was approved by 97% of the shareholders – it’s never been about pay.

It was about the de-Australianisation of the brand and long-term job prospects. The unions wanted everyone to know that if an offshore worker was fixing a toilet in First Class, that made that toilet a little less Australian. The vision of prospective growth into Asia, where the tourist spend is, would eventually deliver more Australian jobs was too far-reaching for union boss Tony Sheldon to see. The kangaroo was down and it was getting a kicking.

So Joyce knew he had to do something. Drastic action when a brand is at its peak performance is idiocy. Drastic action when a brand has been beaten black and blue can only make sense. What did he have to lose? The respect of the public? A few customers? 90% of the public will be back on board if there’s a cheap flight going – we’re that fickle. (That’s what Webjet is for: to satisfy our fickleness.) Murdoch made a similar, albeit even more drastic move, with the News Of The World. We’ve all got horror stories of dealing with Telstra – longer term issues that have made us much more angry than missing a flight  – but we still go back, over and over again. Like it or not, for most of us, travel between Australian cities is a commodity. Convenience and price come way in front of the logo on the tail fin.

It’s always been a matter of perspective. The Unions don’t want an Australian brand operating in foreign markets being maintained by anyone but Australian workers. But what if Joyce had announced last week that Qantas was buying a foreign airline in South East Asia and bringing it into part of the Qantas family? The work would still have been carried out offshore and everyone would have patted him on the back for creating greater opportunity for future growth.

Any domestic customer who claims they’re loyal to a particular airline brand is either one of very few, or lying. Rarely do you find Australians with any real connection to Qantas as an ‘Australian’ brand. In fact, few Australians have any connection to any Australian brands, but that’s for another blog. There is some symbolic flag-waving about keeping an Australian brand in Australian hands, but we all know that in this day and age of globalisation Qantas needs to compete. And to do that, it’s going to need to take some services offshore. To make its international service profitable, it needs to compete in an international space.

And talking of the international, there has also been a lot of xenophobia regarding this whole episode on two fronts: an Irishman running Qantas and question marks around the quality of work carried out offshore. Apparently it’s OK for people to Twitter things like this:

But did you know that according to Wikipedia, Joyce is gay too? Would it have been okay to complain about the ‘queer throwing a hissy fit’? Of course not. But it seems acceptable to bash him because he’s Irish. Few people look into his background – Joyce pretty much did every job going at Aer Lingus on his rise to the top; if anyone knows about running an airline, it’s him. He’s probably one of the most qualified people in the world. We want world class leaders running our country: the reality is that some of those world class leaders won’t be Australian by birth.

And the position now is:

  • the union hold hopefully broken
  • the option to develop those overseas market, and
  • rebuild the Qantas brand without the unions striking.

An Australian brand, staffed by Australian and international staff, maintained across borders and with a thriving business in South East Asia. That would make me proud.

Only time will tell if the gamble has paid off. Joyce has taken a large amount of the flak himself which is what real leadership is about, so it may be easier for the Qantas brand to recover. Either way, its worth repeating that a successful international Qantas will eventually deliver more Australian jobs in the long-term in both the aviation industry, but also in a lot of industries too. It’s also worth remembering that Mother Nature has grounded a lot more Qantas flights than Joyce ever has and we always forgive her.

And on the social media side:

A ‘social media strategist’ was quoted as saying that Qantas had dealt with this very badly in the social media space, just tweeting and responding to everything with broadcast tweets, rather than addressing specific issues. That, to me, is the mark of a social media strategist unable to understand the PR side of the situation. How was Qantas going to reply to the tens of thousands of tweets? How do they prioritise one over the other? Where’s the manpower to reply to them all?

They did what they had to do in moments like that: kept quiet. It was already a PR disaster. The Qantas board knew what it was going to mean when he made the decision. Having someone try and reply to tweets wasn’t going to fix anything. Best to just shut up, sit quietly and ride it out. Anything they said was going to make it worse.

*The image used for this story is the property of wheredidgogogo

Simon Dell
BY Simon Dell ON 2 November 2011
Simon is a former full-service agency managing director that ran for seven years and delivered for clients across Australia. He now runs his own digital consultancy SimonDell.com working with Australian businesses helping with online communication and creative strategies. Find Simon on Twitter at @IAmSimonDell, on LinkedIn at IAmSimonDell and Facebook at SwitchYourBusiness.