Real branding is an inside job

Air Canada needs a reminder: internal culture is the key to a strong brand.

Zappos CEO Hsieh calls branding and culture two sides of the same coin (Photo: Brian Kersey/UPI/Newscom)

“This airline is a freakin’ joke.”

Speaking is the person seated beside me on a recent flight in the U.S. He’s a pilot. He’s in uniform, the uniform of the very U.S.-based airline we’re flying today. He’s deadheading home and, like the rest of us, he’s irritated that we’re running late. Apparently, he thinks the problem is systemic, and the trash blowing around the feet of the grim looking flight attendant closing the cabin door doesn’t offer much evidence to the contrary. It occurred to me there might be a reason this airline’s ads feature animated route maps and heroic airplane footage, but no people. It just doesn’t think people are part of the branding equation. And apparently, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

At least they’re honest about it. Just before Christmas 2010, Air Canada posted a YouTube video of one of those winsome flash mob moments that were fashionable that year. At Vancouver’s airport, a group of people dressed as baggage handlers suddenly mounted a stage, produced musical instruments and burst into a holiday medley, while another disguised as passengers erupted into giddy interpretive dance. It was charming, but also confusing. Most of us don’t think of Air Canada as a singing-and-dancing kind of brand, and the musical workers didn’t look like the same angry people whose unions seem endlessly at war with the airline. The dissonance invited cynicism, no matter which side of the counter you were on. And that’s a problem, because Air Canada wants to launch a new low-cost brand, and they’re telling shareholders that their unionized workers are standing in the way.

Nothing strips branding to its essence like the airline business. Pity the marketer trying to stand out in an industry with economics so constrained that pretzels can make the difference between profit and loss. It’s not surprising that some of them simply give up trying to differentiate themselves, or that the dominant ones don’t bother. Once in a while, though, someone pulls it off. Often, ironically, it’s a low-cost carrier. And almost always, people are how. The airlines we love don’t win us over with how they advertise or what they paint on their fuselages, but with what’s in the hearts of the people who work there. Branding, for them, is an inside job. It starts with culture, not a value proposition. They’re smart enough to know that’s the only thing they can really own.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of online apparel retailer Zappos, is famous for calling branding and culture two sides of the same coin. His success in the most commoditizing retail environment there is suggests he’s right. And it cuts both ways, as my Philadelphia seatmate proved. This is what Air Canada needs to worry about if they want to succeed in the discount game. The company has a long history of contending with people as obstacles to competitiveness. If they get the chance to start over, those same people are going to be the key. Culture creates experience. Experience creates brands. Brands create value. That formula is more of a sure thing than advertising ever was, and the more of a commodity you think you sell, the truer it will be.

Bruce Philp is a brand consultant, author and blogger at

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