Qantas has had a week from hell.
It should’ve been the Qantas' week and more importantly, Alan Joyce’s week. His last hurrah for leading the brand for 15 years would’ve come to a natural end in November. The beleaguered airline came back from the brink for the first time since Covid. Qantas always had an impeccable safety record; finally, in August, it reported mammoth annual profits to the tune of $1.7 billion. Coupled with improvements in on-time performance and an investment plan to overhaul the fleets and revamped measures for growth, it appeared as if Joyce was the CEO who could theoretically sift through every issue with a fine comb.
Joyce was leaving Australia’s flying kangaroo in great shape. He would’ve bowed out on a high. Little did he expect a monumental PR and legal disaster to prematurely open the departure gate for his exit, crash the last leg of his tenure, damage the airline's reputation, and invite fines into several hundreds of millions of dollars if found guilty (read about the legal and PR issues facing the airline here).
The hits against Qantas have been building—and now—the courts are involved. The brand continues to cop flak left, right, and centre, and the term ‘Joyced’ has become a meme in the Australian vernacular. It denotes the massive inconvenience of flying, luggage delays, flight problems, etc. In monetary terms, Qantas’ issues run bigger than the CEO salary and Joyce's exit bonuses (and other perks) with the recent allegations of misleading ad conduct and prior price gouging scandals sullying the brand image, and leaving it teetering at the edge.
Simply put, it’s a royal mess.
Can Qantas possibly make a comeback at this stage? And what will it take for the brand to rebuild trust and win over the public once again?
Campaign reached out to leading regional experts for more.
Director of reputation, Icon Agency
Qantas can’t market itself out of this mess. This convergence of crises must be met with tangible improvements in performance, an acceptance of past mistakes and a new broom approach.
Qantas, and its now ex-CEO Alan Joyce, is the man-made bird who flew too close to the sun, parlaying their national carrier status and unblemished safety record—along with a massive marketing spend—to become Australia’s favourite airline, with unparalleled influence on government.
Now, it is clear that Qantas has fallen far short of its marketing, with mainstream and social media propagating stories of lost luggage, skyrocketing prices, delays, cancellations and selling thousands of tickets on non-existent flights.
Catastrophically, this coincides with the news that Canberra, seeking to protect Qantas from ‘disruption’, has blocked Qatar Airlines from flying more planes into Melbourne and Sydney—demonstrating that Qantas wants to keep airfares high.
Joyce’s replacement, Vanessa Hudson, should promise a new start, a reset from the COVID and Joyce era to return to the reliable, caring Qantas of old. It should compensate customers, settle lawsuits and welcome competition. Most importantly, there must be tangible commitments to improved service. Reputations can be rebuilt, but it takes contrition, action, and time.
Group strategy director, Brand design and consulting, RGA (Australia and Asia)
A Qantas comeback? Never say never. But it’s a massive task.
If brand trust is customers respecting the brand and believing it will deliver what it says it will, resulting in loyalty on any level, Qantas has sorely lost all this in the last few years as it managed the business through economic challenges no-one could have predicted.
Dangerous decisions were made at the top, signed off by numerous people—brands aren’t the work of lone ‘geniuses’. They are intentional (and unintentional) collaborations between marketers, product and experience, operations, partners and customers (and more). The incoming CEO Vanessa Hudson (current CFO) will have to rebuild trust with the internal team and brand partners as much as with customers and shareholders, which may be no mean feat given her position over the last four years.
Let’s assume that happens; the ‘renewal’ will take time, at a point when Australians are experiencing a cost-of-living crisis; Qantas was never the cheapest airline, but customers were loyal because of the quality of the experience. Why risk wasting money on a potentially bad experience? That’s the spiral of financial impact that may in turn hinder the operational renewal needed to rebuild trust, and the brand building activities and persuasive communications needed to bring people back.
Two ‘non-negotiable business principles’ of note in the Qantas Group Business Practices:
- We have a responsibility to safeguard Qantas Group reputation, brands, property, assets and information; demonstrating the highest level of ethics and integrity.
- We comply with laws and regulations.
It’s such an interesting balance; just because something is legal doesn’t make it ethical—Qantas’ behaviours of late demonstrate that.
If Qantas can move fast enough operationally behaving in line with the ‘non-negotiable’ principles, there is every chance it can rebuild its reputation and one day achieve its vision: ‘to be a great airline that champions the Spirit of Australia’.
Chief strategy officer, Town Square
Qantas’ brand will ultimately prove stronger than Alan Joyce. Admittedly, the recent examples of Qantas’ unchecked greed and arrogance are the result of more than one man’s actions, but that’s not how they will be remembered… or how they will be sold to the public if the airline wants to pull itself out of the dumpster fire it’s created. Considering Joyce’s earlier-than-announced exit, that’s exactly what they’re hoping for.
As long as the airline changes its behaviour, it will be able to portray the last couple of years as an aberration—and it will work because the long-standing emotional connections and associations people have with the brand will override their relatively recent distaste. The equity Qantas has built (and rightfully earned) over the last few decades will be what ultimately saves it. This is the power of a strong brand. Yes, it imbues your products and services with meaning and differentiates you in a crowded marketplace, but it also protects you from missteps and scandals. At least for a little while. At some point, you have to acknowledge your wrongdoings, make amends and commit yourself to behaving better. For Qantas, that time is now.
(In the interests of full disclosure, Town Square has previously worked with Qatar Airways).
CEO, The Hallway
What a saga! Following the Qantas story has been like Home & Away for the business community, anxiously waiting for the daily episode like we were teenagers in the days of linear TV.
But we’re here to talk about the brand. Can it make a comeback? Of course it can.
At their core brands are remarkably simple. They are a bond of trust and respect between the customer and the company. The staff of the company are proud of their product, the customers love using the product, and because of its known quality it makes them all look good by being associated with it. Simple. And therein lies the answer to Qantas’ woes. They need to go back to the drawing board and rebuild their brand from the inside out.
There’s no doubt that it’s been an extraordinarily challenging time for airlines the past four years. Just surviving COVID is a huge feat. But Qantas made one terrible mistake. They failed to respect the intelligence of their customers. So, they made some opportunistic decisions, and told some cleverly nuanced, but not-entirely-true, stories. You cannot do that! You always get found out, and so they have.
Which brings us back to what they need to do: It begins internally. They need to remember that their customers are smart, proud people. They need to be respected, dealt with fairly and told the truth. It’s an attitude that starts with the (new) CEO and cascades throughout the organisation. It’s going to require them to be humble, without losing their confidence. And it’s going to require them to think very carefully about what they say in every single communication, internally and externally.
As a marketer this is the sort of brief that we dream about. Challenging, but unbelievably interesting. And one I would absolutely love to get my teeth into!
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