An epic battle of the brands is brewing in Asia.

Ostensibly, it is about whether upstart, low-cost airlines can take on well-established giants. But, ultimately, the battle is about whether the best means for building long-term brands is price or whether it is service.

Singapore Airlines (SIA), Malaysia Airlines (MAS), Thai Airways International (TAI) and Cathay Pacific (CP) have fought for years to be the dominant carrier in Southeast Asia. The battle for the lucrative long-distance business traveler has primarily been based on award-winning service.

But, recently, a number of no-frills airlines, based on the Southwest Airlines/Ryanair model, have emerged. Will travelers continue to use the heavyweights for their service, or will they defect to low-cost airlines to save money?

SIA remains a model for anyone creating a service-based brand. Coming from a tiny country where you can hop a taxi from one border to another, SIA's strategy from its beginning in 1972 was to compete internationally on service and the customer experience.

Its deeply ingrained customer service culture begins with three job interviews and a tea party where managers evaluate social poise and confidence. A four-month training program is a cross between finishing school and boot camp. Instruction even covers the proper way to wash uniforms. A $50-million budget pays for an average of 17.2 training days annually. Attendants are even required to get teeth checked and cleaned every six months.

Employee communications that unify a staff from more than 25 countries are superb. SIA publishes a variety of department newsletters and a monthly companywide magazine that includes positive and negative comments from customers. Semiannual meetings discuss hard data related to sales, competition, yields and customer satisfaction.

SIA has also worked consistently to move beyond transportation to a “travel experience.” For special meals, first- and business-class passengers could “book the cook.” It was the first airline to offer even economy passengers free headsets, French wines and a choice of meals. It has long had the most modern airline fleet. It was the first to install lie-flat “spacebeds.” Even its hot towels have a distinctive aroma.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Wreden is the author of ProfitBrand: How to Increase the Profitability, Accountability and Sustainability of Brands (named "Best Business Book of 2005" by strategy+business) and FusionBranding: How to Forge Your Brand for the Future. Reach him at nick@fusionbrand.com.