Former Garuda Indonesia CEO jailed – effects on the brand (+ what other airlines can learn)

Garuda Indonesia, the national airline of Indonesia, suffered a setback recently. Indra Setiawan, a former CEO of the airline was sentenced to 12 months in prison for his part in the mid-air killing of a human rights activist. From a branding perspective, this just rubs salts in the already-wounded brand image of Garuda – since it already has one of the worst airline safety track records in Asia. The airline is leaving few options for its customers to form a positive perception.
Probably the only way they can resurrect the brand is to win on price competition, while still remaining full service, and impress the customers – a tough bet, given their track record. May be the new planes they ordered at the Singapore Airshow recently will help them rescue the brand with new routes to US and Europe, at good prices (and of course, the new planes). Airlines – and other worthy brands (Apple?)- must always be vary of coupling themselves too tightly with an individual. Although this can be a huge X-Factor for the brand, which differentiates it with other airlines, it can be a risky proposition.

Nevertheless, many airlines have used it to their advantage in the past – from Richard Branson of Virgin, to the upcoming Vijay Mallya of Kingfisher Airlines in India. These iconic figures have traditionally brought great leverage to the brand. But being so closely associated can be risky, since the smallest of the person’s actions will have consequences much larger in magnitude for the airline as well.

A better strategy is to create an icon – like the SIA Girl, of Singapore Airlines – which can be a controlled by the airline management as and when they wish, rather than be exposed to risks individuals face. Moreover, it can act as a reliable X-Factor, something that goes above and beyond what “yet another airline” would do to boost its brand image.

Ponder that!

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