Brand Crisis: Is Rebranding a Gimmick or Genuine?

5 Aug 2014

In a span of four months, Malaysian Airlines have endured two tragic and financially-threatening events that have left the world in shock.

On March 8, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 went missing an hour after take-off during a scheduled passenger flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Less than 19 weeks later, Flight 17 (MH17) was shot down in Ukraine whilst flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in an alleged surface-to-air missile attack by pro-Russian separatists.

These events have taken the lives of 537 people, including 36 Australians, and have left countless families and communities devastated.

With Flight MH370 still missing and the cause of Flight MH17 under investigation, the future of Malaysian Airlines remains unknown as their reputation continues to take a beating.

Even prior to these unfortunate incidences, the airline company was already a struggling business having been forced into the red for the past three years, leading to a $1.3 billion loss.

This has led to much speculation about the brand and whether or not they’ll change their name, go private or even survive!

This is not the first time an airline has gone through the rebranding process in order to save their business. In 1997, ValuJet began calling themselves AirTran after one of their passenger flights crashed in the Everglades, killing everyone on board.

Associate Professor of Marketing at The University of Queensland, Dr Frank Alpert, believes it is possible for a brand to recover from tragic incidents of this proportion.

“This is something we call a brand crisis. It’s not the first brand crisis. Other brands have had crisis; other airlines have had crashes. So it has to be handled well,” Dr Alpert said.

“We’re looking at what are they going to do. They’re in this brand crisis […]; people have concerns about the brand.  For example, they have two options; one option is to do nothing and wait for people to forget and another option is a complete rebrand.”

Dr Alpert believes that the biggest issue when it comes to the rebranding of Malaysian Airlines will be whether or not the public trust the brand and if they hold the company responsible for the incidences.

“The first issue in this brand dilemma is how the memory works. The problem is that when people think of Malaysian Airlines now they will think ‘crash’.”

“[Does the public] blame Malaysian Airlines or not? This depends on the cause of the crashes and people’s awareness of the cause. So at the moment, this could seem to be in Malaysian Airlines favour, as the shot-down airplane was given clearance to fly by international civil aviation authorities; so that could’ve happened to any airline.”

“Now the cause of MH370’s crash is a little trickier but it’s still unproven. Perhaps unproven is better than if it were proven to be the fault of Malaysian Airlines such as a renegade pilot or maintenance error.”

“The main issue is trust. So it is said that Malaysian Airlines has not handled the first crisis, the MH370 mystery, very well; they withheld information. This alone can lose consumer trust, and shows that the brand is not honest and caring,” he said.

However, Dr Alpert asserts that if Malaysian Airlines were to commit to a rebranding campaign then they need to show that the airline is safe, utilises revamped systems and better training programs.

“It can’t be just a gimmick. There are savvy, informed [and] cynical people; they can see a gimmick. The worst option is a complete rebrand that’s an utter failure […]. However, a meaningful or sincere rebranding is something that needs to be done at this time. Changing the name and logo must be symbolic of other changes that they are making to make sure that Malaysian Airlines will be safe in the future,” he said.