Bland British Airways could do with a lift
A view from Helen Edwards

Bland British Airways could do with a lift

British Airways' catering move has reinforced its perception as fusty and straight.

Twenty years ago, British Airways did something uncharacteristically exciting. It painted the tail fins of its fleet the colours of the world and, for a while, the airline was a kind of flying art gallery, symbolising its self-perceived status as a global citizen.

For its trouble, it earned the reprobation of a whole gallery of critics, including its own staff and, famously, Margaret Thatcher, who rapped it over the wings with her handbag and smacked it on the tail for lack of patriotism.

Were it to try something similar today, doubtless it would earn the withering scorn of the current prime minister, who would chasten it for being a "citizen of nowhere".

BA has learned its lesson, though, and has concluded that excitement is not what it’s here for. The most newsworthy thing it has done of late is to abolish its complimentary food and beverage service on flights under five hours, inviting people to buy on board instead.

Even this sensible measure has proved provocative enough. Its first week of pay-as-you-eat produced much online wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, as though the purchase of a ticket to fly implies the right to be freely fed and watered. Trains and coaches don’t lay on complimentary food and drink, so why should airlines?  

Increasingly, they don’t – and BA’s parent company, International Airlines Group, which also owns low-cost carrier Vueling, will have been in no doubt about the efficiencies that could be achieved. This was a move that was inevitable and, in my view, one that could have been made even sooner. 

I do think it has missed a trick in the way it has gone about it, though. Perhaps sensing the storm of protest that might come its way for removing a traditional privilege, BA has played it stultifyingly safe in its choice of catering partner. It has signed up Marks & Spencer to provide sandwiches and snacks, trumpeting the arrangement as an "ideal" pairing of "well-known, premium British brands".

That’s not how co-branding works. Academic research has shown that it is far better when an established brand partners with another that brings desirable associations that it lacks – when yin gets a bit of yang. 

And the BA brand could certainly do with a lift right now. YouGov’s BrandIndex survey has tracked it lower on a number of metrics, with a particularly sharp drop in the extent to which the brand creates a "favourable impression". In a fast-paced, contemporary sector, BA just feels too fusty, straight and smug. 

A partnership with "good old M&S" can only reinforce those perceptions. If the painted tail fins said "citizen of the world", what do the branded sandwiches say? They say "citizen of middle-class, middle-aged, Middle England". Citizen of a place where the women wear flowery frocks and the men are content to be seen in public in beige, easy-fit slacks. Citizen of nowhere particularly riveting. 

As for the culinary experience itself – well, we who live here know what we’re in for, but travellers coming from Italy, Spain, France or Germany will be stupefied at just how bland an item on a tray can taste and still be called "lunch".

Never mind that London is the capital of fusion cuisine, that we have more celebrity chefs per head of population than just about anywhere or that our regions teem with ethnic culinary ideas – a chicken and couscous salad is as daring as things get in that cabin up there. 

Operational and cost issues will have played a part in BA’s catering deliberations, of course; it’s not all about brand. Even so, there must have been sexier providers that could have pulled off the task and shown the world a more vibrant side of Britain and, by extension, BA. 

Pret A Manger would have brought its touches of inventiveness and passion to the humble sandwich. Leon would have introduced daring and modernity. HelloFresh might now be ready to extend its business model and it would have been a brilliant coup to get its flair for simple sensuality on board. 

But no. It’s a Cheddar cheese ploughman’s on soft brown, weighed down with too much mayonnaise, created by Britain’s biggest purveyor of Y-fronts.

Welcome to Brexit BA – a once great and eclectic airline brand now haplessly chasing its own tail.

Make the connection

Brand relations

The BA/M&S partnership model is just one of the ways that brands can link together. Here are some others.

Trial-size products

Go to a Hotel du Vin and you will enjoy a decent-sized pack of Miller Harris Terre du Vin toiletries. One brand gets an exclusive scent that reinforces its cool creativity, the other gets access to an upscale international customer base.

Designer diffusion ranges

H&M leads on this one, starting with Karl Lagerfeld in 2004 and going big with Alexander Wang in 2014 to celebrate ten years of designer partnerships. It generates hype – and queues round the block. 

Co-branding

In 2006, Apple and Nike joined forces to create Nike + iPod. What started as a chip that slotted into running shoes has evolved into Apple Watch Nike+, which combines a sporty-style Apple Watch with the Nike+ Run Club app.

Strategic alliances

In 2014, Spotify and Uber teamed up to allow Spotify premium users to connect to their taxi’s sound system. Uber got credit for offering a more personalised experience, while Spotify premium users enjoyed more benefits for their subscription.

Helen Edwards is the former PPA busi­ness columnist of the year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passion­brand. 
@helenedw