My Say: Tribute to a national icon

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 9 - 15, 2015.

 

AFTER Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA) split into the national carriers of the respective countries on Oct 1, 1972, a Malaysian “kite” took off from the Subang International Airport in Selangor — then Kuala Lumpur’s main airport — proudly carrying the dreams and aspirations of a young nation.

Calling on every citizen to support the growth of Malaysia’s national carrier through loyal service, dedication and determination, the then deputy prime minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman laid the foundations of an emotional resolve, which generations of Malaysians dutifully embraced as MAS (Malaysian Airline System) traversed its glorious beginning into a challenging future.

From that promising day, which Malaysian child had not waited patiently to watch a MAS aircraft take off and land at airstrips around the country? Or looked up into the sky, wondering when he or she too would travel in one of those visions of flight?

Which Malaysian had not felt comforted by the sight of an MAS plane with the familiar wau livery parked at airports around the world? A feeling of pride when it brought back winning teams, relief when those stranded arrived safely or sadness on the repatriation of lost lives to loved ones? In times of triumph and sorrow, MAS was always there as a symbol of national ownership and cultural values.

As the national airline starts anew and distances itself from the difficulties and legacy of the past, there is much to honour MAS in what would have been its 43rd year of service. Let’s recall how this institution was created and developed.

 

History

As with the great national icons of the world, the history of MAS is deeply connected to our collective social memory. Starting out as Malayan Airways in 1947, the airline played a significant role in the socio-

economic development of both Malaysia and Singapore to become Malaysian Airways in 1963, MSA in 1967 and finally MAS in 1972.

From a nation-branding perspective, MAS excelled in the creation of a national identity at the start of its operations. Abbreviated to mean “gold”, upon which all marketing elements in the first two

decades of the airline’s operations would be premised, the name “MAS” was given by Malaysia’s second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein.

When consulted on the identity and name for the new airline, Razak felt that the acronym MAL (Malaysian Airlines Ltd) should be changed to MAS (Malaysian Airline System) to avoid the negative connotation of the Latin root word “mal” with the future of the national airline.

This insight not only presented a strong differentiation strategy on service excellence at home but the name “MAS” offered a cohesive international marketing platform for brand convergence during the airline’s formative years.

For example, there was “Golden Service” — the DNA of Malaysian hospitality; “Wings of Gold” — the airline’s first in-flight magazine; and the “Golden Kite Festival” — promoting Malaysian culture, music and performing arts at new MAS destinations. Then, there were the Golden Lounge and Golden Holidays — all of which would become the hallmarks of one of Asia’s fastest growing airlines from the early 1970s to mid-1990s.

 

Cultural symbols

Why was the kite chosen to symbolise Malaysia’s national identity? As explained by Tan Sri Saw Huat Lye, the airline’s first chief executive, the kite represented something indigenous and exclusively Malaysian.

With the origins of the wau bulan going back many centuries, it was felt during the airline’s formation that those unacquainted with the country would be attracted to this distinctive symbol of graceful and controlled flight and operational values that MAS would successfully express through its exemplary safety and hospitality performance in the future.

In addition to the red kite, three colours from the national flag were used in the design of the airline’s corporate livery. From the mythological kite and the batik sarong kebaya created by Malaysian fashion designer Andy Chiew to the colours of the national flag as its visual identity, Malaysia confidently introduced MAS to the rest of the world in 1972.

However, as market conditions changed, the airline’s identity evolved into new forms. In 1986, design inputs were sought from Malaysians to update the airline’s brand image. The winning entry for the redesign of uniforms came from the MARA Institute of Technology’s School of Fashion and Design.

Adapting the original batik first to the tropical colours of green and brown, the geometric designs of Sabah and Sarawak were incorporated into the now-familiar turquoise and pink batik uniform worn by the ground and in-flight crew. The award-winning sarong kebaya of the female crew (second only to the iconic uniforms of Singapore Airlines) continues to be recognised as one of the world’s best-looking airline uniforms and with the symbolic kite, it remains till today the most identifiable emblem of MAS.

As part of an identity update, the airline’s brand name was changed from MAS to Malaysia Airlines in 1987. Malaysia adopted the naming system, which continues to be popular with many of the world’s national airlines, such as British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Air India, Japan Airlines and Emirates, to visibly associate the airline with its country of origin.

The redesign of the brand name was commissioned to Datuk Johan Ariff of Johan Design Associates, who modernised the red kite and the “Malaysia” wordmark into its present red-and-blue aerodynamic form. Over the next 25 years, Malaysia Airlines would carry this visual identity until the decision to accord the new Airbus 380 fleet a different form and colour in 2011.

By the end of the 1990s, new ownership and management brought further shifts to the airline’s visual signals and brand messaging. In the development of an identity, there is no right or wrong in the way brand elements are created and executed. The most important requirement is the consistency and convergence of visual identity (what people see in a product’s tangible form or forms) with the personality (what people emotionally feel for the values and character) and finally the delivery (what people experience in the actual interface) with the brand. Without this constant integration of form with the character and delivery of a brand, enduring market relationships are seldom created, much less sustained.

As the world debated the market advantages and disadvantages of Malaysia Airlines’ brand preservation or overhaul during and post-crisis last year — notably the four months between March and July when the airline lost MH370 and MH017 was shot down — what remains critical for Malaysia’s national airline is not whether to retain, refresh or change its brand identity but how fast the chosen identity (existing, new or refreshed) reconnects with stakeholders at home and abroad through more integrated brand form, character and delivery.

 

Service ethic and strength

Nonetheless, while market signals prevailed and ignited global comment throughout much of the crisis and post-restructuring, the airline’s strong brand equity or affinity at home continues to defy the norms of effective or successful brand creation.  

Last August, both MAS and AirAsia won the 4As (Association of Accredited Advertising Agents of Malaysia) Putra Gold Brand Award in the transport, travel and tourism category as the people’s choice. Not yet inducted as a brand icon by the 4As or significantly placed as a leading aviation brand in recent years, MAS was still ranked by Malaysians as a market favourite on the same level of esteem as AirAsia, the much-awarded and globally acclaimed best low-cost airline, this year.

How is this so? For Malaysia Airlines, this new recognition post-crisis could not have been premised on brand effectiveness as there was little opportunity for efficient brand investment or activity during and after the difficulties of 2014.

Brand power is not just about good design and communications but also the memory of experience and the intensity of emotion. What remains untold is the home-market resilience of a national — as opposed to a generic — brand icon. While MAS’ poor financial performance has long been featured, the not-too-often-communicated story of Malaysia’s national airline is the unwavering sense of pride, resilience and duty upheld by generations of employees since that bright October day in 1972.

Through the good and bad times, MAS was able to transcend the challenges of its “backstage” performance to consistently retain the gleam of an outstanding “onstage” world-class service. While there were the occasional quirks in service delivery, the predictable warmth and efficiency of experienced personnel, enhanced by an impressive safety record, have kept many Malaysians — despite the lure of low-cost travel — firmly on the side of MAS. Momentarily disrupted last year, what continues to exemplify the Malaysia Airlines brand to many at home and perhaps overseas is a unique service ethic and personality.

Apart from Tourism Malaysia, MAS was the first commercial enterprise to promote our distinctive culture beyond our shores. No other institution had the same strength of opportunity (until the arrival of AirAsia) to showcase Malaysia as the MAS employees who served thousands of passengers across the globe each day.

Regardless of their cultural origin, the men and women of Malaysia Airlines — pilots, cabin and ground crew, engineers, station and line managers, front liners and those who worked daily to offer Malaysian hospitality at its best — all wore and communicated the airline’s brand identity with great effectiveness and pride.

Having won 7 out of the 11 Best Cabin Staff Awards from SkyTrax (the industry’s global benchmark for airline excellence) in the full-service airline category since 2000, MAS’ cabin crew was ranked the world’s third best in 2013. And it was still acknowledged by the global industry as the fifth-best (after the 2014 crisis) of the Top 20 premier airlines reviewed this year.

What is it about national icons that makes them so special to the people of their home country? Although Malaysia has built a large number of impressive brands, not all have had the same opportunities to be a part of our emotional and cultural history.

Not all have been in the mar ket long enough to sustain our admiration and respect or reached deep into our national consciousness, if not pride, to make us feel that they belong to us and we to them. MAS had this rare opportunity and ability. It earned this badge of national appeal through a special set of pre-conditions from which national icons often emerge: the socioeconomic significance of the institution; its first-mover advantage and access to a mass market; the early competitiveness of its products and services; the extent and speed of its global distribution and visibility; the recognition of its performance by those within the country and abroad; its ability to connect strongly with the cultural expectations of the nation; and the enduring support of a loyal home market.

When a brand achieves these conditions, it becomes an icon, first nationally and then internationally. Once iconic, the goodwill it creates usually exceeds the economic value of the actual business. As national affinity grows, it is not only the depth of the people’s sentiment that attracts and sustains markets but also their loyalty, which insulates the brand from the impact of unforeseen misfortunes and tribulations.

As Malaysians, undeterred by external comments, came out in full support during and after the aviation crises of 2014, MAS’ management and employees, despite facing media scrutiny and job uncertainty, continued to defend the airline’s professional integrity through service excellence during one of the most challenging periods in MAS’ history.

An institution’s ability to draw on the value of its deep emotional relationship with its home country is what makes it a national icon. For Malaysia, the brand equity created for and by the people of MAS will remain the strongest asset to be preserved and reinforced in the future of the country’s new national airline.

 

A truly Malaysian airline

In the words of a former MAS chairman, “a national airline is more than just a company and an institution. However big or established, it always carries with it the pride and hopes of a nation”.

Although many of the world’s legacy airlines, including Malaysia Airlines, have chosen to pursue leaner options as the realistic route towards market sustainability, a national airline is inadvertently a country’s ambassador on wings. With the kite as the symbol of our cultural identity since 1972, MAS not only defined who we were but also how we wanted to be perceived as a uniquely dynamic and multicultural nation.

Although commercial viability is imperative for Malaysia’s new national airline, it should not negate the importance of what Malaysians and MAS have built together in advancing an attractive, if not credible, cultural presence as a nation and as a people.

Today, as we seek greater convergence in our quest for a definitive identity, Malaysia’s national airline, when faced with this question many years ago, successfully communicated the spirit of new ideals through the confident acceptance of the name “MAS”, the kite, the batik sarong kebaya and the warmest smiles in Asia as the signature elements of multicultural Malaysia.

Important to Malaysia’s new national airline is not only the numbers but also how our energies, aspirations and values as a nation are shared through the identity, character and experience of a truly Malaysian airline. We did it once. With the right expertise, the same passion and integrity of purpose, we can do it again.

To MAS, thank you for being a part of our lives, for your loyalty and professionalism, your gracious hospitality and sacrifices ... and for making us proud to fly Malaysian.


Yasmin Merican is former partner of Ernst & Young Global Client Consulting. She is the author of the book The Right to Brand and a member of Malaysia’s first National Brand Task Force. She was brand adviser to Malaysia Airlines during the 2014 crisis.