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The granulation effect

Follow British Airways’ example: for every new ad you make, identify at least one customer experience improvement to go with it.
It’s not easy to admit to 600 failings. And neither is it always a cinch to identify them.
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

British Airways likes to hit us with big numbers. It came bounding out of its induced pandemic torpor with an exuberant burst of outdoor, print and online advertising featuring no fewer than 500 separate executions.

Five hundred! And we’re not talking about minor amends to prior copy here, but a conveyor belt of craft, with each ad a smartly observed original, in service of its new ‘British original’ slogan. They were everywhere, got commented on by everyone, and won everything in sight, including a 2023 Cannes Lions Grand Prix.

True, there were detractors, and to be fair, I was among them. The ads have nothing to do with BA, we cried. They’re about the joys of travel. They’re generic. There’s no attempt to give a feel for the holistic British Airways experience.

Now we know why. A Which? survey this February saw BA four rungs from bottom place in its assessment of 22 short-haul carriers, and even closer to the wooden spoon for long-haul flying, limping in 14th out of 17. The airline got lukewarm appraisal for its cleanliness, cabins and food. And it was the very worst long-haul performer for last-minute cancellations, leaving thousands of passengers ripping up their plans and tearing out their hair.

Meanwhile, the brand has long been berated even by card-carrying loyalists for its sluggish booking interface, overcrowded lounges and delinquent app.

So that post-pandemic advertising brief must surely have steered agency Uncommon away from anything substantive about the offer. No, don’t show a plane taking off, because ours too often don’t. Stay clear of showing the cabins, because our passengers don’t rate them. And don’t include a call to action, whatever you do, because our ancient booking system is under enough strain as it is.

In the end, seizing the generic with insouciant style was an inspired solution, even if it does tend to make you want to go to Tenerife or Tokyo with anyone who’ll carry you – preferably one of those airlines nearer the top of the tables, like Jet2, Emirates or Singapore.

But, as Marketing Week reported earlier this month, BA marketers are not in the mood to take that insult lying down. The airline has announced a programme of substantive improvements to its overall customer experience, with a vow to fix no fewer than 600 current problems.

Six hundred! That’s another extraordinary number when you think about it. Imagine that you’d just splashed out for a new car, only to learn shortly after that the manufacturer reckons the combination of model and service backup is basically OK, except for the small matter of 600 snags that aren’t. Or that you’re thinking about a new PC but pause when you hear that the next one along will have 600 good things going for it that this one doesn’t. ‘New and improved’ are classic components of marketing but you don’t normally expect remedial upgrades to come along in their six hundreds.

I do admire BA, though, for its honesty. It’s not easy to admit to 600 failings. And neither is it always a cinch to identify them. It takes not just guts but granulation – a forensic determination to round on each seemingly single touchpoint, like, say, the Lagos business class lounge, and then go inside to itemise and candidly assess the nested touchpoints embedded within it, like food, loos, reception welcome, seating, WiFi, temperature, cleanliness and more.

It’s something that marketers don’t do nearly enough. Too many, in my experience, are still devoting too much resource to communications, to advertising, looking to agencies of various kinds to help them solve their brand growth issues.

So, as a corrective to that tendency, and extrapolating from the way BA has gone about things, I suggest a formula that ad-happy marketers might keep in mind, to ensure they don’t trap themselves in a communications ghetto, and to guard against consumer disappointment when their brilliant advertising has done its job. In honour of BA, I’ll call it the Bravo Alpha principle of marketing granulation.

It’s simple enough to state, even if it’s far from simple to effect. For every piece of new copy you run, you must identify and improve at least one customer experience touchpoint. For BA that was 500 new ads, 600 improved touchpoints. Your numbers may be humbler. But, even if this year you develop, say, one new TV spot, three new outdoor executions and half a dozen unique digital ads, you’re looking at making 10 substantive improvements.

And they’ve got to count. They can’t just amount to tinkering. BA shows the way again, with another jaw-dropping number. It will invest £7bn in its improvement programme. Seven billion! Much of that will go on new aircraft but that still leaves billions for IT upgrades, better seats, new cabins, superior layouts, modernised lounges, and more airport and call-handling staff to shorten queues.

Marketers in more workaday categories might assume they haven’t really got many different touchpoints to play with. They’d be surprised – as my MBA students always are when we get onto touchpoints as a subset of best marketing practice. A thorough audit even of a brand of crisps will reveal meaningful customer experience opportunities in packaging, sizing, ingredients, nutritional value, labelling, in-store guidance, sampling, disposal, responsible sourcing, fair trading and complaint handling, just for starters. You might not get to 600 but you’ll have no trouble getting to 10. From that point, it’s about imagination, determination and money, to find ways to serve people better.

And, when those touchpoint enhancements get noticed and appreciated by customers, it sets up a virtuous circle of not just more repeat purchase but better word of mouth to stimulate greater brand penetration within the potential customer base.

So, with its big numbers and its big ambitions, BA is setting us an example. You hit consumers with a brilliantly unmissable advertising campaign. And you hit back at competitors with a comprehensive programme of improvements that will make you a category-leading force once again. In fact, and with the greatest respect to the marketers at our national flag carrier, I can think of just one enhancement to that approach.

Do it the other way around.