Earlier in the month I was asked for some belated comments on the GQD (The Great Qantas Debacle) of 2011 – specifically in relation to the timing of its ill-fated Twitter campaign that invited consumers to define a luxury in-flight experience. Having now been published, it’s worth sharing those comments more broadly. As follows:
For all the vitriol about the Qantas’ decision to ground its fleet, it was a bold move that made commercial sense. Where the airline failed was in its understanding and response to market sentiment about that decision.
That response might have ticked all the communications boxes – CEO as flag-carrier; daily briefings; powerful ad campaigns in the aftermath – but the company made the serious error of putting IQ above EQ. And Australians felt let down.
There’s no small irony that part of that sentiment can be attributed to the success of Qantas’ own marketing campaigns in earlier years. As the self-appointed “Spirit of Australia”, and with the glowing halo of a children’s choir singing “I Still Call Australia Home”, the campaigns became the soundtrack for a nation.
But just as the marketing push strengthened the Qantas brand, so it made that brand all the more fragile. When Qantas let down Australians, it did far more than inconvenience a few thousand travellers over the course of a weekend. It pummelled the trust they’d invested in the brand.
The Twitter competition brought the issue to a head. In the context of market sentiment, and with very little sign of good old-fashioned authentic empathy being shown from the management team, consumers fired back.
At worst, the competition in itself was lame. But its’ timing was appalling. The fact that it was promoted when consumers were still searching for reasons why they should remain proud of the national carrier only amplified the sense that the airline’s management was completely out of touch.
As a consequence, Qantas now has its work cut out to regain consumer trust. That will take time, patience and some delicate marketing initiatives. And yet, strange as it may be, Australians want the airline to succeed. Not simply because it is the national flag carrier. But because Qantas says as much about Australians as it does the brand itself. Lesser brands would struggle to recover from such a breach of consumer trust.
Whilst Qantas might have inadvertently provided students with another crisis management-failure case study, its real dilemma was an inherent over-reliance on empirical data. In other words, the research seems to have been mis-translated as the facts, particularly in relation to perceived consumer sentiment towards the airline.
Research is not only big business, it has also become something with which we are all familiar and, perhaps, increasingly adept. Or at least, we think so.
Except we have to remember that information is nothing without insight. And we absolutely have to remember that Google, for all it’s recent innovation, is not an insight tool, it’s a search platform.
Nor is a focus group a viable research forum. Instead, it is a validation of risk.
For all the offers of free wine; extended points programs; and short-haul upgrades, we saw little in the way of sincerity, authenticity or apology in the aftermath of the grounding of the Qantas fleet. Nor did we see any willingness to interact with the customer directly during the difficult weeks in November and December.
Therein lies the most significant aspect of the airline’s ill-conceived response, and of its failure to provide an adequate defence to its reputation around what was ultimately a necessary commercial step. It showed all the signs of a company that put its faith in selective research whilst it had become increasingly detached from true consumer sentiment.