British Airways “World Images” Tailfins: 20 Years On

In 1997 BA launched its “World Images” Tailfins. It was regarded as a marketing disaster at the time. Should history be kinder?

British Airways Boeing 747
British Airways Boeing 747

It was 20 years ago this week British Airways launched what is commonly thought as one of the greatest marketing disasters of all time.

As part of a company wide rebranding exercise, the company replaced its long standing “Landor” aircraft livery with approximately 50 different tailfins featuring designs representing the many nations served by BA, such as tartan for Scotland and calligraphy for China.

The exercise was carried out with the best of intentions. At the time BA was the self-styled “World’s Favourite Airline”. This was because it carried more international airlines than any other airline. 60% of its passengers originated from outside the UK. The plan was to present BA to the world as a modern, warm and caring airline.

This seemed fitting with the times. Tony Blair had secured a landside victory for New Labour in a General Election and there was a confidence in the UK’s contemporary culture, exemplified by the rise of Britpop.

Whilst the designs we well received by BA’s international passengers, they were not so well receive back in the UK. The label “ethnic tailfins” stuck. The former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously took exception to the sight of a model BA aircraft at the 1997 Conservative Party conference and covered its tailfin with a handkerchief. “Maggie Puts BA Into A Tailspin” was the front page of the Daily Mail the following day. This was the death knell for the rebranding exercise. Virgin Atlantic, which at the time always seized the opportunity to joke at BA’s expense, painted the Union Jack and the decal “Britain’s Flag Carrier” on its aircraft.

Though it wasn’t formally abandoned until four years later. the whole exercise is considered to be one of the biggest marketing missteps of all time, along side Coca-Cola’s “New Coke” and the Hoover free flights promotion. Although marketing professionals are much more charitable and would consider it as one of the most misunderstood branding exercises of all time.

BA is a very different animal today compared to 1997. At the time the Oneworld alliance did not exist. easyJet and Emirates were minnows compared to today. BA also substantially scaled back its route network under its 2002 “Future Size and Shape” exercise, and much of its global reach is now through partnerships and alliances. However, many previously suspended routes such as Seoul and Kuala Lumpur have been restored and it has also opened up new routes to Austin and San Jose with the Boeing 787. BA has also had for the past ten years the moniker “London Airways” because it has largely retreated its UK operations to London Heathrow. BA is now part of International Airlines Group which is both a help and a hindrance. It benefits from hundreds of millions of pounds of cost and revenue synergies but has to compete against other airlines in its group for investment and has a grinding cost control regime imposed on it.

Like 1997, this year is shaping up to be something of an “annus horribilis” for BA. It has received a torrent of negative press coverage, primarily for cut backs to in flight service, industrial relations strife and the IT outage over the late May bank holiday weekend. Rightly or wrongly these events have been conflated to create a narrative of an airline in decline.

A clear theme of criticism of the airline this year is the divergence between expectations of BA as a brand and its actual behaviour. The expectation that it should offer a differentiated service from low cost carriers and it should have adequate contingency plans for disruption.

Whilst the 1997 branding exercise is widely considered a failure, as BA historian Paul Jarvis explained for Design Week it extended much further than its aircraft liveries and was aimed as much at employees as customers. The airline was setting its ambitions high to be “the undisputed leader in world travel”.

Had the “World Images” tailfins been launched today, given the huge popularity of contemporary art and design, it would no doubt be better received. Given that BA is bound to launch a brand rebuilding exercise at some point, it could do well to look back at the good intentions of this campaign of a modern globally minded airline seeking to be an industry leader through differentiated service.

For a look at other BA marketing campaigns, please see our review of BA’s most memorable TV advertisements.

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