by Sean McCoy (@TheRealMcCoyTRM) Are internal branding and culture building continuous or are they approached cyclically? I’ve been spending a fair amount of time at 30 000ft again in recent months and, at the risk of being non-patriotic (no, SAA, I am leaving you alone, as promised), I find myself taking an updated view of a successful South African airline brand, kulula.

Is it a cycle?

I’m always the first to concede that we shouldn’t live life through our own home movie, but unfortunately this column has been triggered by an in-flight experience aboard the airline from Cape Town back to Johannesburg, or Lanseria, more specifically. And a simple and easily avoidable one at that.

Upon boarding in Cape Town and taking up my position, I made use of the seat pouch in front of me to store some belongings, only to be confronted by a used tissue, presumably from the passenger on the flight before me, prior to the turnaround. Not a crisis, you might argue, but hardly the brand experience I’ve come to expect from kulula, even as a low-cost airline. Naturally, this is an operational issue and has slipped through the system, despite the appeals to passengers to assist with placing refuse on the seats prior to disembarkation or that cleaners moved through the aircraft during the turnaround phase.

There’s often a clear pressure to turn aircraft around between Cape Town and Lanseria, in this case at rapid speed and to meet the requirements of other passenger grumbles — on-time departure and arrival — but this level of experience and hygiene doesn’t cut it and has triggered what has ironically been on my mind for some time: Does kulula still have the spark and ethos it previously occupied? More fairly, and away from it specifically, is internal branding and culture building continuous or is it approached cyclically?

Leadership change

Gidon Novik was joint CEO in the early stages of kulula and appeared to be the voice behind the brand and the unique and quirky culture that it portrayed. He departed some time back already, as has the then-CMO, Heidi Brauer, now plying her wonderful skills in the financial services sector, and I wonder if some of the unique brand culture has left the building (or aircraft) in the process.

kulula no longer appears to have the same energy or quirkiness that prevailed previously. Attempts at fun and humour are either very weak or alternatively non-existent, making the offering as commoditised as the other airlines. Does the airline still actively think about and work upon culture or has it foregone what was exciting and special about it from the onset?

Admittedly, it’s hard work to keep this style and uniqueness up but, if that is considered foundational and a key part of the purpose and manifesto of the brand, then solutions need to be actively developed and maintained. It would appear that Southwest has gotten this right, even after 45 years in the game.

Back to basics

Leaving kulula and the soggy tissue saga aside for now, it is a reminder that internal branding can’t be an occasional or periodic thing. Much like we seldom switch external branding on and off, the internal brand effort needs a constant spotlight in order to shine — leadership, resources and focus. People come and go; operational requirements shift constantly; competitive landscapes remain dynamic; and economic cycles and resultant cost pressures will always be with us. Through these phases of business, a strong internal brand and culture will optimise upside performance and mitigate against downside troughs, but only if held constant through leadership, resources and effort.

A tissue session has particular meaning to the advertising and communication industry; this story should preferably never be part of that definition.


Sean McCoyDr Sean McCoy, MD and founding member of HKLM, is a prominent figure in the branding arena, with his expertise centered on client service, brand strategy and business development. He contributes the regular “The Real McCoy” column focusing upon internal branding to MarkLives.

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