The most powerful brands are true to themselves. Their personalities are vivid, and honest. You can’t fake it, you don’t get anywhere by pretending to be what you are not, but it’s a fine balance and the quirkier you get the narrower your appeal.  When you are distinctive you will undoubtedly put some people off, but you’ll also tend to make the relationships you have deeper and more enduring (read valuable) and it works with brands in just the same way as it does in our personal lives. 

It’s up to you to establish whether your appeal is broad enough to be viable. If its not, you can fix this over time with a well defined and managed brand development programme, but, as I said, you can’t fake it and filling the gaps in your armoury is definitely not a quick fix.

Against this background I was intrigued by a new brand among long-haul airlines that despite their cosmopolitan destinations are remaining staunchly and unashamedly narrow. The 10.5million people in the Czech Republic are already well-served by airlines from around the world as well as a national carrier CSA that has been a dead man walking for years. However, the subject of my focus is the quirky Czech airline SmartWings and their foray into long haul to Dubai.

The experience I had flying with SmartWings recently was unmistakably Czech and with the British-managed and very polished FlyDubai due to launch their cosmopolitan brand on the same route next month SmartWings’ single-minded branding will be put to the toughest test.

From Ryan Air’s customer abuse to EasyJet’s uncouth passenger manifest, budget airlines are all lacking in some department. It’s all a matter of value choices. In fact when you consider that I spent more in the duty free shop at Dubai airport than my round trip from Dubai to Prague and back cost me on SmartWings, it seems a bit churlish to complain about anything. The carrier has clearly aimed squarely at the Czech traveller. Probably those with shallow pockets who are looking for a more exotic destination, but lack the sophistication to step outside their Czech cocoon. The give-away here is that the cabin crew were all Czech and the passengers applauded when the plane landed! They will also have to have very small wardrobes to comply with baggage restrictions – 15k plus 5k carry on. (I think my carry on usually weighs 15k!). There are absolutely no concessions made to travellers of nationalities other than Czechs.

I was actually relieved to find that, at the equivalent of £180 for a route I’d pay Emirates closer to £500 for, we had seats to sit on, but having not flown on an aircraft that didn’t offer proper in-flight entertainment since the seventies, I feared, when I discovered there was no customary back-of-seat entertainment centre on these aircraft, that, as Czechs are very much into amateur entertainment, the cabin crew might be planning to put on a little show. However, there was free (as well as charged-for) in-flight refreshments and I was delighted to find that my nose was not pressed against the back of the seat in front.

While SmartWings have taken the bold step of placing their little country’s culture front and centre it is a bit esoteric and will definitely not resonate with many of travellers on this route. I’m reasonably familiar with Czech culture, having had a base there for fifteen years and even I felt excluded, so I wonder if it makes good business sense to alienate so many passengers of other nationalities. Dubai is a place of many cultures where everyone (Including the Czechs) speaks English, yet, the only newspapers available on the six-hour flight were Czech. The in flight movie, shown on drop down screens the size of my smart-phone every three rows was also a very esoteric Czech production (There were subtitles, but they were so fast I couldn’t read them).

Budget airlines, of course, need to leverage any opportunity for revenue and in-flight magazine advertising is one revenue stream they can’t afford to ignore. I’m no stranger to magazine publishing having created a number of magazines for clients myself over the years and I was pleased to see a thick SmartWings magazine printed on paper which is thinner and poorer quality than would be required to attract Arab passengers, but was nonetheless a pretty good reflection of the carrier’s positioning.  However, it is definitely missing a trick or two. Pretty well all the ads were in Czech and the editorial (which was in English and Czech) was very Czech-centric. It didn’t seem to be designed to introduce Czechs to the customs, idiosyncrasies or other delights of the countries they were heading to and if it was intended to present the Czech Republic to an international audience it failed by talking too much like a Czech person. These inconsistencies will limit Arab advertisers and possibly international ones, but it also highlights the underlying question. Are SmartWings aiming at a Czech traveller to Dubai, or foreigners heading to Prague. And if its just Czechs, how sustainable is this exclusive strategy, particularly in the light of competition from FlyDubai.

The in-flight food, which I have admitted was a pleasant surprise, maintained the confusion by being typical of the Vietnamese faux-Chinese “bistros” that have taken over the Czech capital. This may possibly have been a naive attempt to appear cosmopolitan and it was OK, but they might have done better by maintaining the “Czech culture showcase” theme and serving up svickova or goulas even adding a story to the menu (possibly printed on the lid) to explain the origins and history of the dish.

Cabin crew were typically Czech, which means not as rude as their Ryan Air counterparts nor as in-you-face over-familiar as the crews on SouthWest Airlines and they were definitely pressed for time, routine-driven and not prone to tackle passenger needs that weren’t in the schedule. They were also conspicuously male, on my first leg, but maybe that was just a coincidence of the flight I was on. I’m still trying to get my head around the refreshment regime. Apart from the free meals and accompanying drinks, there’s a menu of refreshments listed in the in-flight magazine with prices, but I was told they weren’t available on the leg to Prague. Instead, if you wanted anything you just asked for it and it was served up for free! That one definitely goes on my “weird but welcome” list!

With no real in-flight entertainment for six hours there were times when I almost wished for the cabin-crew theatre. As I have said, there’s nothing wrong with the “cultural experience” but if you are going to take that approach on a long haul flight you really need to provide an opt-out option and in this case I think a wi-fi broadband provision would be welcome. I certainly didn’t expect to travel on a plane without the usual entertainment options, but I would have been happy to pay a nominal fee to stream video on my notebook. At the very least, I think an English language newspaper should be available, even if its Gulf News or Al Jazeira.

However, as I said, it’s a bit mean to find fault with an airline that is so obviously putting in some effort and, as my readers will know, I’m a big promoter of vivid brand personalities that appeal unequivocally to a clearly defined market. Given that Czechs are still tuning in to what international travellers consider right and proper, if the choice is between a limited offer delivered well and a failed attempt to compete with a major carrier on every level, I think I would probably choose SmartWings’ no frills simplicity again, although maybe next time with a fully-loaded i-Pad!

PS: In searching for an image to accompany this post, I discovered that SmartWings currently have four plane liveries. Surely that’s an indication of a business that’s not too sure of its own identity, but its also an opportunity for someone who knows what they are doing to tidy this up.

Phil Darby
November 26, 2014

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