Trax Associates | Malaysia Airlines — Tribute to a National Icon
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Malaysia Airlines — Tribute to a National Icon

When Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA) split into the national carriers of the two countries on 01 October 1972, a ‘kite’ took off from Subang International Airport in Kuala Lumpur proudly carrying the dreams and aspirations of a young nation.

Calling on every citizen to support the growth of Malaysia’s new national airline through loyal service, dedication and determination, the then Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman, laid the foundations of a  national resolve, a resolve upon which generations of Malaysians dutifully embraced as MAS (or the Golden Airline) took to the skies from its glorious beginnings into a challenging future.

From that promising day, which Malaysian child had not waited patiently to watch the familiar kite take off and land at airstrips around the country? Or looked up into the sky, wondering when he or she would travel in those visions of flight? Which Malaysian had not felt comforted by the red ‘wau’ parked at airports around the world? Or felt pride when MAS brought back winning teams, relief when those stranded arrived safely, or sadness on the repatriation of lost lives to loved ones? In times of triumph and sorrow, the kite was reliably there as a symbol of ownership and the cultural values of home.

Today, as the national airline starts anew and distances itself from the difficulties and legacies of the past, there is much to honour in one of Malaysia’s best-loved icons.


History of a national institution


As with the great national icons of the world, the history of MAS is deeply connected to our social memory. Starting out as Malayan Airways in 1947, the airline played a significant role in the socio-economic development of both Malaysia and Singapore to become Malaysian Airways in 1963, MSA in 1967, and MAS in 1972.

From a country branding perspective, MAS contributed to the creation of our national identity from the start of operations. Abbreviated to mean ‘gold’ upon which all marketing programmes would be premised over the first two decades, the name ‘MAS’; was given by Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein. On consultation on the airline’s new name, Tun Razak felt that the acronym MAL (Malaysian Airlines Limited) for the new airline should be changed to MAS (Malaysian Airlines System) to avoid the negative associations of the Latin word ‘mal’ with the airline’s future. This insight not only presented a strong differentiation strategy on service excellence at home, but the word ‘MAS’ meaning gold, offered the opportunity to build a cohesive international marketing campaign on the Golden Service during the airline’s formative years.

‘Wings of Gold’  was the airline’s first inflight magazine; the ‘Golden Kite Festival’ – on Malaysian culture, music and performing arts at new MAS destinations introduced and promoted Malaysia to the rest of the world and together with the branding of the ‘Golden Lounge’ and ‘Golden Holidays’, all consolidated as the hallmarks of one of Asia’s fastest growing airlines from the early 1970s to mid-1990s.


Elements of national identity


Why was the kite chosen?  According to Tan Sri Saw Huat Lye, the airline’s first chief executive, the kite was selected as it was indigenous and exclusive to Malaysia. With its origin going back many centuries, it was felt during the airline’s formation that those unacquainted with the country would be attracted to the ‘wau bulan’ or the Kelantan kite as a distinctive national symbol of graceful and controlled flight – values MAS would successfully express through its exemplary safety and hospitality record in the future.

From the kite, the batik ‘sarong kebaya’ created by Malaysian fashion designer Andy Chiew, to the colours of the national flag as its visual identity, Malaysia confidently introduced MAS as Malaysia’s national carrier to the rest of the world from 1972. However, as market conditions changed, the airline’s identity evolved.

In 1986, almost 15 years after the airline’s launch, design inputs were sought to update MAS’s brand image. Adapting the original batik first to the tropical colours of green and brown, the geometric designs of Sabah and Sarawak were later incorporated into the now familiar turquoise and pink uniform worn by MAS’s ground and inflight crew. The award-winning ‘sarong kebaya’ designed by the MARA  Institute of Technology School of Fashion and Design continues to be recognised as one of the world’s best looking uniforms and together with the kite, remains as the the most identifiable emblems of Malaysia Airlines.


Changes to visual identity.


As part of the new identity update, the airline’s brand name was changed from MAS to Malaysia Airlines in 1987.

In adopting this new name, popular with many of the world’s national airlines such as British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Air India, Japan Airlines and Emirates, the new name visibly associated the airline with its country of origin.

The redesign of the brand name was commissioned to Datuk Johan Ariff of Johan Design Associates, who modernised the red kite and the ‘Malaysia’ wordmark into its present red and blue aerodynamic form. Over the next 25 years, Malaysia Airlines would carry this identity until the decision to accord the new Airbus 380 fleet with a different visual identity in 2011. By the end of the 1990s, new ownership and management brought further shifts to the airline’s visual signals and brand messaging.


Brand Development.


In the development of a brand identity, there is no right or wrong in the way brand elements are created and executed. The most important requirement is the consistency and convergence of visual identity (what people see in a product’s tangible form or forms), with the personality (what people emotionally feel for the brand’s values and character), and finally the delivery (what people experience in the actual interface) with the brand.

Without this constant integration of form with character and delivery of a brand, enduring market relationships are seldom sustained. As the world debated on the advantages and disadvantages of Malaysia Airlines’s brand future during and post crisis in 2014, what remains critical for Malaysia’s national airline is not whether to retain, refresh or change its brand identity, but how fast the chosen identity will reconnect with stakeholders at home and abroad through stronger brand form, character and delivery.


The resilience of a national icon.


While global commentary continues on the fate of the MAS brand, the airline’s deep affinity to Malaysians and those loyal to the airline astonishingly defied the norms of brand sustainability. Last August, MAS and AirAsia both won the 4As (Association of Accredited Advertising Agents of Malaysia) Putra Gold Brand Award in the transport, travel and tourism category as the people’s choice.

Not inducted as a brand icon by the 4As or placed as a leading aviation brand in recent years, MAS was chosen by Malaysians as their market favourite on the same level of esteem as AirAsia, the much-awarded and globally acclaimed best low-cost airline in 2015. How is this so when many from outside the country had predicted the loss of brand equity and the end of the airline brand post crises?

What the MAS experience demonstrated during and post crises is that brand power is not just about good communications and design. It is also about the memory of positive experiences and the depth of emotion a consumer develops and retains for a popular national icon.  What remains untold throughout crises of 2014 is the home market resilience of a national icon. Although the airline’s challenging financial performances have long been highlighted, the not-to-often-communicated story of Malaysia’s national airline is the unwavering sense of pride and duty upheld by generations of employees (and appreciated by generations of Malaysians) since that bright October day in 1972.

Through the good and bad times, MAS was able to transcend the challenges of its ‘backstage’ performance to consistently retain the gleam of an outstanding ‘onstage’ world–class service. While there were the occasional quirks in service delivery, the consistent warmth and efficiency of experienced personnel, enhanced by an impressive safety record, have kept many Malaysians – despite the lure of low cost travel with other airlines – firmly on the side of MAS. Although Its reputation threatened by the crisis of 2014, what exemplifies the brand to many at home – and perhaps overseas – is  the airline’s unique service ethic and personality.


A ‘Made in Malaysia’ global brand.


Apart from Tourism Malaysia, MAS was the first commercial enterprise to promote Malaysia worldwide. No other institution had the same strength of opportunity (until the arrival of AirAsia) to showcase the country, its culture and values as the MAS employees who served thousands of passengers across the globe each day.

Regardless of cultural origin, the men and women of Malaysia Airlines – pilots, cabin and ground crew, engineers, station and line managers, front liners and those who worked daily to offer Malaysian hospitality at its best – all wore and communicated the airline’s brand identity with great effectiveness and pride. Winning seven out of the 11 Best Cabin Staff Awards from SkyTrax (the industry’s global benchmark for airline excellence) in the full-service airline category since 2000, MAS’s cabin crew was ranked the world’s third best in 2013 and acknowledged as the fifth best (post crisis) out of the Top 20 premier airlines reviewed in 2014.

What is it about a national icon that makes it so special to the people of their home country? Although Malaysia has built a large number of impressive brands across industries, not all have had the same opportunity to be part of our emotional and cultural history. Not all have been in the market long enough to sustain our admiration and respect or reached deep into our national consciousness, if not pride, to make us feel that they belong to us and we to them.

MAS had this unique opportunity and ability. It earned this badge of national appeal through a special set of pre-conditions from which national icons emerge: the socio-economic significance of the institution; its first-mover advantages and access to a mass market; the early competitiveness of products and services; the extent and speed of its global visibility and distribution; the recognition of performance by those within the country and abroad; the ability to connect strongly with the cultural expectations of the nation; and the enduring support of a loyal home market. MAS attained all this, and more.

When a brand achieves these conditions, it becomes an icon, first nationally and then internationally. Once iconic, the market goodwill it creates and will deliver in the future usually exceeds the economic value of the actual business. As national affinity grows, it is not only the depth of the people’s sentiment that attracts and sustains support, but also their loyalty which insulates the brand from unforeseen misfortunes and tribulations. As Malaysians came out in full support undeterred by external comment, MAS employees – facing media scrutiny and job uncertainty – defended the airline’s professional integrity in the consistency of service excellence during one of the most challenging periods of the airline’s history.


Truly Malaysia.


What should Malaysia’s new airline look like?  In the words of a former MAS chairman, ‘a national airlines is more than just a company and institution. However big or established, it always carries with it the pride and hopes of a nation.’ While many of the world’s legacy airlines have chosen to pursue leaner options as the realistic route towards market sustainability, a national airline is inadvertently a country’s ambassador on wings.

With the kite as a symbol of our national identity since 1972, MAS not only defined who we were, but it also represented how we wanted to be perceived as a dynamic nation. Although commercial viability is the imperative for Malaysia’s new airline, this should not negate the importance of what Malaysians and MAS have built together in advancing an attractive, if not credible, presence as a nation and as a people.

Today, as we seek greater convergence in our quest for a definitive identity, Malaysia when faced with this question many years ago, adeptly communicated the spirit of the country’s new ideals through the confident acceptance of the name ‘MAS’, the symbolism of the kite, the cultural representation of the batik ‘sarong kebaya’, and the warmest smiles in Asia as the brand signature of multicultural Malaysia.

Important to Malaysia’s new national airline is not only just the numbers, but how our energies, aspirations and values are shared through the identity, character and experience of a truly Malaysian airline.

We did it once. With the right expertise, the same passion and integrity of purpose, we can do it again.

To MAS, thank you for being a part of our lives, for your loyalty and professionalism, your gracious hospitality and sacrifices, and for making us proud to fly Malaysian.

(This article first appeared in The Edge on 07 November 2015)

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