In it for the long haul

British Airways' marketing chief Jayne O'Brien has had a tough time convincing the public that there's more to flying than no-frills. But, as Ian Burrell reports, the fortunes of 'the world's favourite airline' are on their way up

Jayne O'Brien has every reason to sleep uneasily at nights - she is the woman in charge of shaping British Airways' public image as it fights a bitter battle for the global market in air travel. Not only does BA have to compete with the big long-haul carriers, but no-frill' airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet are nipping at its heels in its own backyard.

Jayne O'Brien has every reason to sleep uneasily at nights - she is the woman in charge of shaping British Airways' public image as it fights a bitter battle for the global market in air travel. Not only does BA have to compete with the big long-haul carriers, but no-frill' airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet are nipping at its heels in its own backyard.

If O'Brien doesn't look as if she suffers from insomnia, there's a good explanation: it was her idea to introduce flat beds to international air travel. The fact that she sits on top of an annual budget of around £60m - making her one of the most powerful marketing executives in Britain - probably helps her to sleep a little easier as well.

Things are changing at BA. The airline is running its first television ad campaign aimed at businesswomen, launched on Friday. O'Brien has also introduced Kylie Minogue as a face of the airline, booked ads on Capital Radio to attract younger flyers and usedBlue Peter (which staged a competition to "paint" an airliner) to market BA to families.

"Historically we have had a much stronger association with the business market," she says. "In the past we have been misunderstood that that's all that matters to us." The common conception that BA is all about premium quality air travel for men in suits has given marketers at easyJet and Ryanair room to manoeuvre in the battle to appeal to passengers looking for budget weekend breaks.

O'Brien says that it's "really difficult" to market a single brand that appeals to several different customer groups on very different levels. "It's no secret that we've had to try harder. We've had to evolve. We continually look to develop our offering and our prices," she says.

Although O'Brien is adamant that BA short-haul fares now stand comparison with the no-frills carriers, she insists: "We don't just want to be about price. That's not what the BA brand is about." So the carrier's core values remain "British", "reliable", "reassuring", "professional", "safe". For business travellers, the airline emphasises added extras designed to make long-haul travel easier, such as online check-in, flat beds and arrival lounges with showers.

After five years as BA's head of marketing for the UK and Ireland, O'Brien has learnt to be inventive. (She praises media buying agency Zenith Optimedia for being an agent of change.)

BA has used P J O'Rourke, satirist and author of Holidays in Hell, as a face of recent TV ads, helping to dispel the airline's image of being stuffy and old school. It has also established certain iconic images (such as large numerical figures to demonstrate low prices). She wants BA to come into people's everyday lives in places they don't expect. So ads have been taken on the receipts from ATM machines. ("When people are taking out money, it's very relevant to say 'only £69 to go to Paris'.")

BA marketing staff have been despatched to Paddington station to give personal demonstrations to passengers on how they can save significant time in airports by checking in online and printing out their own boarding pass. The message is being driven home by actors who board the Heathrow Express train and perform in front of passengers, along the following lines.

Actor One (without golf clubs): "Ah Tom, you must be on the 12.30 up to Edinburgh."

Actor Two (with golf clubs): "No, the 11 o'clock."

Actor One: "You're never going to make it."

Actor Two: "I've already checked in."

The pair then explain to passengers that they are actors and give details of the online scheme. O'Brien says she is a "big fan" of this form of "ambient" media.

Her marketing strategy is also informed by the internet, especially chat rooms such as flyertalk.com, which she monitors regularly and to which she has assigned a colleague who is authorised to post "official" BA views on the website.

Although she is attacking on many fronts, O'Brien insists that her strategy is an integrated one, banging home the message of reliability meets good service meets great price. "I'm a big fan of keeping it simple," she says. "Don't put too many things in there; evolve it over time." The secret is to cut through what she describes as "marketing clutter". O'Brien says: "People see about 3,000 advertising statements a day. The challenge to the marketer is how you are going to get your message heard, engaged with and understood by the market."

Perversely, O'Brien's position was helped by the 11 September tragedy. Although global air travel took a downturn, BA recognised the need to increase her budget to "market ourselves out of difficult times".

She is convinced that money allocated to sponsorship can be money well spent. "What sponsorship can do is talk to your target audience with something they're interested in."

Rugby, says O'Brien, is "high on the priority list" of BA's core market of business flyers. So the airline sponsors the Rugby Football Union and the current British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.

Sponsoring Kylie's Showgirl tour was a good fit for a different part of the BA customer base. "She's very on brand for us. She's an icon in her own right with the fun, lively approach that she has. We also fly to Australia."

The latest ad campaign, Soft Beds, celebrates the fitting of a new foam to the BA fully reclining seats, and - remarkably - features a woman. "We researched the concept with customers and women were adamant she had to wear a suit and look like a businesswoman. It had to be absolutely clear she wasn't going shopping," says O'Brien.

The campaign was made by long-term BA ad agency M&C Saatchi, in whose offices O'Brien is sitting. As she speaks, Maurice Saatchi, his giant spectacles perched on his nose, sits behind her on the other side of a glass partition, working at his desk.

The BA marketing chief knows that, while she needs to broaden the appeal of BA, she has to protect a much-loved brand. O'Brien says customers have told BA that they want the Union Jack and says it is a good example of "branding that has an emotional pull".

The marketing chief is a formidable operator, who studied Serbo-Croat at university ("it was a bit of a whim") and launched the recent renewal of BA flights to Dubrovnik on Croatian television, in Croatian. She also spent a couple of years in Mexico City managing BA's Central and South American operation, and again the legacy of Thatcher came on to her radar.

"There was a lot of media interest because I was female. Every time I was interviewed they would ask what were the similarities between me and Maggie Thatcher. I couldn't think of any - apart from the fact that we were both female."

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