linked in facebook twitter rss

  • Interbrand
  • Brandchannel

your chance!
your chance!
Singapore Airlines - Flying tiger

Singapore Airlines - Flying tiger

  Singapore Airlines
flying tiger
by Martin Roll
December 6, 2004

Think about one of the strongest brands from Asia, and chances are that Singapore Airlines (SIA) and its long-serving, almost iconic Singapore Girl easily come to mind.

SIA has consistently been one of the most profitable airlines globally, and has always had the reputation of a trendsetter and industry challenger.


There are several good reasons for this. Most relate directly to the strong brand management driven primarily by the SIA boardroom and top-management, and the healthy brand equity as the result of a dedicated, professional brand strategy throughout a diversified, global organization.

The Singapore Airlines brand has been instrumental for the airline from the early start. It serves as a best business case for other established brands as well as any aspiring brands. The Singapore Airlines brand is unique in the sense that the boardroom takes leadership of the brand strategy unlike many other Asian companies.

Singapore Airlines began in 1947 as Malayan (later Malaysian) Airlines in a joint venture between the Malaysian and Singapore governments, serving primarily the South East Asian region. In 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia, and later the two governments agreed to set up separate airlines. Singapore Airlines was born in 1972.

Singapore Airlines was in a different position than most other airlines at the time. As there were no domestic routes to serve, it was forced to immediately start competing with international airlines for routes, getting access to airports, securing flight slots and landing rights, and attracting a new customer base. Unlike most state-owned entities, Singapore Airlines was subject to heavy competition from the onset; this tough start created a driving spirit to compete and also a dedication to branding, especially in the boardroom. These factors have prevailed within the organization since then, and served the airline very well as the following will illustrate.

Building the Brand
Singapore Airlines decided on a fully branded product/service differentiation strategy from the beginning. Innovation, best technology, genuine quality and excellent customer service were to become the major drivers of the brand.

Throughout the course of its 32-year history, Singapore Airlines has remained true to its brand attributes. It has pioneered many in-flight experiential and entertainment innovations, and strived to be best in class. SIA was the first to introduce hot meals, free alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, hot towels with a unique and patented scent, personal entertainment systems, and video-on-demand in all cabins. The company keeps driving innovation as an important part of the brand, and the cabin ambience and combined experience are key factors of its success.

On the technology side, Singapore Airlines still maintains the youngest fleet of aircraft among all major air carriers, and keeps to the stringent policy of replacing older aircrafts for newer, better models. It has always been first in line to take delivery of new aircraft types like Boeing 747 jumbo jets, Boeing 777, and it will become the first airline to fly the Airbus super jumbo A-380 in 2006. Even the aircrafts are sub-branded like 747-Megatop and 777-Jubilee to further distinguish SIA and its brand from competitors. Singapore Airlines also flew Concorde between Singapore and London in the late seventies in collaboration with British Airways (BA). The aircraft was painted with SIA’s colors and logos on one side, and BA’s on the other, and it carried crew from both airlines.

The strategy behind the technology program is clear: It enhances cost efficiency to use the latest aircrafts and at the same time, SIA uses these events for marketing purposes. An example of this was the new non-stop services to Los Angeles and New York launched in 2004, which attracted huge publicity in global media and kept the innovation promise of the brand alive. The special aircrafts for these long-range routes (Airbus A340-500) are sub-branded Leadership to further distinguish the brand promise.

Singapore Airlines recognizes that each innovation has a relatively short life span. Once other airlines adopt it, it is no longer considered “innovative.” Therefore, SIA continues to invest heavily in R&D, innovation and technology as an integrated part of the business strategy to further differentiate itself.

The Singapore Girl
The personalization of the Singapore Airlines brand can be found in the cabin crew (male and female), where especially the flight stewardesses, commonly referred to as Singapore Girls have become very well known. SIA engaged French haute-couture designer Pierre Balmain at the inauguration of the airline in 1972. He designed a special version of the Malay sarong kebaya as the uniform, which later became one of the most recognized signatures of the airline—a designated and visual part of the entire brand experience.

The Singapore Girl strategy turned out to be a very powerful idea and has become a successful brand icon with an almost mythical status and aura around her. She encapsulates Asian values and hospitality, and could be described as caring, warm, gentle, elegant and serene. The icon has become so strong that Madame Tussaud’s Museum in London started to display the Singapore Girl in 1994 as the first commercial figure ever.

Singapore Airlines also runs one of the most comprehensive and rigorous training programs for cabin and flight crew in the industry to make sure the SIA brand experience is fully and consistently delivered.

Communicating the Message
Singapore Airlines has been as consistent in its communication vehicles as in its brand strategy. The primary message “Singapore Airlines—A Great Way to Fly” has been consistently conveyed in exclusive print media and also in selected TV-commercials of very high production value to underline the quality aspirations of the brand. All communication messages are featured through the iconic Singapore Girl in different themes and settings.

When Singapore Airlines recently launched its comfortable Space Bed seats in business class, it ran a 60-second commercial of a highly emotional and mythical character to underline the aspiration of the brand and the Singapore Girl.

Interestingly, the airline chooses to focus on one aspect of the experiential brand strategy (in-flight hospitality and warmth featured by the Singapore Girl) rather than trying to communicate the entire brand benefits through its messages. Many other brands fall into a dangerous trap when they try to communicate all at once. Singapore has remained focused and consistent message for the last 32 years, a great achievement for any brand.

The Singapore Girl has contributed immensely to the success of Singapore Airlines’ brand strategy and its entire positioning around customer and service excellence.

Using the Brand to Drive Revenues
While other airlines have also pursued high service/quality brand strategies, none has been able to match Singapore Airlines in consistency, commitment, and true permeation of the brand in every facet. SIA has been able to maintain its brand advantage by not wavering from the brand strategy. This is a particularly difficult position to maintain in a highly cyclical industry where the competition seems to react on a daily basis to changes in performance. This type of commitment takes dedication from the board, CEO and senior management team, and strong faith in the brand’s ability to pull through bad times. The management team and shareholders must maintain a longer term outlook to avoid making short-term, reactionary decisions, which dilute the brand.

For example, pressure on US airlines stemming from low-cost carrier competition has caused a number of the full-service airlines to begin charging for on-board services that used to be free. Historically, business travelers were willing to pay a premium for full-service airlines, essentially because they provided these services. By abandoning their customer service strategy, even on restricted flights, the premium US airlines are diluting their brand in search of short-term profitability. This is creating a circular effect where the premium airlines are losing cost-sensitive customers to low-cost airlines, which causes them to reduce price to retain these customers. This in turn creates more cost pressure. This cost pressure causes them to start reducing the premium services which made them distinct from the low-cost airlines in the first place.

Singapore Airlines has been able to deliver some of the best results in the industry by avoiding this type of reactionary behavior.

Developing Cost Advantages
Singapore Airlines’ brand strategy is, in theory, a relatively high-cost strategy. Each brand benefit requires significant investment, careful management and detailed implementation programs to live up to the brand promise. Singapore Airlines has carefully built a financial and fixed cost infrastructure, which allows it to continue investing to support the brand while challenging the competition on costs.

First, the strong cash position allows Singapore Airlines to internally fund purchases of new equipment and airplanes, and limit interest costs. SIA is not locked into long-term leases, and can easily accommodate newer, more efficient equipment, which minimizes maintenance costs, and avoid aircraft downtime.

A second benefit of SIA’s infrastructure is the age of its fleet. Maintaining the youngest generation of aircrafts provides SIA with some of the lowest fuel costs in the industry. This is very significant since 15 to 20 percent of an airlines’ total costs derive from fuel. On top of this, SIA carefully hedges up to 50 percent of its fuel contracts two years in advance to avoid cyclical and often large volatility in fuel prices.

Finally, the financial and cash position has allowed SIA to weather the short-term dips in the industry better than the competition.

The Brand Delivers Results
Singapore Airlines has maintained its position as one of the best-known and best-performing brands in Asia, and remains one of the few consistent performers in an industry where established brands are struggling to stay alive. SIA has followed a very simple management formula to achieve outstanding results:

Revenues: Command a price premium through consistent brand benefits and avoid reactionary pricing behavior in order to condition the customer not to wait for price matching.

Costs: Tight control of costs though ownership of the most cost-efficient aircrafts, hedging against fuel price increases, and agile management of the entire company.

Profits: Run the business with a long-term outlook. Be consistent.

What Is Next for Singapore Airlines?
The last three years has seen a dramatic shift in the airline industry. There have been major shakeouts and loose consolidation among premium, full-service players and an expansion in the low-cost carrier market, as well as in the closely regulated Asian airspace. Air travel has become a commodity and most major routes are saturated with fierce competition. The low-cost carriers have significantly influenced consumer behavior for cheap price bargains among leisure travelers and increasingly among business travelers.

SIA has already jumped ahead, launching its own carrier for local and short-haul routes, Tiger Airways, to stay at the forefront of competition. The aim is to avoid dilution of the core premium brand, Singapore Airlines.

Singapore Airlines strongly embedded positioning and commitment to the brand has positioned it well to compete in the new landscape. The challenge is to stay true to the brand and keep delivering on the fairly high-cost promise of quality, innovation and service. This requires heavy, on-going investments and healthy cash-flows which can only be achieved though a continuous price-premium strategy and satisfactory passenger load factors. In other words, customers’ perception of the price/value equation, their future buying behavior (partly to be influenced by the low-cost carriers) and loyalty among other factors are crucial for the future.

In most industries, there are always segments willing to pay for quality brands. Therefore, the question is not whether there are customers in the market, but rather the ability for SIA to constantly nurture the brand promise, keep innovating and capture the overall value of the brand in the minds of the customers.

The strong brand equity of Singapore Airlines is one of the most valuable assets for the company and its cash-rich balance sheet. Singapore Airlines is a leading business case from Asia demonstrating the importance of strategic branding, and it should serve as great inspiration for other Asian boardrooms trying to build and manage their own brands.

Singapore Airlines is among the top companies globally that is truly able to control the brand through every interaction and experience. SIA has become a hugely rewarded innovator and industry leader: A great way to fly.


Martin Roll, CEO of Venture Republic, is strategic advisor on Branding Excellence to corporate boards and top-management teams. He is an experienced international branding strategist, a renowned speaker and workshop host, and an advisor on Asian branding.

 commenting closed Add Social Bookmark bookmark  print
 suggest topic  recommend ( 29 )  email

  brandchannel profile archive   2011  |  2010  |  2009  |  2008  |  2007  |  2006  |  2005  | 2004  |  2003  |  2002  |  2001
Dec 20, 2004 Thums Up - storms ahead
  Local favorite Thums Up has taken on both Coke and Pepsi on its home turf.
Dec 13, 2004 Lithuania - defining itself -- Kristina Dryza
  Emerging nations face the dual task of promoting their brands and promoting their country. Lithuania makes its mark.
Nov 29, 2004 Zuji - takes off -- Adeline Chong
  ZUJI leaves its footprint on the Asian travel and tourism industry.
Nov 22, 2004 Volvo - safe? -- Jeremy Josephs
  Moving beyond safe: Can Volvo drive the brand forward without going over a cliff?
Nov 15, 2004 Banyan Tree - branching out -- Ming Wu
  The luxury spa and hotel chain Banyan Tree is branching out to a location near you.
Nov 8, 2004 HP & iPod - out of sync -- Jackson Mahr
  Is this relationship doomed? HP and iPod hook up in a mismatched fling.
Nov 1, 2004 L’Occitane en Provence - breaking out -- Emilie Boyer King
  L’Occitane en Provence captures the beauty of Provence but does its appeal rely on its rarity?
Oct 25, 2004 Nudge Nudge - wink wink -- Mark Jarvis
  Nudge nudge sets out to test the notion that sex sells.
Oct 18, 2004 Boyd Group - full service -- Geoff Kirbyson
  Can Boyd manage its sub-brands without colliding?
Oct 11, 2004 Delhaize Bio - whole -- Sergio Beristain
  Supermarket chain Delhaize’s Bio brand offers an organic choice on the shelf.
Oct 4, 2004 Malaysia - inviting -- L.S. Sya
  What is the solution for growing tourism and investment in Malaysia?
Sep 27, 2004 DQ - blended -- Geoff Kirbyson
  Dairy Queen extends its DQ brand to grill and chill.
Sep 20, 2004 G.O.D. - divine -- Adeline Chong
  G.O.D. coming to a store near you
Sep 13, 2004 Labatt Blue - on ice -- Geoff Kirbyson
  Bears, hockey and maple leafs: Labatt’s message depends on who’s drinking.
Sep 6, 2004 Modo & Modo - notable -- Cristian Salazar
  Modo & Modo writes the book on a cult brand.
Aug 30, 2004 Tab Trailer - retro active -- Alycia de Mesa
  Keeping tabs on Dutch trailer brand T@b.
Aug 23, 2004 Roots - outfits -- Birte Pampel
  Canadian brands Roots conquers the 2004 Olympic Games.
Aug 16, 2004 IOC - lords of the rings
  Can the International Olympic Committee ever hope to restore Olympic glory?
Aug 9, 2004 Global Trust Bank - broke
  Take the trust out of Global Trust Bank and it’s all over.
Aug 2, 2004 Cadillac - fully loaded -- Alycia de Mesa
  Not your grandparents' Cadillac.
Jul 26, 2004 A&W - floating on -- Geoff Kirbyson
  A&W looks to the past for its future.
Jul 19, 2004 Minol - Total trend? -- Slaven Marinovich
  Capitalizing on a nostalgia trend in Eastern Germany, Total revives the Minol mark to see if there’s any juice left in the brand.
Jul 12, 2004 Luxe - guided -- Adeline Chong
  Luxe writes the book on Asian travel.
Jul 5, 2004 American Apparel - all sweaty -- Abram Sauer
  Clothing manufacturer American Apparel uses an old ploy to dress up its basic clothing.
Jun 28, 2004 C2 - Coke too? -- Geoff Kirbyson
  Can the low-carb trend support C2?
Jun 21, 2004 Cold Stone Creamery - the scoop -- Alycia de Mesa
  Cold Stone Creamery takes a scoop from Starbucks on how to sell premium ice cream.
Jun 14, 2004 Volkswagen - bugs out -- Geoff Kirbyson
  VW cruises unchartered road as it tries to move beyond budget cars.
Jun 7, 2004 Chippendale - tuxedo junction -- Abram Sauer
  Can Chippendales straighten up?
May 31, 2004 Rogers Wireless - AT&T-less -- Geoff Kirbyson
  After using AT&T to help establish itself in the wireless market, Rogers is ready to go solo without the famous trademark.
May 24, 2004 Air Deccan - simpliflied -- brandchannel
  Low cost carrier Air Deccan needs to stress the difference between cheap and inexpensive.
May 17, 2004 Entegra - saved -- Geoff Kirbyson
  From Holy Spirit to Entegra, a Canadian credit union emerges from the past.
May 10, 2004 Manchester United - saves the game -- Mark Jarvis
  Manchester United is having a foul year but does that mean the brand is falling short?
May 3, 2004 Girls Gone Wild - milking it -- Abram Sauer
  Girls Gone Wild overreaches its brand.
Apr 26, 2004 Aubade - French made -- Emilie Boyer King
  French lingerie brand Aubade gives a lesson in selling lingerie
Apr 19, 2004 Djarum - smokes -- Cristian Salazar
  Tobacco regulation issues threaten the fringe following of Indonesian brand Djarum
Apr 12, 2004 Pixar - moving pictures -- Brad Cook
  The picture of innovation, Pixar takes Disney’s crown. Can it maintain its spot?
Apr 5, 2004 MI5 - license to brand -- Chris Grannell
  Aside from listening devices, mini-submarines and poisoned umbrellas, MI5’s most powerful asset is its brand.
Mar 29, 2004 Pella - weatherproof -- Michael Standaert
  Pella takes panes to improve its brand.
Mar 22, 2004 Innocent Drinks - savvy -- Lizzy Stallard
  Innocent Drinks’ secret ingredient? Words.
Mar 15, 2004 BMW - changes lanes -- Aaron Danzig
  BMW appears to be boldly changing lanes.
Mar 8, 2004 ICICI - insured? -- brandchannel
  Will ICICI demonstrate the old adage about rising fast and falling hard?
Mar 1, 2004 Colonial Williamsburg - it's history -- Garland Pollard
  Williamsburg, once a classy destination for cultural tourists, is descending into ye olde parody. What happened to this brand, which covers town, retail, resort and historical preservation?
Feb 23, 2004 Sobeys - branching out -- Geoff Kirbyson
  Retailer Sobeys reorganizes its shelves to make room for an acquisition.
Feb 16, 2004 Peg Pérego - strolls -- Vivian Manning-Schaffel
  In the rather aggressive market of stroller brands, Peg Pérego stakes its place in the nursery on quality and reliability.
Feb 9, 2004 7 UP - flips -- Abram D. Sauer
  dnL may be 7 UP upside down, but what does that make 7 UP?
Feb 2, 2004 TELUS Mobility - animal instincts -- Geoff Kirbyson
  When critters carry more weight than humans
Jan 26, 2004 Clément Faugier - tops -- Emilie Boyer King
  Consistency appears to be the secret of Clément Faugier’s success.
Jan 19, 2004 J.Lo vs Fetish - diva fashion -- Abram D. Sauer
  Celebrity clothing brands Fetish and J.Lo size up the consumer market.
Jan 12, 2004 Galp - energized -- Robin D. Rusch
  Can branding help fuel Galp Energia’s rise to prominence in the Iberian Peninsula?
Jan 5, 2004 Cisco - keyed in -- Brad Cook
  The secret to Cisco’s growing success? Ever increasing relevance in our technology driven world.