The success of Air Pacific’s relaunch as Fiji Airways speaks loudly to the declining use of the Pacific as a brand.
In 1971, Fiji Airways made the strategic decision to forsake the Fiji brand and rebrand as Air Pacific. In 2012, after over four decades of operation as Air Pacific, the airline reversed history, boldly effecting a total rebrand and returning to its former name. A year on and the Fiji Airways redux is proving an overwhelming success, but rebrands never come cheap nor without overwhelming risk. So, what led the airline to forsake its 40 year-old regional brand in favor of a new national identity?
At over five and a half thousand miles from either Los Angeles or Beijing, Fiji is separated from almost everywhere by the massive expanse of the Pacific Ocean and its sparse confetti of micro-states. Peripherality and economies of scale have been limiting factors in the development of the Pacific’s islands. Although the region’s major industry is tourism, for example, international air traffic tends to fly over rather than to it. In geographic terms it is a super-region, yet in human terms it is a minnow, often expressed as an after-thought (‘Asia-Pacific’) or as a marker to its more ‘important’ littoral neighbors (‘Pacific Rim’). Not surprisingly, place branding discourse on the region tends to be limited to obscure references in development assistance, ethnographic and environmental reportage.
Even under the best of circumstances, the challenges facing the formation of a region brand are immense. Marcus Andersen (2009), in his study of region branding in the Baltic Sea Region (BSR), identifies two major challenges: diversity “in terms of the multiple national identities and many potential stakeholders”, and the absence of a central decision-making authority. The BSR, he observes, lacks many of the prerequisites for building a brand, such as a political structure, common culture, common history, and linguistic affinity. The Pacific is no exception, yet in its case the challenges are amplified by the incoherence the region derives from the asymmetry of its geographic and human footprints.
Globally, place branding has tended to be an accidental process rather than a deliberate endeavor (Bjorn Jacobsen, 2009). If anything, place branding in the Pacific could be said to fall into what Adam Grydehøj describes as ‘standardized’ official island branding—a templated approach emphasizing “quality-of-life issues, juxtaposing the traditional ‘island allure’ with ‘cutting edge’ elements.” “This standardization of official island brands,” he writes, has been used in such diverse locations as rural Shetland and the densely populated Malta.
The branding of the Pacific’s islands appears to have followed something of a similar template, viewed since their earliest contact with Europeans as “latter-day Gardens of Eden” (Harrison, 2003). These are stereotypes “well established in the imagination of the industrialized West and purposefully reinforced by marketing strategies which emphasize the idyllic and unhurried pace of island life” (Scheyvens and Russell, 2009). Pristine remoteness has thus been used as a key element in the destination branding of Pacific Island Countries. As the Fiji Tourism website advertises, “if your problems seem far away that’s because they are”.
Yet, for the regional carrier at least, its Pacific branding had perhaps become too diluted by the vast blue expanse of the Pacific itself. “When we looked at it, Air Pacific just didn’t resonate with our customers,” explained acting CEO Aubrey Swift. “People who know us know who we are but people in China and the U.S. thought we were an air conditioning company.” There was also the fact that several extra-regional airline brands share the term “Pacific” despite having no connection at all to its islands. The new brand would resonate more directly with the travel interests of customers in emerging markets, whose vacation interests involved adventure and interacting with local residents to learn about their culture.
To be sure, the rebrand was in part the logical culmination of a range of historical factors that had diminished the relevance of the Air Pacific brand. It was in the mid-1960s when Air New Zealand, the British Overseas Airways Corporation and the governments of Tonga, Western Samoa, Nauru, Kiribati, and the Solomon Islands acquired stakes in the airline, driven by the intention to make it a regional carrier. However, with changing market dynamics, operating losses, emerging regional airline rivalries, and a new Fiji government’s 51% stake in the company, things had changed.
Whatever the reasons, rebranding involves significant risk given that successful brands take years to build. A rebrand scuttles the hitherto value derived from existing branding in one iconoclastic move. As Borges and Branca (2009) observe, “part of existing accumulated goodwill, in the form of name recognition, corporate image, and routinized purchase behavior, can be lost.” There was a lot at stake.
In addition to corporate and product branding, the strategy ushered in a fleet revitalization, a shift in new aircraft from Boeing to Airbus, and an overhaul in management, marketing and aircraft livery, from seat cushion to aircraft tailfin. The distinctive new Fiji Airways’ logo, a traditional Masi design created by local artist Makereta Matemosi, now headlines its Fijian branding. The logo and associated pacifika motifs feature strikingly on the new Fiji Airways aircraft exteriors, livery, staff uniforms, and airline merchandise.
The rebrand itself has been narrated by its protagonists as a story that might sit comfortably within the trope of a South Seas romance. When tasked to search for a new ‘visual language’ for Fiji Airways, goes the story, a team from marketing company FutureBrand was dispatched by former Air Pacific CEO Dave Pflieger to Fiji’s outer Mamanuca islands “to discover the real Fiji and its people.” It was there, states FutureBrand’s media release, “that we saw first-hand the prevalence, beauty, and respect that Fiji has for tradition and its traditional Masi art – an ancient art that embodies the spirit and stories of Fijian culture.”
The rebrand has been met with overwhelming critical approval. Positive industry feedback and its receipt of a number of awards have demonstrated its initial success. For its part in the rebrand, FutureBrand won a ‘Brand New’ award in the category of ‘Salvage – Comprehensive Identity Programs,’ and the new logo received a 72% greatness approval on the Brand New (2012) International Value Scale. In a case of favorable timing, it also picked up Auckland Airport’s ‘Airline of the year’ award in July 2013 (Baoa, Fiji Sun, 2013).
In ‘forsaking’ the Pacific, the Fiji Airways brand is flying high and putting Fiji on the map, and ironically it may just end up being a very good thing for the region.