My mentor Ted Matthews created the most meaningful and elegant definition in the world of branding: A brand is what people think of you.
There is a second part of his definition that is not quite as well known, but equally powerful and crisp: Brand is culture.
These definitions are such significant contributions to people and organizations everywhere because they debunk the still widely-believed myth that a brand consists of graphic design elements like logos, colours, websites, business cards and other marketing collateral.
Brand = what people think of you
Brand = culture
And so it is that the brand of Porter Airlines is diving steeply – even though their logo, colours, racoon mascot and other marketing materials continue to look exceptionally good. It is the culture at Porter that has been on a downward path for at least a few years and is now showing signs of acceleration toward a messy ending on the ground.
I have written glowingly about Porter seven times in this space since 2009, including a piece that year in which a reader poll named them one of the Best Brands of the Decade along with Apple. I was an early adopter of the airline, flying them in the early months and years of their existence, when the planes were almost empty. So it is with considerable personal disappointment, after two flights this week, that I point out that Porter’s promise of Flying refined is breaking apart under the stress of bad employee attitudes – of a culture of uncaring.
It used to be that Porter employees were smiling, pleasant, proud people who were such a breath of fresh air compared to Air Canada in particular. Now, from the check-in counter to the gate to high in the skies, they are stoned-faced, indifferent and even hostile to a degree that would make our national carrier proud.
In the Porter lounge at Ottawa’s airport this week, the front desk was at first unattended, a possible explanation for the array of tables garnished with crumbs, the dirty coffee machine and the cookies on the floor. A later trip to the lounge, in which the desk attendant barely looked up from the book she was reading and did not bother acknowledging my entry, crashed that theory. In fact the dirt, still very much in place, was due to pure lack of caring.
Next to the gate, where Melanie stood out from her peers by proactively loaning me her smartphone charger. This was over the loud objections of her supervisor, whose mantra was a simple “No. No. NO.” after which she shook her head in disgust at Melanie’s initiative and stomped away, completely ignoring my presence.
Then to the plane, where the seats are dirt-stained, the delicious sandwiches are just a memory from the good old days and the flight attendants still have their jaunty hats, but their faces are flatlined and their hearts are largely checked out.
That was this week. A year ago, the rot was already evident when the agent in the Toronto ferry terminal looked at my boarding pass and decided not to tell me my flight was cancelled, and the Ottawa counter agent took pleasure in berating me for cutting close my check in time.
This is not Flying refined. This is not something that can be fixed with an updated logo or a fresh ad campaign. This is deep down rot.
That can only be fixed, if it’s not too late already, by difficult application of a simple formula: brand = culture.
Led by a CEO willing to self-appoint as CBO, Chief Brand Officer: the only person with the view from 30,000 feet.
Click here for the blog that nominated Porter as one of the Top 10 Best Brands of the Decade.
Recent comment in the National Post: “Birks and Tiffany & Co: Battle of the Blue Jewelry Boxes.”
Book: Buy the #1 Globe and Mail bestselling Brand: It Ain’t the Logo or download a free chapter.