Is it time to give the Singapore Girl a makeover?
Singapore doesn’t have many 'brands' that stand out in the international community.
There’s the Raffles Hotel, the Singapore Sling and its national carrier Singapore Airlines (SIA). The others, let's call them the "B team": the Merlion, chicken rice and the new casinos don’t really get a mention on the world stage.
The brand that has done more for Singapore than any other is clearly SIA. In many ways the airline has been the poster child for Singapore as an efficient, comfortable, safe and welcoming Asian nation.
It is regularly recognized as one of the best airlines in the world thanks to its exemplary service, comfort, food, in-flight entertainment and the quality of its website. Throughout its existence SIA has often been the first experience people have had of Singapore or Singaporeans.
And long at the heart of the SIA has been the Singapore Girl, the marketing image of the airline that was the brainchild of advertising guru Ian Batey back in the 1970s.
The power of an icon
Using SIA’s stewardesses as the figurehead of its brand was a masterstroke. Whle other airlines trade on their technical features and individual services, SIA built itself on the grace, hospitality and humility of its Singapore Girls, dressed in the iconic version of the sarong kebaya designed by Pierre Balmain in 1968.
And for over 40 years the Singapore Girl has been in every SIA advertisement and publicity effort you can imagine -- from TV to newspapers, magazines, direct mail and online.
Introduced in this now quaint ad, she has been the constant on the SIA journey as the airline went from a tiny Southeast Asian airline to one of the most respected in the world.
But brands, even the strong ones, need to be refreshed. So doesn't the Singapore Girl need a modern touch?
Some critics have slammed Singapore Girl as being sexist and the cultural references of the old ad outdated. There is some truth to this. It is unlikely that the Singapore Girl of that original advert would be quite so wide eyed today if she were to hit the streets of London.
I’m not suggesting we turn her into Geylang Girl, just a more accurate, up-to-date portrayal. Perhaps include the role of men in SIA's flight crew? Emphasize the multi-cultural face of modern-day Singapore?
Richard Johnson, founder and creative head of ad agency The Gang, says the question of whether SIA should drop Singapore Girl comes up every few years, something he finds strange.
Can Singapore Airlines continue flying high without her?
“It’s like McDonald's giving up Ronald McDonald or Disney firing Mickey Mouse,” says Johnson, who has worked on many different airline advertising campaigns in his career.
“There’s a whole heap of reasons to keep the Singapore Girl," says Johnson. "She's had years of investment. You can invent history, Bailey’s did it, but it’s a difficult thing. Why throw away almost 40 years of history? In accounting terms she’s an intangible asset.”
The Singapore Girl is also an aid to recruitment, a mark of excellence, she’s more emotional than just a logo, she’s award-winning and it’s an honest strategy, as the girls used in the ads have all been real members of the airline’s staff.
“It’s not just the Singapore Girl it’s Pierre Balmain’s iconic uniform,” says Johnson. “It’s [also] a lock-out strategy. If SIA were to drop the Singapore Girl someone else would almost certainly pick the concept up: Malay Girl, Thai Girl, North West Mama?
"My view is that SIA has a near perfect combination of brand components," says Johnson.
"Rationally we know they are the early adopters of aviation technology, but it’s the emotional side to the brand which sways our decision to fly with them. Quite simply, I pay more to fly the same journey because it’s SIA. And in the end that’s all a brand is.”
The Singapore Girl: A good problem
Some do think she is due for a tuneup however. Strategic planner Eunice Tan, from creative agency TSLA, says: “If anything, SIA seems to have lost any sense of human touch with its consumers that they once had and the brand seems convoluted to say the least."
“Here you have a brand who's product does live up to it's name, to a certain degree, but has stopped living up to it's product attributes. Instead, today we have the SIA girl featured in a myriad of clichéd scenarios."
"I don't know how consumers can identify with a visual of a stewardess tucking in a businessman reclining comfortably in his seat or offering a toy to a child in economy," says Tan.
"SIA has been sadly reduced to that, and let's not forget the obligatory thumbnails of the SIA girls in every ad, which has become more a 'hygiene factor' than anything meaningful.”
Tan adds that SIA seems to have forgotten that once upon a time travel meant something to the brand.
“Instead of feeding consumers promises that do not really translate, perhaps it's time to look at what travel really means to consumers today and tell a more compelling story stemming from that," says Tan. "Not forgetting that there is an air of mystery and a beautiful heritage story that the brand should still be leveraging upon.”
It looks like Singapore Girl is here to stay. She may be middle-aged, a tad behind the times and getting older but she remains relevant. Most importantly she's still putting bums on seats.
Long may her reign continue.