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2 August 2017

Qatar Airways overcomes brand crisis

How a global airlines social sentiment recovered from political sanctions in 48 hours.

In 1965, the average lifespan of a company on the S&P 500 was 33 years. By 1990, it was down to 20. Certain forecasts see that number shrinking to 14 by 2026. According to others, it’s already far lower, hovering around 10. Businesses today face a one-two punch: disruptive innovation is on the rise, and bad news spreads faster than ever. Social media and the always-on press make news impossible to contain or control.

The result: spin-doctoring is dead. When bad news hits, it hits fast and it hits hard. With so many choices, consumers don’t need to remain brand loyal. If Company A disappoints, its customers can switch to Competitor B, or C, or D. There’s always a new kid on the block. The reality? Doubts, fears and negativity among consumers have the potential to cause lasting reputational damage. They can also, however, be controlled and countered by brand strength.

Qatar Airways – the tale of a rapid bounce-back

Between March and May 2017, BrandsEye conducted a sentiment analysis of major Middle Eastern airlines – Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways among them – analysing over half a million online mentions in both English and Arabic over the period.

For the study, passengers’ perceptions of a variety of factors (including in-fight service, baggage handling, aesthetics, ethics and affordability among others) were assessed.

Despite strong performances by the three airlines over a broad range of factors – with Qatar Airways the particular standout – all endured a rocky road.

Reputational challenges faced by the carriers included the travel ban imposed by the US on six Muslim-majority nations and electronic device restrictions affecting direct flights from the Middle East to the US.

The most major PR onslaught? The imposition of political sanctions on the nation of Qatar. On 5 June, five countries including Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut ties with the country. The fallout had a major impact on Qatar Airways, leading to flight cancellations and the closure of QA offices in Riyadh and Dubai. The original BrandsEye study period was extended to assess the effects.

The immediate aftermath

In the hours that followed the emergence of the crisis, the airline saw an immediate drop in positive sentiment. Issues around flight cancellations/rerouting, a lack of clarity regarding refunds and the levying of penalties all drove frustration. Many passengers took to social media to express their dissatisfaction. Further reputational damage was caused when FC Barcelona and FC AlAhli canceled their sponsorship deals with the airline.

Having hovered at a healthy 36% on 4 June based on daily sentiment analysis, positive sentiment had tumbled to a mere 4% by the 5th. Negative sentiment, by contrast, reached an all-time high of 33% on June 6th.

Rapid recovery

Despite the severity and scale of the crisis, within 48 hours of implementing processes to deal with the fallout, sentiment toward the airline began recovering.

airline-qatar-crisis-weekly-sentiment Daily sentiment analysis towards Qatar Airways

airline-qatar-crisis-weekly-sentiment Weekly sentiment analysis towards Qatar Airways

In fact, due to both the airline’s rapid response to customer complaints and the buoyancy of its reputation, negative sentiment for the month of June increased only to 13% from its three-month average of 9%. Positive sentiment, by contrast, dropped from 44% to 34%, still remaining overwhelmingly positive.

airline-qatar-crisis-weekly-sentiment Monthly sentiment analysis towards Qatar Airways

Overcoming crises

Despite the challenges it faced, Qatar Airways remained the best-performing airline in terms of both positive and negative sentiment over the entire study period. The airline consistently out-performed other carriers across a range of measures including customer service, in-flight experience, aesthetics, baggage handling and more.

airline-topics-breakdown Breakdown of positive and negative sentiment at the topic level

Brand building today equals resilience tomorrow

The increasing churn of the S&P 500 makes it clear – no company, however dominant, can be assured of its market-leading position any longer. Increasing competition, disruptive innovation and the near-instant spread of negative press are all conspiring to shorten even the best businesses’ lifespans.

Amid this volatility, the anchoring of a strong, trusted, consistently well-performing brand can prove key – particularly when companies are faced with sudden and severe reputational threats. As the Qatar Airways example demonstrates, reputation can act as a buffer, minimising bouts of negativity. For companies already on shaky ground however, episodes of bad PR are likely to spell much deeper and more lasting reputational harm.

For more information on BrandsEye Middle East airlines report read the full analysis here alternatively [download] our e-reputation analysis with Toulouse Business School (/downloads/e-reputation-middle-east-report.pdf)

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