The internal brand thing has buzzed around for about 20 years. But thus far the thinking, processes and roll out of internal brand campaigns have really been based on ‘people coming together’ and an assumption that there’s some kind of corporate hub. What happens when (phase 1) a large chunk of the work force gets sent home and then (phase 2) said large chunk plus some gets made redundant? Somewhere along the line does culture and the beating heart of the internal brand go a bit limp around the edges and start to disintegrate whilst HR remains in a people panic and the internal comms function quivers beneath a general tide of negative news?

Live internal brand case study in aviation. A few years ago Virgin Atlantic devised itself a big hairy internal brand mantra: Red on the Inside. All about employees understanding what makes the airline (and them) special and their role in delivering that experience to customers. Nice mandate and a rolling opportunity for ‘red’ to evolve and for employees to get behind the carrot of ‘not being BA’: you’re ‘inside’ or you’re out, with a reasonable chance you’re a bit grey and stale (much like said competitor’s All Day Deli).

Come lockdown VAA moved swiftly when it came to workforce cuts. Their business is predominantly Atlantic routes (the clue being in the name). Not only was a combined factor of zero business and leisure travel utterly and quickly destructive, but the impact of non-existent business traffic going forwards will last considerably longer than a pause in short-haul holiday operations for other airlines. To boot, they were always lower than low on the government help list as the PR bruising of throwing some taxpayer cash at the bloke sitting on Necker wasn’t ever going to gain ground (except VAA is a UK company with UK employees, but details hey?) Round one axe saw over 3,500 redundancies and round 2, post recapitalisation, seems to be a further 1,150. That’s nudging half of the total workforce.  As it stands, not so much Red on the Inside as a vague shade of ‘Puce and (sadly) on the Outside and with a lapsed type rating’.  Plus a devastated aviation industry for the foreseeable.

What on earth happens now to the spirit of Red for those who are left behind? The redundancy matrix may (thus far) have worked in their favour, but should the industry take a further decapitating hit, who knows? Flying friends and colleagues – their down-route family – of 25 years have gone. Contracts and Terms re-written. Flying is first and foremost a way of life, not a job. The internal brand, with its red beating heart otherwise known as its people, may have had a sizable cardiac malfunction. I hope someone radioed ahead with an internal brand emergency many time zones ago.

But the internal brand can wait until they know whether/when the U.S. might open up and the new routes deliver profit, right? I suspect the focus is still very much operational and commercial, as it needs to be. As DODAR goes, they may be barely touching the O when it comes to culture-fixing at the moment. But – if the CEO is not already in a very close daily huddle with his HR Director, new Chief Marketing Officer and internal comms resource I’m an anxious brand person and VAA customer. The people turnaround needed engines started yesterday. Re-defining the new Red and re-building trust and engagement needs to be right up there alongside the operational stuff. Culture makes Virgin Atlantic what it is, because the other ‘edgy firsts’ (massages, garlic bread, shoe shining, a red and purple Upper Class cabin rather than the flag-carrier grey) aren’t going to matter much for a very long time. The internal brand needs to be at the heart of reward, recruitment and motivation and that starts with redefining and reinvigorating Red for whatever aviation is about to become. Who knows what that is? But do something, almost anything at this point, before red turns to a pale sun-setting kind of shadow. And before the grey and navy gets there first.

I would be really careful not to invite us consultants in for a long time. A fair amount of money, bad internal perception. Ultimately management need to own this right from the first huddle. At the right time you will need the comms guys. But for now work on it on the inside, let your remaining people drive the development and believe that Red can fly again. Terrain?….pull up and adjust speed. Go fly, VAA.

11 Sep 20