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Russia: Bring On The Smiles And Glamour Aeroflot Changes Its 'Imidzh'

For years the butt of jokes owing to its checkered safety and service record, Russia's national airline Aeroflot is about to be "re-branded." A British consulting firm has been hired to transform the carrier's image. First to go will be the airline's trademark hammer-and-sickle logo. And that, they promise, is only the beginning. The "new" Aeroflot will sport fresh colors, its pilots will stress punctuality and safety, and its flight attendants are to become paragons of style and hospitality.

Prague, 16 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Aeroflot jokes have long been a staple of flying in Russia, a way to kill time in fetid airport departure lounges and take your mind off the abusive personnel and creaky planes to whom you are about to entrust your life.

There are jokes about Aeroflot's gruff cabin attendants: "In-flight, on board an Aeroflot plane. The stewardess asks a passenger: Do you want a meal? Passenger: What are the options? Stewardess: Yes or no!"

There are jokes about Aeroflot's notorious delays: "A plane lands at Frankfurt international airport. The pilot radios the air-traffic controller: Can you tell me the exact local time? Air-traffic controller: What airline are you from? Pilot: Huh? What's the difference? Air-traffic controller: If you're from Swissair, it's 14 hours, 35 minutes, and 20 seconds. If you're from Air France, the time is 14 hours and 35 minutes. If you're from Aeroflot, then today is Friday."

And there are jokes about Aeroflot's less than stellar safety record. But reality has sometimes been stranger than fiction.

The airline's most infamous incident came in 1994, when an Aeroflot Airbus A310 on a flight between Moscow and Hong Kong crashed in the Siberian taiga after the pilot allowed his 11-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son to take turns at the controls. Some 70 people died in the crash.

Since then, Aeroflot's safety record has improved, but its poor image has not. Which is why the airline's managers have turned to a British consulting firm and tasked it with "re-branding" Russia's national airline, both at home and abroad. Damian Schogger, spokesman for The Identica Partnership, which has taken on the task, discussed the challenge with RFE/RL: "The brand took on quite a negative perception. Today, however, Aeroflot as an airline is among the top 5 percent -- with regard to safety records -- of all international airline brands. And its pilots are trained to exactly the same standards as U.K. and U.S. pilots. Now, these are facts which aren't widely known. However, it's these sorts of details that we need to convey to consumers to provide them with assurances that when they fly with Aeroflot, they're flying with a quality international airline."

Today's Aeroflot is a truncated version of its former self. In the 1990s, most of the carrier's vast fleet and internal route network was donated or sold off to scores of newly founded regional airlines across Russia and the CIS. But the pared-down Aeroflot that remained continues to be Russia's flag carrier, and with flights to 54 countries, Aeroflot is one of Moscow's most visible international symbols.

Schogger said the first thing that will be dropped in the makeover is the trademark hammer and sickle. "Results found that the hammer and sickle of the Aeroflot identity had negative perceptions abroad but within the Russian market as well -- its key domestic market. So, this rebranding program is addressing not only the Russian audience but the foreign audience as well," he said.

But many more changes, which will be rolled out gradually throughout 2003, are in the works. "Every element of the Aeroflot brand will be affected by this program. So on a visual level, the corporate identity and the plane livery -- internally and externally -- will be changed. Uniforms are currently being designed -- there's a competition among Russian designers to design a new uniform. When I say every element, that means food trays, marketing materials, corporate literature will all be consistent in the new tone of the new brand," Schogger said.

The new Aeroflot will be warmer and more hospitable -- a message that will be conveyed by a new color scheme to replace its staid blue-and-white motif. Schogger explained the inspiration for the new hues and the psychology behind them: "Apart from the identity itself, we've released details of the new colors that will be specific to Aeroflot. It'll be a blue-and-orange color scheme -- the blue relating to Aeroflot's positive past, while suggesting professionalism and calmness and also a feeling of brightness, modernity, and dynamism. While orange -- it's quite a warm orange that we're using, and a lot of research that we did internationally as well as domestically in Russia showed that using warm colors counteracted perceptions of coldness. Also, specific to Russia is the connection of golden colors to churches and Russian scenery. This is some of the rationale behind the color scheme."

Aeroflot's personnel, too, will come in for a makeover. The new Aeroflot is to become "people-focused," with the goal of bringing Russia's famed tradition of hospitality into a corporate setting. "With regard to behavioral changes, it's essential that when you do such a sweeping program as Aeroflot is undertaking with Identica, that the staff reflect the existing and new brand values. If the staff, whom we consider 'brand ambassadors,' can't convey those messages to the public, the public are never going to believe in the brand. So it's essential for us that this not be just a superficial, visual identity, but that it is an actual behavioral change, throughout the organization," Schogger said.

Skeptical? Schogger admits it will be a tall order, but he says the Identica Partnership and Aeroflot's board of directors are committed to radically changing the airline's image. It has been done before. Schogger points to the case of Czech carmaker Skoda. Long derided in Britain due to the perception that it made cheap and shoddy "East European" cars, Skoda struggled to sell more vehicles even after rolling out markedly improved models in the mid-1990s -- until a marketing agency stepped in to revamp Skoda's image.

"Skoda is now seen as a genuine international brand -- a real competitor in the car market globally. The advertisements in the U.K. have been welcomed. They're very amusing and playing on Skoda's somewhat negative past. And we feel confident that through this rebranding, which as I mentioned is not only visual but behavioral changing, Aeroflot will be able to achieve very positive results in a similar vein to those achieved by Skoda, which is a good role model to all aspiring brands," Schogger said.

This time next year, if the British consultants have their way, when passengers board an Aeroflot flight, the options for lunch will no longer be "yes" or "no" -- but rather "would you care for another glass of chilled vodka with your caviar?"