I had just stepped out of the airport taxi, grabbing my bags and making my way into the airport terminal, all while talking to my esteemed friend and former colleague Will Stewart on the phone.
I probably looked more dishevelled than is my preference.
So then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something that forced me to interrupt and digress entirely from what had been a highly engaging conversation with Will.
An Asian airline flight crew was heading towards security.
Most likely they were from Cathay Pacific – as my research on this suggests that they (along with the Emirates airline’s flight crews) take their approaches to how they are seen in uniform, in public, very seriously.
If you have ever witnessed this, you will have seen the following. Elegant movements. Not with the same rigidity as a marching military regimen, but following similar rules. Yet doing so with an appropriate level of charisma and élan.
The flight crewmembers walk two-by-two – pilot and co-pilot in front, followed by (no doubt in some order of hierarchy) the flight attendants. The colour of their uniforms was eye-catching, but elegant. Their carry-on luggage rolled smoothly behind each of them – without a single sign of dirt or white salt marks (this was in February). Not a single wrinkle on their clothes. They were all in excellent shape.
I was impressed. I have never flown on their airline, but I am inclined to believe that the experience is professional, their attention to detail superb, and the mechanical work on the engine second to none.
This is the value of a powerful ritual, like the walk of a flight crew: I’m drawing conclusions about detailed aspects of how they run their organization based solely on seeing how their staff members walk.
At some point, someone within their company determined “this is how we walk”. And that person is very clever – knowing full well that the reputation of their airline is driven by every touch point their brand can have with the flying consumer.
No doubt they are also very brave and know the lessons of change management.
Might the staff have resisted the “this is how we walk” edict when it was a new idea? Probably. On a North American airline they certainly would have pushed back. And on a French one, flight attendants would have staged a three-day strike, and burned tires on the runway.
Like any worthwhile change, this ritual would have needed an extra push in the early going. But from what I saw, members of that flight crew were proud of their airline, and supportive of the high standards to which they adhere – as symbolized through their walk.
Rituals matter. Brands and organizational symbolism can show up in all kinds of subtle yet powerful ways – like how your staff walk around.
What component of what your organization does as a matter of course can be leveraged to make a positive impression on customers, or to reinforce key components of your culture? What opportunities to make a positive impression that may cost next to nothing are available to you?
We did some work not long ago with a big hospital, helping them articulate their aspirational brand. Over the course of our work with them, we found that the loudspeaker announcement informing people that visiting hours were over sounded more like something you might hear at a prison than at a place working to heal the sick. We pointed this out to the management team, and the hospital’s Chief of Staff personally held a contest to generate alternative messages and voices that would convey the caring, family-friendly positioning the hospital was seeking.
Because if you are a hospital, your message that announces when visiting hours are over isn’t just an administrative requirement – it is an opportunity to differentiate yourself and express your aspirational organizational personality.
Any team can learn from this. Branding and cultural cohesion are not simply the purview of marketing and HR leaders. Don’t leave these things to chance – take the opportunity to imbue deliberate meaning into new touch points between your organization and your key stakeholders.
By thinking these things through – deliberately and with precision – you build strength into your culture, your marketing efforts, and ultimately your brand.