A single photograph has triggered a flurry of discussion about the value of changing name to respond to a crisis. The recent picture was of a new aircraft in Ryanair livery with the designation showing as Boeing 737 8200 instead of the regular Boeing 737 MAX.
Nobody would usually care much except that MAX is the accepted name of the new Boeing aircraft which suffered two terrible fatal accidents within just five months – in Indonesia and Ethiopia – killing a total of 346 passengers and crew when they crashed just minutes after take-off. This led to the global grounding of the plane-maker’s fastest-selling model.
Not surprisingly the apparent name change suggested by the photograph prompted fresh speculation that Boeing is trying to rebrand the troubled plane prior to its much-delayed return to service.
Unfortunately, Boeing itself – already severely criticised for its communication about the two air-crash disasters – has done little to fully address the speculation.
When President Trump tweeted in April that Boeing should rebrand the plane with a new name, company spokesman Gordon Johndroe said there had been “no discussion” of a name change. But a few weeks later Chief Financial Officer Greg Smith set the hares running again when he told media at the Paris Air Show that the company was open to the idea. “We’re committed to doing what is needed to restore it (the aircraft’s reputation). If that means changing the brand to restore it then we’ll address that.”
But a formal corporate statement quickly shot the speculation down: “We remain open-minded to all input from customers and other stakeholders, but have no plans at this time to change the name of the 737 Max.” Then came the unexpected photo of the Ryanair plane which renewed the issue once again . . . and Boeing and Ryanair chose to remain silent.
So is a name change a viable crisis strategy? For a consumer product maybe, but almost certainly not for a major corporate brand. Following the Toyota recall crisis in 2009-2010 there was widespread discussion – particularly in the USA – that the company would have to change its name to survive. Of course it didn’t, and within 12 months the Japanese car-maker had regained its position as world number one.
Similarly, after Malaysia Airlines lost two aircraft in early 2014 – one shot down over Ukraine and one mysteriously disappeared somewhere over the Indian Ocean – it was widely predicted that the airline would have to rebrand. Again, that is not what happened and Malaysia Airlines is slowly rebuilding its reputation.
There have been some high-profile name changes, seemingly to create distance from past problems (even though the link is sometimes denied). Think no further than Transfield Services which became Broadspectrum following controversy involving the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres; or Ardent Leisure, parent company of Dreamworld, which changed its name to Main Event after a fatal accident at the theme park in 2016; or the Lance Armstrong Foundation which became the Livestrong Foundation after the cyclist’s drug disgrace; or the world’s most notorious oil tanker Exxon Valdez which was later renamed Sea River Mediterranean.
However, given the massive brand equity in a name like Toyota or Boeing 737, built up over many years, a name change for the Boeing MAX seems most unlikely, especially since Boeing has consistently defended its safety record. “There is no technical slip or gap here,” said CEO Dennis Muilenburg. “We understand our plane. We understand how the design was accomplished and remain fully confident in the product.”
As Donald Trump said in his uncharacteristically modest Tweet: “What do I know about branding, maybe nothing. But if I were Boeing, I would fix the Boeing 737 MAX, add some additional great features, and rebrand the plane with a new name. But again, what the hell do I know?”