Branding an airport: identity is more than the sum of all parts

25 April 2018 (Last Updated April 24th, 2018 16:45)

Start Design is a company that has worked with many airports to develop a unique brand that enhances the passenger experience. But how do you go about giving an airport its own identity? Frances Marcellin speaks to Start Design’s general manager Hannah Powlesland to find out.

Branding an airport: identity is more than the sum of all parts
Start Design was contracted to create a new brand identity for Hamad International Airport. Credit: HIA.

On 30 April 2014, the old Doha International Airport in Qatar closed its doors and the new Hamad International Airport (HIA), its replacement, finally opened after years of setbacks and delays.

While the big day signalled the end of a ten-month branding and identity project spearheaded by UK- and Dubai-based Start Design – which was devoted to positioning HIA as the “Gateway to the World” – it was a challenging and unusual finish.

“That day they closed the existing airport – which is now used for military and charter aircraft – everything was moved across, so we also had to flyer hotels and so on, across the whole of Qatar, telling people not to go to the old airport,” explains Start Design’s general manager Hannah Powlesland.

No stone was left unturned as the communications campaign stretched to even ensuring that the taxi drivers, who mainly speak Urdu and Hindi, understood the location change.

“There was, of course, signage up and advertising around the airports, but it was logistically really complex,” she says. “Fortunately, almost every passenger went to the correct airport.”

Start Design had been contracted to create a new brand identity for HIA that would be ready for when the new airport opened. The team worked with the airport’s stakeholders for around two years prior to the opening on the preparation and delivery of the rebranding project, although the actual branding and identity project itself took ten months.

Why you need a strategic reason to rebrand

A rebranding project clearly needs meticulous planning up to the launch, but how can an airport’s executive team and stakeholders best prepare to undertake a complex identity transformation?

“The messaging woven throughout the new airport’s identity was around the theme of effortless travel.”

Powlesland says that the critical thing is to truly understand the reasons for rebranding, such as if there is a change to the airport, like a new terminal, which would signify change, or if there are new services that will enhance the passenger experience.

“Rebranding for rebranding’s sake without a strategic reason will ultimately produce a nice piece of design work, but it won’t be tied back into any strategic drivers for change,” she says. “This could serve to confuse passengers and stakeholders.”

With only 12 million passengers travelling through the old Doha airport each year, Powlesland explains that the messaging woven throughout the new airport’s identity was around the theme of effortless travel through the airport.

“This idea was borne out of the passenger experience at HIA,” she says. “Quite often the experience of flying can be a stressful one and the team at HIA had worked hard to ensure that the physical environment and the services would minimise this stress.”

Passenger experience is as important as the brand

Powlesland believes that in any rebranding project, the passenger journey and experience is just as important as the brand.

“The passenger perceptions of the current brand – which is much more than just the logo – is a key area to consider,” she says. “An airport that concentrates on the physical environment and services within the airport will enjoy greater levels of positive brand recognition.”

“In any rebranding project, the passenger journey and experience is just as important as the brand.”

The ultimate campaign goal was that the rebranding would persuade international passengers to choose HIA as their transport hub over and above other airports in the Middle East, while representing Qatar to the world.

The strategy proved to be effective; HIA is currently ranked sixth ‘Best Airport in the World’ by Skytrax (in the 2017 World Airport Awards) and welcomes over 38 million visitors a year, which represents a 20% year-on-year increase after opening.

Elements of the HIA rebranding included a new identity, messaging, advertising campaign, wayfinding, digital platform (web and mobile), airport guide, as well as new airport branding (such as flight information display systems).

A star design for HIA’s global campaign

The design of HIA’s new identity combines the Arabic star around the world, airplane motifs and Arabic geometric patterns. It incorporates the Qatari national colour, which is a maroon hue, and the name itself is a legacy to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the ruling Emir of Qatar from 1995 to 2013.

In terms of challenges Start Design faced on the various elements of the campaign, Powlesland says that the website was a complex task to deliver.

“This is the main platform that people would interact with and it had to convey huge amounts of information, represent the brand of HIA to the world and offer up the proposition of a seamless experience through the primary digital channel,” she explains. “As a result, there was meticulous planning, stakeholder engagement and testing to ensure that the site ultimately represented the core proposition.”

Due to the unique nature of this particular rebranding project, Powlesland explains that film was incredibly important, not only to position the airport, but also to convey how passengers were to navigate through the airport. The film was broadcast on the seat-back screens on aircraft for that reason.

Dubai Airports’ one brand vision

The brand experience design company was also involved in the brand strategy and positioning campaign of Dubai Airports in 2013. Dubai International Airport was already operational, so the project ran over a period of five years, the strategy being to implement a seamless transition over time.

“An audit for Dubai Airports’ brand architecture brought an excessive number of identities to light.”

At the very beginning, an audit for Dubai Airports’ brand architecture brought an excessive number of identities to light, which were causing great expense and considerable passenger confusion.

As a solution, a ‘Connecting the World’ identity was chosen to represent all the entities – Dubai International, Dubai World Central, Cargo & Logistics and Executive Services. This identity was then launched as a single brand under the Dubai Airports umbrella.

Powlesland explains that the overall challenge for Dubai Airports focused on the need to understand the huge number of transfer passengers and the location of the airport truly being in the centre of the world.

Different elements of the project included office environment design, interactive wayfinding, signage, an all-encompassing digital experience, as well as an on-arrival promotional film. Part of an online campaign with Hometown, a London-based advertising agency, the promo featured Pedro the penguin enjoying his first journey from Antarctica to Dubai International accompanied by Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Go Your Own Way’. The ‘Fly like a penguin’ film achieved the desired attention and even won ‘Best YouTube Campaign’ at The Moodies in 2015, the airport digital, mobile and social media awards.

Today, Dubai International Airport is the busiest in the world and on track to deliver its target of handling 100 million passengers by 2020.

A brand experience is the sum of all parts

“The brand of an airport is complex and is made up of many elements including the proposition and positioning, the messaging, visual language and the logo itself,” says Powlesland.

“What passengers and stakeholders see and experience is the total brand experience of the physical environment and this is what passengers will take away,” she continues. “Any brand project has to consider the sum of the parts to clearly articulate the brand proposition and brand promise.”