An online opinion poll organised in May had over 1,000 residents voting for Bristol Airport to be renamed as Banksy Airport. The infamous street artist topped the list of local celebrities, which also featured names such as JK Rowling and Cary Grant.

While no official plans to rename the airport are yet in place, the hypothetical poll was created after news that Birmingham Airport could potentially be renamed Shakespeare’s Airport for flights to the US and China only, an idea branded “ridiculous” by critics. The proposal follows a similarly unpopular idea from 2012, when local council chiefs put forward Ozzy Osbourne International Airport (after the lead singer of Black Sabbath) as another suggestion for Birmingham.

Choosing the right name for an airport is a tricky task. Global creative agency StartJG has worked in rebranding some of the world’s most high-profile airports, including Dubai Airports and Qatar’s Hamad International, among others. Co-founder and CEO Mike Curtis learned that much more than just “functional facilities”, airports are “statements of national pride”, a role often reflected in their name.

Such is the case of Liverpool Airport, which in 2001 successfully adopted the name of Liverpool John Lennon Airport in celebration of the world-famous singer. In 2006, Belfast followed suit when its airport was renamed George Best Belfast City Airport to honour the city’s greatest football player.

The legacy of a name as a business model

A rebrand becomes necessary when the business needs to change, expand, evolve and communicate a clearer vision for the future of the airport, city or country, Curtis explains. In an increasingly competitive and commoditised market, the need for brands to stand out is equally more valued.

“The name of an airport is important and has great impact on the community it serves. As it is closely linked to the identity, culture and heritage of a city or a country, an airport is often named after a geographic area in its vicinity, a key landmark or an influential national leader,” Curtis says.

Across the world, there are significant differences in how regions choose the name of their airports. A doctoral thesis exploring global trends found in 2011 that in Europe, naming an airport after natural or man-made attractions is most common, while in Latin America airports often carry the name of political leaders or revolutionaries. Overall, more than 75% of airports worldwide are named after a place.

The UK Government has received 19 bids for its Regional Air Connectivity Fund.

“Names should be considered within the overall business objectives and long-term vision of the airport, the community it serves, domestic and international passengers and the city or country of location. All these can be translated into a set of parameters for appropriate names,” Curtis says.

“Suggestions for a new name can come from senior leadership within the organisation, the consultancy engaged to position the airport appropriately, or even as far reaching as popular public opinion.”

A telling example of the public’s influence comes from Singapore, where a recent online petition signed by over 12,000 people proposed to rename Changi Airport after the late Lee Kuan Yew, the nation’s founding prime-minister. Closing on 30 March with 12,481 signatures, the petition managed to reach Minister of Transport Lui Tuck Yew and has been accepted by the government for consideration. If successful, the award-winning airport would be known as Lee Kuan Yew International Airport.

Procedures and pitfalls: how name-changing works

The final decision, however, rests in the hands of the owners of the airport and its executive board. If approved, the name changing process follows a key standard procedure, which involves gaining approval for IATA location codes, which are approved by IATA in Montreal.

“These codes help identify the airport and are sometimes used in conjunction with naming,” Curtis says. “Codes do not have to be specifically associated with the name, but it is often helpful if they are.”

“A major airport rebrand is often a complex journey, and typically involves many stakeholders ranging from government decision-makers to influencers, which include national and local authorities, senior airport leadership, partners, employees and passengers,” Curtis says.

“Names should be considered within the overall business objectives and long-term vision of the airport.”

“The brand journey starts with a thorough investigation of the current airport experience, identifying the key objectives, challenges and opportunities. We continue building on these insights by immersing ourselves through contextual and stakeholder analysis, and develop a brand strategy that clearly defines a core purpose and direction.”

However, airport executives should tread carefully when embarking on the rebranding journey, as there are some pitfalls associated with changing the name. Stakeholder involvement, alignment and buy-in are important factors that influence the outcome, especially in “large legacy organisations that are slow to adapt to change”, Curtis points out.

“Airports might miss connectivity with the global ecosystem that surrounds an airport that links trade, travel, and logistics as an aviation hub.”

Although an airport’s reputation as a competent, customer-friendly hub will be the key factor in driving business, name and identity are valuable elements and their role in influencing customer preference should not be overlooked.

“An airport rebrand provides the opportunities to closely engage a captive audience, leave a positive and lasting impression amongst travellers that will encourage return visits, recommendations, and attract the right business partners for continuous growth of the airport,” Curtis concludes.

“An airport is the first and last experience a traveller has of a city, region or country. The airport’s role is not to be underestimated in terms of perception of a place.”