British Airways Travel Promotion: A Leadership Failure?

Did British Airways lose track of the decade in which it is operating — or perhaps the century?

Dell had its much-ridiculed Della site – a masterpiece of misunderstanding of a large and lucrative customer segment called women.  Is British Airways far behind?  I wish you could see the image currently on BA’s frequent flyer site, and see how well you think the image captured the interests and lifestyle of at least 50% of the business flying public (in other words, women).


In this image, a little stick man at the center is labeled “You.”  He looks like the guy on the outside of many public bathrooms for men.  He is surrounded by a bevy of other figures, some in little stick trousers, some with little broomstick skirts.  The copy reads:  “With a complimentary companion ticket on your next trip, who will you take?  Where will you go?”  The choices are clearly labeled your wife, your daughter, your son, your brother, your boss, your dad, your mom, your best friend (in trousers).  (Believe me, it is more compelling in a visual.  If you can, go to the website, and check on promotion.)

The three questions that popped to my mind when I unsuspectingly clicked on this promotion on October 13 and smacked into this graphic were: What’s going on here? And, how could this have happened at my beloved BA?  I have always really enjoyed flying with them.  Finally, don’t they like me?   Surely I am not the only potential British Airways business passenger who is not a married man.  

The first explanation at which I grasped was corporate sabotage by a disgruntled internal marketing department determined to destroy BA’s brand with half its audience – more than that if you consider that 63% of new business travelers are women.  Or perhaps it was an external assault, a thoughtless bit of artwork by poorly chaperoned external designers with no sense of the BA brand.  Although I immediately wrote to BA Customer Service to find out, I have yet to get a response so can only speculate.


With or without their input, I can say this: in this instance, BA did a pretty poor job of translating the external market into internal decision making and action taking, a set of activities that is at the very essence of leadership.  As the airline’s strategy was executed through its marketing decision-making, it completely missed women, unmarried people, and married gays and lesbians.   (It also missed people who might want to travel with their sisters but that is perhaps a little easier to understand).   

Think about this miss in terms of the five core elements of leadership:

  • Strategy: The target market for this offer was either mis-defined or not defined at all (either way, a strategic error)
  • Execution: Whatever team worked on this project, and whatever decisions were made never caught the error.  Was no one thinking about BA’s market positioning or customer during the execution phase of this promotion? 
  • Talent: Who worked on this project?  Only married men (without sisters)?  Or were there other sorts of people who either didn’t speak up when surely they must have noticed the problems, or, if they did speak up, were neither heard nor heeded.
  • Human Capital Development: Who will be working on such projects in the future?  Are the people and culture being developed for the future – or for the 1950’s? Who exactly is being engaged, rewarded, promoted?  Outcomes such as this are directly linked to culture, and culture is the result of who is in and who is out, who is rewarded and promoted, and for what. 
  • Personal Proficiency:  Do the people who worked on this have the awareness to realize that this is a problem, and then to act on it?  Consider that I wrote to BA two weeks ago alerting them to this issue and have not heard anything back. Another friend and colleague, Jean Williams, wrote to them at the same time and heard last week that this webpage was being examined “at the highest levels.”  So far, nothing has changed.  Either our little 50% of the market is not viewed as having an important voice, or decisions and actions in BA take an inordinately long time.  Either way, there may be a significant issue here that springs from some individual deficiencies. 

Am I just being a PC American?   I enlisted Jean to do a little surveying because we could hear the backlash winding up across the Atlantic already.  Here are some reactions we have sought from what we have gamely tried to make a variety of sources:

  •  “It probably is sexist…?” (female HR executive)
  • “Stupid rather than sexist, I guess. And crudely drawn at that.”  (female board member)
  • “Piss poor and awfully sexist.” (female executive in financial services)
  • “This excludes me and my partner.” (senior level consumer products executive, a gay male)
  • “How lame.” (senior level female scientist)
  • “I’m most mad that it doesn’t allow me to take my sister.” (female board member)
  • “Why is the daughter so big and the wife so petite? Why is the mom bigger than the wife?  Why is the son so small?  Why does the dad have that strange blinder across his face?”  (undergraduate psychology major)
  • “I know someone who will sue them.”  (a prominent lawyer)
  • [blank stare]  (good male friend, a successful senior executive in manufacturing, early 50’s)

What any of us see is indeed a Rorschach of our own worldview and preconceptions – another reason to be very careful when drawing pictures, writing commentary, selecting and guiding a marketing team, or attempting to be that most difficult thing: a leader.

Would love to hear your reactions.  In the meantime, I will hope to hear from BA. I hope they still like me.

Thanks for reading