Air New Zealand: Redefining the journey

The question for Air New Zealand in 2005 was; could a simple idea like 'Inspiring Journeys' have a fundamental effect on the future of an airline?

2001 saw the airline industry in turmoil. The general expectation for Air New Zealand was at best survival, at worst a slow death in the midst of the rise of the value-based airline (or VBA). Changing consumer preferences and a downturn in the world travel industry were also taking their toll, and this bleak outlook was further amplified by the terrorist attacks of September 11.

Here was an airline needing to restructure and rethink what it was taking to market.

With Air New Zealand's long-haul business being at its core - 70 percent of which is derived from inbound passengers, and dependent on offshore distribution - the challenge was to attract and excite those international travellers. The trick was, however, to do it in a way that both captured their imagination and answered the needs of this 'new' traveller.

Air New Zealand needed to become more progressive as an international airline (albeit one with a much more competitive cost structure) and not achieve mere product parity, but exceed customer expectations - thereby building a distinctive experience which would help sell the next ticket.

The airline's opportunity, as a progressive national carrier, was to find a way to connect more people to New Zealand through an experience that was a powerful representation of our nation - a deliverer of 'The Great New Zealand Experience'.

In essence, the goal was to deliver this 'experience' before actually arriving in New Zealand. The carrier realised they were no longer selling tickets, but were acting as a gateway to one of the world's most inspiring destinations and, with this goal came the understanding that - as gatekeeper to the New Zealand brand - they could hold a competitive advantage that couldn't be copied or matched by any other operator in its territory.

With Air New Zealand's long-haul business being at its core - 70 percent of which is derived from inbound passengers and dependent on offshore distribution - the challenge was to attract and excite those international travellers.

The insights

See the big picture

The airline knew it was part of a wider 'pool'. Understanding that it shared the responsibility to tell the New Zealand story created synergies and opportunities. It also afforded economies of scale and a sharing of skill and resource.

Think experience not product

Experience is the management of both physical and emotional cues. That means considering not only how things work but also their reason for being. To design a product in isolation, without a wider appreciation of the broader experience and 'theatre' of the brand, is therefore something of a folly.

Understand the dynamics

Design thinking is a creative articulation of business strategy and a simplified solution to operational and market issues and needs. All design strategy should dovetail into the wider business strategy. The Air New Zealand offer was designed to match its long-term business goals and complement those of its strategic partners, such as Tourism New Zealand.

Think like your consumer

For Air New Zealand to make the leap from a micro-to-macro-perspective, it was driven by a belief that the firm needed to build a positive connection in the consumer's mind between the airline and the country's broader cultural identity.  This had to be reflected across all touchpoints - from the website, the aircraft, the crew's appearance and behaviour and the in-flight entertainment.

Less is more

Air New Zealand clearly realised that this 'origin story' was the heartbeat of their brand. So the airline decided to play to its strengths and deliver this origin story comprehensively.

Designing the difference

Air New Zealand was driven by the intention to marry the needs of a 'new breed' of traveller with a compelling expression of an origin story.

This 'new breed' were revealed through research to be consuming a wider range of tourism products and services, seeking out new experiences that involve engagement and interaction, and demonstrating a respect for natural, social and cultural environments. In essence, they were expressing a desire to be much more than a 'tourist'. However, until recently, general airline offerings had rarely played to these needs.

(The idea) had to be simple enough for everyone to grasp; it had align both staff and partners; and, ultimately, it had to act as the 'heartbeat' of the brand.

As a result, airlines worldwide are working hard to differentiate their market offerings through the use of a variety of different aircraft and a higher degree of customisation in services and products. Even the touch, sound and smell of an aircraft interior were determined to contribute to the delivery of a differentiated market offering, and the Air New Zealand 'experience' came to reflect this insight.

Market research indicated that passengers had higher expectations when not flying with a VBA, and the industry responded by building stronger brand differentiation into their product and service offerings.

In Air New Zealand's case, however, this difference had to be powered by a big idea, an idea built with this target market in mind and based on a strategy of telling the 'origin' story. It had to be simple enough for everyone to grasp; it had align both staff and partners; and, ultimately, it had to act as the 'heartbeat' of the brand.  'Inspiring Journeys' was the result.

The insights

The idea is driven by a sense of place and people

Air New Zealand's role was to deliver 'Inspiring Journeys' - motivating people to seek richer, more rewarding experiences. The idea was intended to be a behavioural cue for the overall 'origin' experience, while also offering a sense of anticipation of the cultural, natural and adventure journeys that can only be found in New Zealand.

A great idea can form the character of a brand

The idea, however, has to work hard - so it must be at once comprehensive and robust. It has a functional element in terms of indicating what is on offer, and it also has an emotive promise in terms of the experience.

Realise the power of a single organising idea

The biggest step for Air New Zealand was to develop a consistent brand by identifying a unified proposition (a core value, globally) that allowed them to differentiate, but also allowed the firm to address the specific values of each market.

A good idea is generally a good idea

When a company's core values are clearly articulated, the application of energy and resources can be rationalised to suit. The introduction of 'Inspiring Journeys' created such a clarity in all aspects of the airline's business and acted as a dispersion 'rationale' for the business's resources.

Design is sensory and 4D

Branding is emotion, in the Air New Zealand model, in terms of a core idea driving the emotional attachment of the brand and getting you closer to its 'soul'. Air New Zealand's inspiration points are rich and diverse, and draw on such elements as environment, culture, colour, taste and light to form a living story.

The idea touches everything you do

'Inspiring Journeys' drives actions, initiatives and the overall brand personality. In Air New Zealand's case, all aspects of the operation are catching up with the idea of being the purveyor fresh, new perspectives on New Zealand, and of being an ambassador and champion for the nation's personality on an international stage.

The design dividend

Taking people on an 'Inspiring Journey' meant revisiting every aspect of the customer experience.

The design programme has been all encompassing, with the fundamental idea inspiring new initiatives and actions - in short driving improvements in the overall consumer experience. The design programme was managed around a set of common principles that, from the outset, defined this experience.

Air New Zealand's recent 747/777 fit-out provided the perfect opportunity to deliver a raft of projects associated with 'Inspired Journeys', such as a new in-flight entertainment programme; new uniform design; in-flight catering upgrades; and new sleeper seats, carpets and fabrics.

In addition, this redesign was expanded to include the development of sub-brands, and a catered architectural brief for the development of the new head office site - all guided and connected with the pervasive thematic of 'Inspiring Journeys'.

Research carried out in 2006 showed a positive increase in customer satisfaction across all fronts since the changes were introduced.  Some increases were staggering - such as a 30% increase in satisfaction with kids entertainment, 22% increase for business class seat comfort and 17% increase for headset sound quality.  All things that contribute to the total experience.

Positive increases were recorded for cabin tidiness and ambience, and the responsiveness, attention, availability and appearance of cabin crew.  The ultimate test is measuring if travellers would recommend the airline to family and friends - this increased by16 percent for business class travellers and 17 percent for economy travellers.

It was no surprise given the comprehensive and consistent design integration throughout the airline, that the company received a Highly Commended in the 2006 Design in Business Awards from the Designers' Institute of New Zealand.

The insights

Align through design

Use design to align your strategic partners around the same goals and quality standards. A programme of scale - what amounts to a complete upgrade of all primary elements of an airline - will only meet the required timeframes, quality standards and design criteria if there is a common understanding of the brand story.

Individual project concepts must be linked to the broader strategy

It's easy to lose the common thread of a brand when operating a diverse range of projects. Strategies must be comprehensive and work on a micro and macro level.

Be vigilant

Maintain control over every part of the process. Design integrity can be lost through a lack of attention to, and control of, production detail. Setting up a management team to oversee all aspects of the design and delivery process will pay dividends.

Arm your partners

Don't expect everyone to get your vision. Using simple, yet evocative, terminology allows everyone to understand the bigger picture. Fashion designers Zambesi, for example, were given a clear and comprehensive brand definition that described the 'Inspired Journey' story - both functionally and emotively - prior to any work being undertaken.

Never give up (but give in once in a while)

Maintaining design integrity against a backdrop of budget restrictions and time constraints will always be a challenge. Be prepared to develop flexible alternatives that still deliver on the brief and the wider concept.

Jump into the tactile world

Experience is about creating sensory responses to prescribed cues. For example, much of the Air New Zealand cabin design has been built around a play to the senses. The New Zealand environment, along with form and function, inspired the product, fabric and graphic choices.

The design process

No two businesses approach the design process in exactly the same way. What they do share, however, is a structure that ensures the right people are engaged at the right time, and that responsibilities for specific outcomes are clear at each step. The Air New Zealand design programme had a team of people with specific responsibilities:

What How Who 
 Analysis of Consumer Insights

Deconstruction and analysis of the current customer journey

Analysis of competitors' product offering and branded experiences

Analysis of international brand perception research per key market

Product Project


Design Team

Research Team

Marketing Team

 Project Briefing Establish project deliverables, timings and responsibilities

Project Team

 Development of Design strategy and platform

Development of a Single Organising idea that could align staff behaviour with the external brand experience

Presentation to Project team and then executive team

Discussion and refinement


Product Project Team

Design Team

Research Team

Marketing Team

 Visualisation of design strategy and creative platform Visualisation and expression through mood boards and development of the brand story Design Team
 Development of long-haul in-flight class experience and design direction Visualisation and expression through mood boards and narrative Design Team
 Review project timelines and deliverables and prioritisation of elements  


Master time-line

Establish project teams
Project Team
 Review competitor benchmarks Brand audit  Design Team
 Liaison with suppliers to establish project parameters Pre-production meetings

Supplier's visits

Conference calls
Project Team

Design Team
 Initiate design Internal ideation sessions

Initial design concepts

Refined design concepts
 Design Team
 Design refinement Computer generated design development  Design Team
 Preparation of production prototype specifications Generations of technical specifications, colour palettes, fabric specs etc  Design Team
 Review and sign off of prototypes
Liaison with production house throughout production
Production overview

Testing of prototypes

Refinement of design

Product Project Team

Design Team

Wider business

 Documentation of long-haul class theme, design signature and overall specifications Guidelines manual writing and design

Product Project Team

Design Team

 Development of tools for communications Design of class theme brand signature, descriptions, naming, imagery and tonality

Product Project Team

Design Team


Find out more about design thinking from Better by Design today. 

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