case study: employer branding at Singapore Airlines

The iconic ‘Singapore Girl’ campaign actually began as something of a marketing experiment when it was launched in 1972, but has gone on to become one of the most widely recognized and enduring brand identities in the world. Back in the 1970s, many airlines were focusing their advertising on the power and speed of their aircraft. By choosing to spotlight the personality and hospitality of its people instead, Singapore Airlines hit on a more successful way to define and differentiate its brand. And in a regional and global market that now has more capacity and competition than ever before, Singapore Airlines continues to stand out as a premium brand (Best Business Class and second overall in the World Airline Awards 2015 – the Oscars of the aviation industry). With so much of Singapore Airlines distinctive appeal hinging on its people, we asked Christopher Cheng, Senior Vice President of Human Resources, to explain the close relationship between the group’s commercial and employer brand, and how the group sustains its pipeline of quality talent acquisition.

In 1972, Malaysia-Singapore Airlines was split into the Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines we know today. Unlike many other national carriers, Singapore’s relatively small population (around two million at the time) meant that its airline couldn’t simply rely on domestic demand to sustain revenues. The company therefore had to launch itself on the international stage. Many of its competitors were building their marketing campaigns around the speed with which they were able to deliver passengers to their destination – one advertising campaign of the time actually featured a steward saying the “less time they spend with me the better”. Singapore Airlines’ has always operated one of the youngest and most efficient fleet of aircraft in the industry, so it could easily have opted for the ‘power marketing’ of its rivals. Yet instead, the company saw an opportunity to stand out from the pack by building a softer and more differentiated identity around people, service and passenger engagement. The resulting ‘Singapore Girl, you’re a great way to fly’ campaign helped to turn the company from a regional airline into one of the world’s most respected travel brands. Today Singapore Airlines flies more than 18 million passengers a year to 60 cities in 30 countries around the world.

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 “’Singapore Girl’ represents our unique brand of service, our readiness to go the extra mile,” says Christopher Cheng. “A huge amount of care and investment goes into sustaining these standards. We want to attract people who are bright, friendly, and able to empathize with our customers. We’re really fortunate in having an employer brand that’s sustainable. For many people, being a member of our cabin crew is a dream job. They want to travel and be part of a world-renowned team. That means we have many more applicants than posts and we are very selective in the people we hire. Our reputation for talent development, empowering our people, and encouraging them to think on their feet means that we’re able to consistently attract a strong talent pipeline. This includes a high proportion of graduates, into our inflight team.” 

Despite Singapore’s low unemployment rate and highly competitive job market, Singapore Airlines receives an average of 18,000 applicants for 600-900 cabin crew hires per year. More than 80% of the inflight teams are either Singaporean or Malaysian, with the remainder drawn from other Asian countries. The appeal of the employer brand is reflected in the number of times it has earned the accolade of being the company people in Singapore most want to work for in the Randstad Awards. Having won three times in a row in 2012, 2013 and 2014, Singapore Airlines’ consistent success was recognized by its induction into the ‘Randstad Award Hall of Fame’. 

To a casual observer, the ‘Singapore Girl’ identity might appear out of step with the equality that modern companies, including Singapore Airlines, are determined to promote. But Mr Cheng stresses that, above all, the ‘Singapore Girl’ is a “recognized symbol of service”, rather than reflecting a particular gender. “Our male cabin crew go through the same rigorous selection and training, and are equally mindful of the expectations that go with the identity. Our flight crew, ground and support staff also recognize the importance of putting the customer first,” he says. 

While Singapore Airlines is able to attract the people it needs now, it faces the challenge of securing enough quality people – pilots, ground staff, business support, and innovation and sustainability teams, as well as cabin crew – to keep pace with what experts believe will be a tripling or even quadrupling of aviation demand over the next 20 years. The biggest source of growth will be Asia’s fast expanding middle class. “In a growing and fast evolving market, we recognize the vital importance of sustaining a strong employee value proposition, which is built around training, development, recognition and long-term career opportunities, rather than just financial rewards,” says Mr Cheng.

exacting standards

The airline invests heavily in training. Once selected, cabin crew recruits undergo 15 weeks of initial training, the longest and most comprehensive program in the industry. Courses at the training center, which includes a full size and fully equipped aircraft cabin, cover every element of how to serve and engage with passengers, ranging from wine etiquette to cultural sensitivity. And throughout their careers, staff take part in regular refresher courses and training to support new customer initiatives.  An open day at Singapore Airline’s training center in 2015 attracted 7,000 visitors, reflecting popular (and potential recruits’) fascination with not only the cabin crew program, but also with the airline in general.

The same care and attention is devoted to developing future leaders. Its graduate program allows its next generation of leaders to be exposed to managing all facets of the airline operations and business through regular rotation across different parts of the organization. “People move around quite a lot to help them learn about the organization, bring fresh perspectives and develop lasting relationships which fosters and build teamwork,” says Mr Cheng. The international experience this provides, including the challenge to be assigned overseas to manage the airline’s operations and business, is another attractive value proposition for talented individuals.

balancing service and costs

How does this investment in talent development square with the need to control costs in a fiercely competitive travel market?

Despite offering a premium service and operating from a country with a relatively high cost of living, Singapore Airlines’ staff and wider operational costs are extremely competitive – its cost of available seat-kilometer (CASK), the main industry measure, is around three-quarters of premium competitors in comparable regional markets such as Korea or Japan. A young fleet keeps maintenance costs down. Staff are offered a competitive reward package with both fixed and variable components. Through training, observation and regular discussions within cabin teams, staff are encouraged to apply the same critical eye to cost control as they do to improving service. And while everything that touches the customer has to reflect the premium promise, the company makes innovative use of technology to control behind the scenes operating costs. “We’re constantly looking for ways to innovate on our service and operations, and improving customer satisfaction. In a highly competitive industry, use of technology to drive cost efficiencies is imperative. The provision of more check-in options via mobile platforms and self-service check-in are cases in point, as it’s a lot quicker and easier for passengers, while enabling us to be cost effective,” says Mr Cheng.

So what can other companies learn from Singapore Airlines? While a lot of businesses say that people are their greatest asset, this is a company that is able to put customers first because it puts its people first. Singapore Airlines sets exacting expectations for its people, but is prepared to make the investment to help them meet these standards, be this selection and training or making their working lives run as smoothly as possible. Talented people want to work for a company that prizes and recognizes their vital contribution to its success. While other airlines might rely on the zero sum game of aggressive pricing to bolster market share, Singapore Airlines has been able to develop a service culture, an employer brand, and an underlying employee value proposition that enable it to compete on both cost and quality.

employer branding at Singapore Airlines

In 2015, Singapore Airlines entered the ‘Randstad Award Hall of Fame’, having been voted the number one company people in Singapore want to work for three times in a row. The company earned especially strong ratings from participants for the strength of its training, management and financial health. 

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client role:

Christopher Cheng - Senior Vice President of Human Resources, Singapore Airlines

Christopher Cheng joined Singapore Airlines in 1985. Starting out in operations, he has managed the airline’s airport operations in various parts of the world including London Heathrow, one of the airline’s busiest ports of call. He subsequently moved to commercial areas of the airline’s business and was in charge of handling the airline’s call center and ticketing offices at its HQ in Singapore, before taking up a number of managerial roles in the US, Thailand and the Netherlands. Christopher moved back to Singapore in 2004 to become Vice President for Ground Services, heading all airport operations at its hub in Singapore and worldwide. He assumed his current position as Senior Vice President of Human Resources in 2009.

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