Have We Seen the Back of the Singapore Girl?

Perhaps the world’s best-known airline symbol – the kebaya-clad Singapore Girl – could be getting ready for her last flight.

After 35 years in which the form-fitting floor-length dress created by Pierre Balmain became a fixture across the world’s skies, Singapore Airlines management has asked advertising agencies to take a shot at revamping its image. A spokesman for SIA in January told reporters that "The Singapore Girl is an icon, the world over, and identified with pride by Singaporeans and others alike," adding emphatically that she would stay in some form.

Nonetheless, SIA's move has kicked off a stampede among advertising agencies seeking a contract worth as much as S$50 million (US$32 million) and the agencies have differing views of what SIA's new look ought to be. While the Girl will probably stay, her she could well take a back seat. The search for a new agency also filled the letters pages of the Singapore press with anguished letters for the girl who has been a “great way to fly” for a generation.

The Singapore Girl’s problems are emblematic of the changing images of Singapore and Asian women themselves, the increasingly crowded and competitive airline industry, and finally the fast-changing nature of advertising.

The question is whether the image has passed its sell-by date. Thirty-five years ago a sexy girl in a tight dress was hardly an unusual symbol for Singapore and Asian women. It was normal, in those days, to have the stewardess, as she was called, kneel in the aisle of the plane to pour a drink for a business class passenger. That kind of sexy, submissiveness has faded on the carrier although service levels remain very high.

“One of the interesting things is if you go and look at the very first ads, they sold seduction, it was a very sensual girl. They were a small airline in those days with nothing to lose,” says a local marketing executive.

Never mind that Singapore Airlines says it intends to keep the Singapore Girl in some way, and it’s unclear if the kebaya would go. Defenders worry that the country’s finest ambassador is under threat. “I remember one winter in the airport at New York seeing the Singapore Airlines girls floating through in their winter overcoats looking serene and gorgeous, it was wonderful,” says a senior marketing executive familiar with the situation who counts herself a fan.

But “what has worked well in the past is not always an indication of what will work well in the future,” says Stephen Forshaw, Singapore Air’s vice president for public affairs. “It would be a mistake to cling to the past as a measure of success for the future. We want to explore the creative market; see what others have to offer.”

But the image itself has long bothered some people who see it as out of step with the times. Even the requirement for in-flight service — that the attendants be young and Asian — could not pass muster in regulated Western countries where such rules would be the subject of discrimination lawsuits. US carriers have also long since been forced to give up any hint of seduction associated with their service. In the 1970s feminists cried foul and finally forced now-defunct National Airlines to abandon its “Fly Me” campaign and jaws would drop if anyone went into the air with a flight crew dressed in hot pants and go-go boots, as Southwest Airlines did when it launched in 1973.

Much has changed since the early 1970s. The glamor has long since gone out of flying for a living for upscale urban women and most Singaporean women have joined that social class. Detractors hope for an end to what they see as a demeaning sexist symbol – and one wearing the kebaya, a traditional batik Malay dress at that ‑ although the kebaya may be the only airline flight attendant’s uniform in the world that is actually sold to tourists. Now only 61 percent of cabin crew are female, many of them foreigners because Singaporean women enjoy more opportunities than when the airline started. The only time most would think of wearing a kebaya is on board the plane.

“It is important to remember that the Singapore Girl is not the brand. It is what she symbolizes that is the brand. What built the brand, in my opinion, was that SIA was the first to understand the importance of customer experience management, which leads to good media, which leads to higher yield factors and higher pricing," says Nick Wreden, chief executive of branding consultancy FusionBrand.

Asia’s largest and arguably best international airline, SIA goes from strength to strength, setting trends and embracing new technology. It was one of the first to offer personal televisions and in-flight internet. The Airbus’ A380, the world’s largest airliner, is due to enter commercial service first with Singapore Airlines in October 2007.

As deregulation has swept the world’s airlines, however, the astonishing level of in-flight service exemplified by SIA – but with many other Asian airlines close behind – has begun to whither. It’s not unknown in the US, for instance, to have grouchy flight attendants toss snack bags to passengers – if they have any in-flight snacks at all. A passenger on United Airlines was astonished recently to be told by a flight steward that the rest room was out of service because he was propping his feet up on the door and was “on break.”

This would never happen on SIA. Singapore Airlines’ “net promoter score,” the measure of a company’s brand power that closely correlates with strong growth, in Australia was 38, according to Marc Ritson, a professor at Melbourne Business School, in a survey last year. That was 10 points ahead of second-placed Emirates. Even patrician, Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific came third with minus 11. Of the nine airlines measured, Virgin Blue was last at minus 33.

“A unique feature of Singapore Airlines for many years has been that their board views the airline’s brand as being crucial and takes direct responsibility for its upkeep. Rather than simply focus on fiscal metrics, theirs is a leadership for the 21st century. One that does not see brand management as superficial and unimportant but a key driver of satisfaction, differentiation and success,” Ritson wrote.

So if Singapore Airlines is doing so much right, why consider change? “In these days of faster communication, more information from more sources on the internet, developing communications campaigns that reach our audience and customer base will be more challenging in the future than it has been in the past,” says Forshaw, SIA’s vice president for public affairs. “Diversification of media channels and communication being more about a conversation than an advertisement is changing the landscape for promoting brands.”

In other words management worries about losing touch with passengers and maintaining a high profile in all the right places. The problem is those places are becoming on-line spaces and finding eyeballs and keeping up with them is getting harder. If everybody is tuning into YouTube, immersed in computer games, or simply blogging and chatting, advertising on television or in magazines will miss the market.

The brief to the ad agencies calls for, among other things, an image to help maximize the airline’s website and seeks a 10-year strategy, says a source, a tall order given how rapidly technology, marketing and communications are evolving.

“I think clients have caught on, but advertising hasn’t yet caught up with the consumers, they’re miles ahead. I think last year was a watershed, it will now be about screens,” says the source, a senior marketing executive whose agency is pitching for the account. “Whoever gets it at whatever cost will be agency of the year or something. Winning the account will make some CEO very famous.”

Ogilvy and Bates (not to be confused with Batey), two units of advertising giant WPP, are teaming up with a single mission: win the Singapore Airlines account. They have formed a new outfit called Gold with that in mind and some think WPP’s chairman, Sir Martin Sorrell, will fly in to attempt to bag the account. That echoes Batey, the agency set up to manage the Singapore Airlines creative account after Ian Batey won it alone with a bunch of ideas and drawings in 1972.

In that time, Singapore itself has gone from third-world to first, low-tech to cutting-edge. “Look at the changes Singapore is going through, opening casinos, trying to encourage ‘creativity’ in a variety of ways, moving into biotech, opening up immigration,” says Wreden, the branding expert. But the city-state remains a strikingly uptight place, to some extent reflected in the Girl herself as she has drifted from carefree to uptight.

“If you look at the way the girls were treated in the early ads their hair was down, they were laughing, they were outdoors, she was the girl next door, she was very genuine. Whereas now they’ve got obsessed with manicuring, they’ve boxed her in with rules and guidelines,” says the senior marketing executive. “My personal feeling is that they should let her get back to being a girl.”