The impact of uniforms on consumer brand preferences

Dr Chris Baumann

  • Associate professor, Macquarie University
Dr Chris Baumann is an associate professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, researching competitiveness, education, East Asia and customer loyalty. He has authored more than 50 refereed journal articles and conference papers with more than 350 citations. He has been awarded for his research and teaching, including from the Australian government for enthusiastic approach to education. Dr Baumann is also visiting professor at Seoul National University (SNU) in Korea and at Aarhus University, Denmark. He introduced ground breaking concepts: Competitive Productivity, Latecomer Brand, Premium Generic Brand (PGB) and the ‘country of origin of service staff (COSS)’ effect. He has a long-standing relationship with Simon Fraser University (SFU), Canada, as MBA Alumni and research collaborator.

Flight attendant uniforms attract attention. From a primary association with sex appeal during the 1960-70s, to the diverse role they perform today, the flight attendant’s uniform sits front and centre in the advertising imagery of many airlines. However, relatively little is known about the ways in which consumer behaviour is influenced by airline uniforms.

In an industry increasingly characterised by deregulation, privatisation, and low-cost carriers carving market share from full-service carriers, airlines are struggling to differentiate themselves from the competition. Visual brand elements, such as the flight attendant’s uniform, may provide a competitive point of difference.

Airlines such as Singapore Airlines, which has consistently employed the image of the Singapore Girl, dressed in her traditional sarong kebaya, as a means of differentiating itself, appear to support this theory.

Engaging a famous fashion designer is a common strategy used by airlines to ensure column inches and borrow the cache provided by a luxury brand. Qantas for example, capitalised on a fashion-focused media by launching its latest uniform designs, by Paris-based Australian designer, Martin Grant, during Sydney Fashion Week in 2013.

Interestingly, Qantas failed to figure in the top 10 most stylish uniforms in a Skyscanner Asia-Pacific survey conducted prior to the launch; Virgin Australia, a relative newcomer to the Australian market by comparison, placed third.

A recent Global Traveler reader survey names Korean Air, another latecomer brand (or relatively new global player), as the carrier with the best flight attendant uniform. Fellow newcomer, Emirates Airlines, places fourth, while more globally established heritage brands, Singapore Airlines and Air France, rank sixth and seventh respectively.

Another thought-provoking fact about the Global Traveler survey is the poor performance of established carriers of Western origin: Air France and Delta Airlines, in 10th place, are the sole Western brands to win accolades for crew uniforms.

This raises the question: What is it about the uniforms of Asian and Middle Eastern airlines that resonates with travellers, and is it something which all airlines, regardless of country of origin, could use to more effectively influence consumer behaviour?

A study conducted by Macquarie University set out to find an answer to the question of whether flight attendant uniforms influence consumer brand preferences, and whether there are any differences in the reaction to flight attendant uniforms based on the region of an airline’s country of origin.

Desire above all

We selected six airline uniforms to study: Air France, Emirates Airlines, Korean Air, Qantas Airways, Singapore Airlines and United Airlines. Two of these, Qantas Airways and United Airlines, have recently launched new crew uniforms.

Airlines were grouped into three regions to analyse regional variations: Asian (Singapore and Korean); Middle Eastern (Emirates); and Western (Air France, Qantas and United).

A survey was conducted at a major university in Sydney, with participants drawn from students of undergraduate and postgraduate marketing units. Survey questions were designed to gauge perceptions on a number of aspects of each uniform, including alignment with brand heritage and the culture of the airline’s home country, whether the uniform evokes a sense of authority, and whether the uniform looks like it belongs to a full-service or low-cost carrier.

The final four questions measured whether survey participants’ choice of airline, likelihood to switch to an airline, likelihood to recommend an airline (word of mouth), and intention to use an airline are influenced by their responses to the preceding questions about each airline uniform.

The results showed the questions could be separated into five distinct groups, with each group measuring similar phenomena:

Uniform dimensions influencing consumer behaviour

Uniform dimensionsSurvey questions

This uniform agrees with my personality/how I see myself

All other things being equal (such as price and convenience), I would fly with this airline based on this uniform

This uniform appears to have been designed by a famous designer

This uniform sets the airline apart from other airlines

I feel attached to this airline

This uniform evokes a sense of the airline’s heritage

This uniform matches with the existing brand image of the airline

This uniform reminds me of a school uniform

I think the airline employee would like wearing this uniform

This uniform is functional and practical

This uniform fits with the image of a full-service carrier

This uniform provides the wearer with an air of authority

I trust an employee who wears this uniform with my safety and security
Unique Style

This uniform has sex appeal

This uniform evokes a sense of luxury

This uniform fits with the image of a low-cost

Of the above uniform dimensions, only desirability was found to be significantly likely to influence a potential traveller’s behaviour across all three regions.

Desirability is particularly strong in encouraging consumers’ intention to use an airline based on its uniform. This led to the conclusion that an airline uniform is more likely to positively impact on consumer behaviour when:

  • It aligns with how consumers view themselves;
  • It fosters a sense of attachment to the airline;
  • The respondent would fly with the airline based on the uniform;
  • It appears to be the work of a famous designer;
  • The uniform is viewed as a point of difference.

This result underscores the importance of building a strong, distinctive brand personality: Consumers will be more likely to respond positively to a brand they feel reflects how they see themselves.

The desirability of a flight attendant’s uniform also impacted substantially on our survey respondents’ willingness to recommend an airline to others, across all regions. This is significant given that word of mouth has previously been found to positively influence brand loyalty.

Regional differences

Removing desirability from the mix produces some interesting and immediately apparent regional variations in what aspects of an airline uniform will positively influence consumer behaviour.

History and unique style, for example, are likely to influence consumer intentions to use an airline based on its uniform for Western airlines. In contrast, operational factors affect the intention to use an airline for the Asian region, and functionality predicts intention for the Middle Eastern region.

History, in the context of brand heritage and the consistency of a uniform with an airline’s existing brand image, is only an important factor for Western airlines. Therefore, brands with a long history of global operation make ready reference to their heritage and understand the possible market implications of any change in brand elements such as the uniform.

The fact that functionality predicts consumer brand preference for Middle Eastern and Asian airline uniforms raises some interesting issues. Survey participants may have responded positively to these attributes because the uniforms were believed to fit the wearer well, thus conveying a sense of practicality and comfort.

These regional variations may indicate that brands with a ‘younger’ global market presence, such as Korean Air, are more successful than more established global brands at exploiting the connection between employee comfort with and pride in the brand’s uniform, and consumer brand preference.

The practicalities

Our study was not intended to imply that a flight attendant’s uniform is a primary factor driving a consumer’s decision to buy a ticket. However, when the primary factors such as price, choice of departure and destination airport locations, frequent flyer programs and on-board service are increasingly the same across many airlines, it is time to look at other ways to make the brand distinct from its competition.

Our findings indicate uniforms play a significant role in consumer brand preference, to varying degrees, across four behavioural dimensions: Intention to use an airline; positive word-of-mouth for an airline; choice of airline; and deciding to switch to an airline. This is especially true of the desirability of the uniform, which suggests there is still an element of glamour to air travel that appeals to potential travellers.

Going back to the results of reader polls such as Global Traveler and Skyscanner, it is reasonable to conclude that uniforms such as those of Korean Air and Air France score highly because consumers like to look at the uniform, and because the uniform reflects a desirable element of the consumer’s self-image.

The take-home message is clear: As air travel markets deregulate and product offerings become increasingly similar, airline marketers need to stop viewing flight attendant uniforms simply as a tool to promote visual brand consistency, and start considering them as a means to encourage consumers on board; in short, view the uniform as a competitive tool.

These five uniform attributes, listed above, can be used by other brand managers to improve their research into the impact of uniforms and may be adapted to several service contexts involving corporate dress including travel, hospitality, entertainment, medicine, retail and education (school uniforms).

- Co-author on this piece is Amanda Roberts, who is currently undertaking her Master of Research and PhD in the Faculty of Business and Economics at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Her areas of interest include brand management and services marketing. She has several years' professional experience as a media analyst, scriptwriter and script editor.

Tags: brand strategy

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