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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Brand Built on Soviet Baggage and a Smile

MTModels showcasing new Aeroflot uniforms in December. The uniforms are part of the airline's rebranding drive.
Aeroflot is trying to pull off a branding feat that few companies would dare copy.

The airline is clinging to a Soviet-era name and logo that conjure up images of snippy flight attendants, bland food and rattling, over-the-hill jets. In reality, however, its fleet is among the youngest in Europe, its business class is considered top-notch, and it has sent its flight attendants back to school to learn to smile.

Now, 75 years after the state adopted the Aeroflot name Feb. 25, 1932, the airline is very much a marketing manager's conundrum. And Aeroflot hasn't been afraid to let some of the best people in the industry sweat over it.

"The airline had a shady reputation," said Michael Peters, chairman of Identica, the London-based branding and design consultancy firm that Aeroflot hired in 2001 to buff up its image.

Peters said the main problems Aeroflot faced when he came on board were perceptions of unsafe, aging aircraft and unfriendly staff -- problems that surfaced in Soviet times and continue to plague the airline today.

Even before Identica, Aeroflot initiated a sweeping rebranding with McKinsey & Company in 2000. The management consulting firm developed a strategy that, among other things, tried to teach the cabin crew to smile. Smiling proved to be a big step for an airline that aggrieved passengers once referred to as "Aeroflop."

A McKinsey spokesman refused to comment on the company's work with Aeroflot.

When Identica come along, it advised Aeroflot to drop its logo, a hammer and sickle with wings. In December 2002, the airline announced that it would, but four months later it backtracked. A senior Aeroflot official said at the time that the painted logo would be replaced with easily removable stickers on all planes -- just in case the airline changed its mind again.

Aeroflot's marketing department now says the logo is here to stay.

"We will never change the logo," said a department spokeswoman, who refused to give her name. "We've done research, and the bird, as we call our logo, is very popular among passengers."

She added that there was no political dimension to the decision and that the logo was purely a marketing matter.

A passenger survey carried out by Identica yielded mixed results.

Other changes started taking place at Aeroflot in 2004. The airline swapped its brusque old slogan "Fly Aeroflot!" for the softer "Sincerely Yours" and, under the direction of Identica, repainted its aircraft in silver, dark blue and red, redesigned the interiors and improved the food. In December, it unveiled new uniforms for its cabin crew.

Peters said it had been difficult to convince some people at Aeroflot to adopt even those changes. "There were so many people having a vested interest, both the old guard and the new people, that to find one common positioning was very tough," he said.

The facelift for Aeroflot's image is the most obvious element of a more profound process of modernization that has seen the airline's fleet overhauled.

"Aeroflot right now has one of the youngest fleets in Europe," said Yelena Sakhnova, an aviation analyst at Deutsche UFG, saying older, Russian-made aircraft were only used for domestic flights.

The airline announced Feb. 15 that it intended to replace 14 of its Tu-134 jets by next year with modern planes and to replace 28 of its larger Tu-154 jets by 2010.

Sakhnova said that, according to her information, Aeroflot now offers the best business-class service and an economy class "on a par, if not better than" its competitors on flights to Europe.

What impact Aeroflot's rebranding campaign has had thus far is open to debate, with analysts and consultants arguing that it will take at least several more years before passengers associate Aeroflot with any improved services.

"How do we judge the success of what we do? Well of course, it's bums on seats, as they say," Peters said, adding that Aeroflot was reporting improved ticket sales.

External factors such as the general perception of Russia also affect Aeroflot's image, he said.

Another problem is the disparity between the quality of Aeroflot's domestic and international services, said Eduard Faritov, an aviation analyst at Renaissance Capital.

Passengers used to flying on European airlines often are shocked when they step onto a domestic Aeroflot flight, Faritov said. "They really need to improve their services to Asia and within Russia," he said.

Aeroflot's steps to reinvent itself come as part of a wider trend among Russian air carriers. Other airlines have pointedly chosen Western image consultants to distance themselves from the traditional negative perception of the Russian airline industry as a whole.

In 2005, Sibir Airlines changed its name to S7 and overhauled its image under the guidance of London-based consultants Landor Associates. The airline, which grew out of the Novosibirsk branch of Aeroflot in 1992, needed to shed its regional image as it spread its wings countrywide, S7 spokesman Ilya Novokhatsky said.

Despite the rebranding, S7 has its work cut out for it after one of its Airbus jets ran off a runway in Irkutsk in July, killing 120 people.

"With airlines, it takes a long time to build a reputation. It takes five minutes to destroy it," Peters said.

The S7 spokesman suggested that it would be easier for the airline to win back passengers than for Aeroflot to rebrand itself while carrying the weight of its historical baggage.

"The hammer and sickle is just too deep-rooted in the minds of millions of Russians," he said.