Interview: Ruaraidh Smeaton on the Cathay Dragon rebrand

23 Feb 2017 by Craig Bright
Cathay Dragon tailfin brushwing logo

Ruaraidh Smeaton is manager for brand at Cathay Pacific

Business Traveller: What was the impetus for the Cathay Dragon rebrand from Dragonair last year?

Ruaraidh Smeaton: The objective was very simple in that we wanted to improve recognition and awareness of both brands [Cathay Pacific and Dragonair].

The past ten years has seen a significant investment in the product of Dragonair since it became a wholly owned subsidiary and also significant investment in the network. But we still had an issue when it came to awareness of Dragonair despite making all of that investment, particularly when we went into our long-haul market, whether it was North America, Europe, the South Pacific. The research was telling us people were very aware of Cathay Pacific, but when they were looking at sixth-freedom flights through Hong Kong, they didn’t know who Dragonair was.

So the rebrand was just to give people confidence when they were booking sixth-freedom tickets and transferring from Cathay Pacific onto Cathay Dragon it would be the same quality of service end-to-end. It wasn’t only about long haul, it was also the other way around. Traditionally Dragonair served second- and third-tier cities in China and it was the same problem only inverted – customers from China may have been very aware of Dragonair but not Cathay Pacific.

BT: Why did Cathay wait until now to rebrand Dragonair as opposed to ten years ago immediately after it first became a wholly owned subsidiary?

RS: Though it was long before my time, my understanding is that it was about marketing the network strength of Dragonair and how that bolted on to Cathay Pacific’s network. It’s over the past few years we’ve been looking at customer insights and the opportunities going forward and the growth of aviation in the region that we thought now was the time to align the strengths of both brands.

BT: What will now distinguish the two brands from one another?

RS: The thing that makes Cathay Dragon unique is that whereas Cathay Pacific is trying to strike a contemporary Asian look and feel, Cathay Dragon will try to be more specifically contemporary Chinese, given its network.

BT: How did you settle on the name Cathay Dragon?

RS: We definitely went through the process of throwing out different names. It was largely focusing on the equity of both existing brands as opposed to coming up with something new. We looked at the combination of names we could have created by combining Cathay Pacific and Dragonair, and just looking at social media alone many people were asking why we didn’t call it “Dragon Pacific”. All of that was on the table, but really Cathay Dragon was the inevitable choice because it built on the strength of Cathay Pacific and retained the symbology of the Dragon, which is really important regionally.

The other thing that made it interesting was making sure it worked in Chinese also. That got very interesting when it came to the livery design. One of the slight differences you’ll see with the Chinese word mark is that the standard Chinese name has six characters, but you’ll notice that on the side of the livery it only has four characters. The reason for doing that is we felt the four-character word mark presented a lot better on the smaller aircraft Cathay Dragon operates. The big debate at the time was that the two characters we dropped were the word for “airlines” and it’s very typical that in Chinese-speaking countries, along with Korea and Japan, airlines add “airways” or “airlines” to their names, which is something that has been dropped in Western branding a long time ago.

BT: Would you say the same was the case for the new logo being a red variation of the green Cathay Pacific brushwing?

RS: There were definitely explorations around the existing logos and typefaces we were using. Again it was looking at existing elements and combinations to see what worked. Just in the interest in brainstorming, at the very beginning we even considered changing the name but aligning the colours, or changing the colours and having the same name. But ultimately it was always going to be the brushwing.

BT: And the new livery still has the old dragon logo at the front of the aircraft.

RS: That was another big point of debate. Ultimately it was felt that having “dragon” in the name warranted having some dragon on the aircraft. It was also a nod to the heritage – we weren’t just ripping out the heritage, we were trying to retain some of its strengths. And that seems to have resonated well with people. We actually touched up the dragon during our design process and consulted with our feng shui master to understand what the important elements of a dragon design were. Just through some simple graphic design changes and altering the angles, it’s amazing how quickly the feeling of that dragon could change to a more Western depiction of a dragon.

BT: Do you think the Cathay Dragon rebrand has achieved its aim of increasing familiarity of both brands across all markets since it was first announced back in January 2016?

RS: When we re-designed the Cathay Pacific livery we actually designed the Cathay Dragon livery at the same time. But when we launched the Cathay Pacific livery [in November 2015], nobody knew we would soon be announcing the Cathay Dragon rebrand as well. So when many people were asking about the Cathay Pacific livery, it was difficult to offer a full explanation because it had been designed in conjunction with Cathay Dragon.

But if we look at the reaction in January [2016] to the announcement of the rebrand and the Cathay Dragon livery compared with the changing mood on social media now, people are not only coming to terms with it but also beginning to accept it. Anecdotally I’ve had a look of feedback from people saying they weren’t sure of it at first but now it’s really growing on them. This pretty much mirrors every rebrand that we’ve observed – in the first few months after the change people naturally don’t like it, but soon they get very used to it.

In terms of the bigger objectives of driving awareness, I think now we’ve launched it and are starting to market it, this is where we really need to test what awareness is like. Based on our initial reports in Hong Kong from customers, awareness seems to be good already locally. We’re positive so far in what we’re seeing.

What do you think of the Cathay Dragon rebrand? Let us know in our online poll.

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