On Monday, Boeing celebrated delivery of its first 787 Dreamliner to a paying client (just think of the sweetheart deal All Nippon Airways got). At a development cost of more than $32 billion spread out over almost a decade, the model encountered every conceivable delay (and many that nobody had imagined), and it might not make any money until the 2020s, if ever. One reporter qualified the accomplishment as "...the pinnacle of achievement...in the life of the program…" There were probably lots of sighs of relief at the employee event.
Enough has been said about Boeing's woes with the 787. The fact that it chose to create an airplane created out of plastic instead of metal is a little weird to begin with, and it foolishly followed all the outsourcing malarky from management consultants and decided to let independent third-parties build pieces of the plane. Of course, nothing quite fit together, and the company had to buy up some of the factories in order to assemble the stuff. On second thought, maybe enough hasn't been written about that failure of the Outsourcing Promise, but whatever.
Now the business of selling airplanes takes center stage. Boeing has been working to write orders for years, and I'm sure the 787 pricetag has taken a hit every time news appeared that, say, the wing wouldn't attach to the fuselage. You can imagine that it already has a glossy branding campaign in the can, showing a plane gliding over puffy clouds toward a perfect sunset or cameos of idealized, surprisingly diverse employees talking about how proud they are of their achievement. No ad or social media campaign is going to influence its potential sales, at least not directly, though I'd say the communications challenge is twofold:
- Convince airlines to buy the planes, and
- Tell people why they should want to fly in them
What would you do if you were advising Boeing? Here are three thought-starters:
- Immediately lower expectations. Many of the qualifiers that we'll hear and read about from Boeing are standard -- every new thing is the best new thing ever, not just in the airplane racket -- but if ever an accomplishment cried out for some humility, it's this one. Add some guarded optimism, maybe referencing that it's up to carriers and consumers to decide if the accomplishment was an accomplishment at all? Such truth-telling goes against the grain on the leather seats in every corporate boardroom, but without it Boeing will simply continue to be in a position to disappoint instead of surprise.
- Stand for something. Currently, the 787 is the costliest, most-delayed, and most-experimental general use aircraft ever invented. Wanna talk about a worse label? Why couldn't Boeing decide to position the plane as "The Green Jet" instead of the Dreamliner, or something. Stand for a single thing and drive it home, at risk of losing some of the nuance and list-worthy attributes that nobody cares about anyway. Start building natural constituent groups for it (environmentalists, obviously) and use it as the call-to-action for social engagement (could it be the first jet plane that comes with its own carbon-offset for passengers, irrespective of carrier?). Also, it would give Boeing an excuse to address the plastic thing, which I find terrifying.
- Be ready for a crisis. I'd imagine the likelihood of something going wrong on an airplane is directly related to wear-and-tear, but it's in the first few weeks or months of operation that the design failures will first become evident. Chance may also intervene (however unfair that might be). So what happens if one of the first-delivered planes has a malfunction, hopefully minor and not tragic? Boeing's standard crisis communication plans will not do; it needs to be prepared to go all-out on an operational basis -- to fix whatever problem(s) occur -- and to talk about it publicly in direct, human, and unconventionally honest ways. Copy the way Rolls Royce handled its engine problems last year, and do the exact opposite of what BP did.
Or...it's just going to be more of the same corporate nonsense. What do you think?
(Image credit: the plane in question)