When actions speak louder than words – Gulf Air’s Straight From The Heart and several hundred sacked employees

For over a month now Bahrain’s national carrier Gulf Air has been running a touching, powerful marketing campaign. Named ‘Straight From The Heart’, the campaign uses both print and multimedia to feature ordinary people who use and rely on Gulf Air, not just for their flights but also for hotels, cars and insurance. Basically, Gulf Air is saying it takes care of its customers and all of their holiday/travel needs.

The campaign is featured all over the island, on billboards and in print, at Bahrain’s cinemas and online and targets as many customer segments as possible in terms of the persons portrayed in the adverts themselves. There’s the Bahraini banker in his thob and guthra, the European male executive, the young female professional, a well-known Bahraini actor and comedian and a local footballer. In the print adverts they each describe a personal experience they’ve had with Gulf Air. It’s a powerful campaign.

There’s just one problem. You could say that Bahrain has been going through a rough patch of late. Ever since February, since protests broke out, the island has gone through a political and economic crisis. Gulf Air has not been spared. To quote from an article in today’s Sunday Times, several hundred employees have been fired from the airline for a variety of reasons.

“At Gulf Air, the national carrier, 250 employees were dismissed for posting comments about the demonstrations on their Facebook accounts and other minor signs of support for the protests. Despite repeated promises that they would be reinstated, including one by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, many have still not got their jobs back.”

As a government-controlled company it appears that Gulf Air has terminated people who objected to the government clampdown on protesters during February and March. From what I’ve been told by people at Gulf Air is that all of those who were fired were Shia Muslims (the government and the Royal Family are Sunni Muslims, while most of the protesters were Shia). Some seem to have been targeted for termination simply because they were Shia, rather than because they’d voiced their concerns about the political situation and crackdown in Bahrain. In total 250 out of a total of 2,000 ground staff were laid off.

As part of the reconciliation process initiated by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, all those who were fired due to reasons related to the protests were supposed to be rehired. Rather than being reinstated, they’ve been ignored by the airline. During a speech televised live on Bahrain TV during the first night of Eid, King Hamad promised all those who had been fired that they’d be taken back. Only after this speech did Gulf Air take action. Fifty people were reinstated, on the proviso that they could be fired at a moment’s notice without legal recourse.

Instead of reappointing the people they’ve gotten rid of, Gulf Air has apparently hired replacements. According to my sources they’re mainly Indian, Sunni Muslims who are earning half of what their Bahraini predecessors took home at the end of the month. Meanwhile the sacked employees and their families are taking legal action against Gulf Air.

The point of this blog is to talk about communications, about marketing and consumers. I’m not going to talk about the politics of what happened. However, I will ask this. In Bahrain, what’s your largest customer base? They’re probably Shia and Bahraini. The population isn’t large either – there’s less than a million Bahrainis. I’m guessing most Bahraini nationals will know someone who was fired during or after the protests.

If you’re looking to build brand equity, alienating your largest customer base by firing several hundred staff isn’t a smart idea. Running a brand building campaign based on emotional values and the tagline Straight From The Heart while all this is happening isn’t what I’d deem to be appropriate either. As always, actions speak louder than words. In the case of Gulf Air, their actions are deafening enough to lose them a good deal of customers as well as money. No advertising can undo the harm done, only common sense.

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