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The SAS campaign caused a storm – but did it hurt the airline’s reputation?

wo weeks ago Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) became the focus of attention on social media in DenmarkSweden, and Norway following its release of a controversial video claiming that many Scandinavian traditions are in fact not local but adopted from other cultures.

The intention was to use yet another creative expression to demonstrate the value of international travel as part of the airline’s popular ‘We Are Travelers’ positioning, but instead it won the company fierce criticism from politicians, citizens, and the media – all claiming that the company was being disloyal and unpatriotic to local Scandinavian culture.

The SAS management was quick to claim that the campaign got “hijacked” and the company still stands behind the message that comes across in the ad. Nevertheless, after a day of public debate and experts pointing out some historical inaccuracies, the video was re-published in a shorter and edited version to remove or soften some of the controversial elements.

So, how did this chain of events impact the reputation of SAS in Scandinavia? Was it the right decision to pull the original video and reissue a softer version, or has the company given in too quickly?

At Caliber we monitor public perceptions of thousands of companies across the globe on a daily basis, putting us in a good position to detect how events like this impact companies’ reputations.

A quick check on our dashboard showed that the trust levels in SAS had already been in decline in Sweden prior to the crisis, with a relatively poor Trust & Like Score of 57 at the start of 2020. In Denmark, the situation was different with public perceptions rising to a score of around 70 in early 2020, hitting the previous high reputational levels of 2018.

Interestingly, during February 12th and 13th – the two days of the intense public discourse around the campaign – the scores increased in both countries. While in Denmark the rise was very modest (just 1 point), the impact in Sweden was more significant (full 5 points).

In the days right after the crisis, the situation in Denmark changed dramatically with a significant drop in TLS to 67. In the meantime, perceptions in Sweden continued their upward trend.

More data is desirable in order to isolate all the effects of the crisis on the reputation of SAS, and the different patterns in the two countries make it tricky to draw a uniform conclusion. But it does seem fair to suggest that the crisis itself did not have an immediate impact on the airline’s reputation in either country, as the score increased or remained stable during the days of the heated public debate.

The aftermath of the crisis, however, is harder to analyze: is the continued rise in score in Sweden a sign that there was no cumulative or delayed negative impact on the reputation? And if so, why did the score drop so significantly in Denmark?

Is that a direct result of the original video and the offense some people took from it – or is it in fact a negative reaction to the “capitulation” of SAS and the re-publication of the edited version that ended up hurting its reputation in the ensuing days?

These questions are difficult to answer, but it is fair to say that the lack of negative score movement during those two crucial days in mid-February may indicate that the company’s initial strong stand behind its beliefs and values has had a positive effect on the public.

This, then, may suggest that when management suddenly decided to give in to those they had earlier labeled “hijackers”, the tables turned and their reputation began to suffer. In this sense, perhaps the conclusion is that the usual advice not to negotiate with hijackers or give in to their demands also applies when it comes to corporate reputation.