As the founder of a media group with offices in eight countries and a design agency with teams in six, Tyler Brûlé spends a lot of his time travelling. He has also launched a series of publications devoted to travel and tourism and writes about the subject often for the Financial Times.
Brûlé founded business, culture and design magazine Monocle in 2007. The brand has since grown to include a 24-hour radio station as well as books on home interiors, design and business. This year, it launched a series of illustrated city guides published by Gestalten and a new seasonal title The Escapist, which offers a look at life in lesser-known destinations.
He is also the founder of Winkreative, a branding and design agency which has worked on identities and advertising for airlines, luxury hotel groups and national tourist boards. The company redesigned Swiss Air’s visual identity in 2002 and created Canadian airline Porter’s in 2006 and this year, worked on a comprehensive system for Union Pearson Express (a Canadian rail service connecting Toronto Airport and the city centre) designing liveries, uniforms and signage as well as a website and magazine.
With this in mind, we paid a visit to Monocle’s head office in Marylebone, London to ask Brûlé for his thoughts on travel branding, travel media and what airlines, hotel groups and rail companies need to do to stand out and get consumers’ attention.
CR: What do you think makes a great airline today?
TB: With brands today, there’s so often a focus on efficiencies rather than being efficient. There’s this great rush, like there is in so many businesses, to digitise airlines and deliver a digital experience yet at the same time, all of the planes are largely the same, there’s principally four types of airliners you can fly on, seven or eight major seat manufacturers and probably as many big agencies that work on airlines around the world … so in a way, your points of competition actually come down to the human experience. I’m not so interested in the airlines that are innovating with seats or lighting, I’m interested in airlines that are delivering really outstanding service from people who are passionate about what they do.
So who is providing a great experience for passengers?
I have a lot of respect for Japan Airlines and that brand because it is so deep and thorough – you get on board and there is a 60-year-old flight attendant and you really feel that this is someone who has poured their life into the brand, understands every intricacy of the how the plane works, has been on a series of training courses and has been to visit the vineyards [where the wine is sourced from] because the airline invests in really getting people to understand the product. I think that’s the great differentiator right now, but I’m surprised how many airline CEOs have missed that.
In Europe, I’d point to Lufthansa as an innovator, but one that still balances that with the need for a human experience. They’ve announced their entire short haul fleet will be wi-fi enabled by summer, so that’s a point of innovation which I think throws the gauntlet down on the step of British Airways, easyJet, everybody else.
And why do you think so many airlines are focused on delivering digital innovation, perhaps at the expense of the customer experience?
I think because it’s easy. As technology becomes the prevailing narrative of the day, you’re not seen as an innovative CEO unless you are also being seen to be at the forefront of adopting every new type of technology that comes along. I’m not talking about tech just in terms of aircraft, but everything from baggage tracking through to marketing initiatives and I think it’s unfortunate. Smart airlines are the ones that really understand that if you’re flying tens of millions of passengers around the world, shouldn’t you also have tens of thousands of staff who can engage with those passengers in the right way?
You mentioned Japan Airlines having a sense of national pride – do you think this sense of identity is still as important for national carriers as it once was?
I do. We’re in a world of placeless places: so many airports look the same, so many high streets have started to look the same, and it’s a differentiator. I like getting on a Japan Airlines flight, because you go through all the hassle of Heathrow and then you cross the threshold of a Japan Airlines flight and suddenly you’re in Japan. And when that’s delivered really well – from music to on-board announcements and the food and drink – it’s exquisite.
I think people do want to find points when they travel where they feel connected to where they are going. A lot of people will say of course that nationalism doesn’t matter anymore, it’s not important, but I would argue otherwise.
Matthias C Huhne has released a book [Airline Visual Identity: 1945–1975] celebrating a period in which airlines were more daring with their communications. A lot of ads from this time were about capturing a sense of exoticism or adventure associated with air travel, whereas today, airlines seem more focused on price and service. Do you think airline communications are becoming less exciting?
I guess. When I look back to our work for Swiss Air a lot of people said, ‘you didn’t do anything original, you just brought it back to what it was’ – but that’s because it was a great airline. That project was about correcting all of the brand drift that had happened over the years and bringing it back to something which was red and sharp and precise but warm on the inside. It was very much an exercise in trying to deliver some kind of authentic experience within a country which is still very aspirational for many: you think of flying to Switzerland and you get this beautiful vision in your head. But yes, at the same time, I think you see a lot of projects and new brand development out there that’s just incredibly bland. It neither excites nor offends anyone.
What’s interesting is that word exoticism. I think that has been stripped out of the experience because it is a little un-PC. Exotic airline posters were the dancing Thai girls, or a Mexican farmer sleeping in a sombrero on a Pan-Am poster and you can argue that they are tired clichés but in their moment, they represented the excitement of travel and going to these places. It’s hard with those images, but I think it’s still that sense of discovery that gets us all on planes. You hope you’ll be able to go somewhere two or three streets off the beaten track in Bangkok and see something other people haven’t seen or noticed.
Some budget brands such as easyJet seem to be focusing less on price now and more on promoting the joy of travel and experiences. Why do you think we’re seeing this shift?
I think because they couldn’t go any further. We got as far as we could in terms of stripping everything out of the experience, and it was so focused on price at the lower end of the market, and now easyJet is the one that has emerged to say look, there is some delight by the time you land in Croatia, or Morocco or the Canaries.
I think they had to put some type of joy back into the occasion. You can put Copenhagen and £39 on an ad, or you can swap out the name and put Warsaw and £49, but after a while the passenger becomes somewhat immune to it all, there’s no differentiation. And then of course you have the pressure from legacy carriers such as Air France and British Airways also playing the price game, so something had to give and thankfully it has.
What do you think rail companies should be focusing on in terms of how they present themselves, and their communications?
You see some rail companies trying to make their on-board experience more like an airline. If I’m on the Eurostar, I don’t mind if a food trolley comes past but I don’t need to be fed at my seat – I think the great thing about rail is that it allows you to get up, walk the aisles, go to a dining car. So I think rail has to fight back in a way and highlight the efficiencies of rail. You can jump on a train five minutes before it leaves and you might travel a little longer, but you’ll arrive straight in a city centre, and I think that could be a little more explicit in their marketing.
The other thing I would love to see is us moving back to an era of overnight rail travel … there are still plenty of places you can do that but oddly, we’re seeing a lot of night services cut, and I wonder if that’s partly because it’s still often seen as a student or backpacker thing. Maybe from a design point of view it needs an upgrade, or at least a slight refresh.
With UP Express, Winkreative worked on everything from the livery design to uniforms, seating and the station interiors. How important was that to the project, and do you think it’s something we’ll see more of? Pentagram has done similar work with First Great Western in the UK.
UP serves Canada’s biggest airport, so it was really seen as a welcome to the country, and it needed to hit a high note on every level. The great thing was that the client really understood that – I think they felt emboldened because they were part of welcoming people to Canada and the province and Toronto, so there was never a discussion about whether we buy existing uniforms or off-the-shelf fabrics. And I guess as rail starts to re-think what it needs to be in Europe, or even the UK, we’ll see more things joined up for sure.
And what about train stations – St Pancras in London is now a destination in its own right. Is this something you think we’ll see more of in the UK?
I think there is definitely a sense that this country needs to get its act together a little bit more. I was on my way back from Cornwall recently and you look at the state of stations in the countryside or even in smaller regional cities and it’s like they’re just not thought through. In other countries, regional stations are hubs of commerce and service and have clean toilets but here, they’re just a jumping on and jumping off point.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if you gave an opportunity for small businesses to sell local produce, to make stations interesting little hubs of business and creativity? I wish we’d see more of that [in the UK] because we talk so much about regional development, and how we should inspire SMEs and entrepreneurship, but to do that you need to create a platform. You don’t even need government grants, just smaller outlets and stalls that people can afford to rent, but it’s so much easier for developers to say we’ll make every outlet 3,000 square feet because that’s what chains want.
Monocle has released nine city guides this year. Have you been surprised by the success of the series? And why do you think there’s still a demand for printed guide books?
There’s this great surge of apps that are out there but since we launched our city guides in June, we’ve sold tens and tens and tens of thousands of books. It’s blown our expectations and Gestalten’s out of the water completely and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that a book is still a wonderful, easy to use format. You don’t have to keep hitting a return button to get back to the main screen or worry about your battery running out and when you’re going through a city, your mind is able to recall some kind of snapshot, like ‘I saw that café about a third of the way in on the right hand page’.
Tokyo is in its third reprint already, and it’s been a really positive validation for the book industry, so we’re thrilled about that but it’s also really exciting from a business point of view. We’ve brought in a books sub, and a books editor, and it’s very much a growing part of the business – by next year there will be 20 travel guides and we’ll probably be doing two or three of the larger coffee table style books.
And what do you think makes a good guidebook?
There are a lot of good guidebooks out there, but one thing that we did see was that a lot of them had become focused on the information and not on the visuals, so we put a lot of photography and spot illustrations in. I was really inspired by another publishing group, Suddeutsche Zeitung in Germany – they do a great travel series, and what excites me about those books is the image of say, a schnitzel on a plate in a restaurant in Munich, because that’s what gives me the urge to travel. Good imagery was the principal differentiator for us, because otherwise, if you’re only thinking about making something that’s slimline and easy to carry around, then it’s very difficult to compete with an app.
We also added essays where we asked our correspondents and contributors to really weigh in on cities, and give them some sort of context, to introduce you to what’s happening politically etc. and that type of immersion has also been important. I think over the last nine years we’ve developed a trust around our brand: we don’t take freebies and these books are paid for 100% by ourselves, so if we recommend a place for breakfast, it’s because Rob Bound went there and he liked it. If you like Rob’s writing, and you know he’s been our writer or editor for nine years, then as a consumer you’re going to think, ‘that’s good enough for me’.
How do you make sure guidebooks remain up to date, particularly in cities like London and New York, where new restaurants and hotels and bars are opening all the time?
The books will get updated every 18 months but we’ve also tried to make sure that the guide books aren’t just about what’s new and interesting but the really good classics too. There’s always going to be three amazing dumpling places you should go to in Bangkok because they’ve been there for 50 years.
And how do you think the role of travel magazines is changing? We’re seeing a real surge of independent titles, while a lot of traditional publishers have had to rethink their business or publishing models?
So many people have moved into that space and I don’t even think it has anything to do with digital. It’s more that weekend papers, fashion magazines, brands, everyone has started to weave travel into their narrative so much more and that’s the challenge for the travel magazine now more than anything else. They have to do more to stand out.
Are you planning to launch any other travel series?
One thing we’re looking at is developing some great road trip atlases. Cars have a bad name, but there’s something so great about the serendipity of being in a vehicle with no fixed track, with finding places that might be a little forgotten because they’re out of the way and have no train connection, or seeing a great piece of type and stopping to take a picture … but when you look for editorial to support that, it’s not there. We’re going to look at maybe three pockets of Europe to start with and develop something around that.
What do you think are the major challenges facing hotels and hotel groups, and what do you think they should be focusing on when it comes to customer experience?
I think actually one of the challenges for major hotel groups is that they’re all sort of fighting this corner for local knowledge: everyone wants to be the best possible concierge, and be in this content space [hotel groups from the Standard to the Four Seasons have launched blogs and curator programmes offering local insights and advice for guests, while Marriott has been trying out new restaurants serving food by local producers and one-off events organised by staff to appeal to a younger audience] … but I would say focus on the basics, getting the rooms and the service right. There’s such a rush to have this local expertise and bring in curators and make everyone feel like a local – every hotel group is doing it – but that immediately makes me think, shouldn’t I just stay at a local hotel that’s family owned, or a regional one that’s probably more invested in the local community?
One of the things that interests me, if I go back to Japan again, is that a lot of the really good country inns there will have an incredible gift selection, where they’ve worked with local producers … you’ll check out and have a look around and before you know it, you’ve spent almost as much as you did on the room buying wine, or some wooden bowls, or some rare salt or something, but you feel good about it because it’s going to local farmers and all those people and not some big conglomerate. I don’t think we’ve really nailed that in the US or Europe, though I was in a hotel in Italy recently and they’ve developed their own hay and pine-tree based skincare products, which I think is a good example of something that’s run by the hotel, creates jobs in the community and results in a great product.
Hotel groups used to trade on that experience being the same everywhere they go – do you think this is something they need to move away from, or something that is becoming less popular?
I think in the 1960s, and the era of the exotic airline posters, everyone wanted exciting but not when it became time for bed – you wanted it to feel a little like being at home, and that’s why those hotels evolved in that way. Now we know that you have people in Thailand and Vietnam who are much better at hospitality than a lot of US companies, so I think yes, the emphasis and focus for hotel groups needs to be on making sure that brand attributes are the same [in each hotel] … but that the design execution is completely different.
I think we also need to move out of this cycle in hotels of hiring the designer of the moment to put the lights of the moment in the lobby. It’s a little like airlines – hotels are almost more guilty of it – they go to a big trade fair and buy the outdoor furniture or plates of the moment rather than thinking, ‘there’s nothing wrong with this table which came from a hotel in Norway, it’s got a few dents and dings in it but at least it can be oiled’…. In the same way we’re kind of scared to have wrinkles and scars, I think we almost treat our environments the same way – as soon as something has a dent or a nick in it, it needs to be replaced.
And do you think hotel groups are more concerned about being seen as ethical or environmentally friendly nowadays?
I think everyone wants to be seen as ethical or responsible, but I don’t think it’s always very joined up. As a hotel operator, you might serve honey from a local hive, and coffee from a roastery down the road and have this really nice front end story, but the beds and the mattresses were made in China and had to spend three months at sea, and are made from some toxic material.
If you’re going to stand behind an ecological, ethical message then I would say more needs to be done on the back end: from where you source products to how you work with the local community, or motivate young people to learn hospitality skills…. You need to be very thorough.
This feature also appeared in CR’s Travel and Transport issue. Details here.