Blue Ocean Branding: The Norwegian Airlines Case

Looking up into the sky recently, I could just see an airliner starting its descent towards Arlanda airport, Stockholm. It was too far away to see it clearly, or recognize the aircraft type, but it obviously belonged to Norwegian Airlines. Why? Because in a world where airliners are either painted a uniform color, or with horizontal stripes, it is the only airline I know of that chose a radically different paint scheme that is instantly recognizable.

This is effectively a "blue ocean" approach to branding and it can be very effective. Most brands try to look somewhat like existing brands in the same space. Wine bottles, for example, don't need to be labelled "wine" because that is generally obvious from the shape of the bottle and the style of the label. In much the same way, other products try to not distance themselves from rivals, so that customers can tell what the product is without looking very closely.

But there have been many cases where a highly distinctive product has brought advantages. One of the classic cases is the Volkswagen Beetle, a vehicle so distinctive that it has been instantly recognizable from any distance. Back in the 1960s Doyle Dane Bernbach's classic print campaign "A Volkswagen obviously" played on this theme with copy mischievously explaining that you could recognize a VW under snow because was the one that started, when in fact the famous outline was still plainly visible.

Another classic case of a distinctive brand style is the legendary Toblerone. Many rivals are rectangular, some are round, but none copy the triangular package design used by Toblerone. There is a reason for this. The company is famous for aggressively defending its intellectual property and while many rivals have tried to copy the packaging, none have succeeded in beating Toblerone's intellectual property team.

A blue-ocean branding strategy like this is more challenging than a me-too approach, but this is certainly one way to differentiate a product. Nobody can confuse a Beetle with another car, nobody will confuse a Toblerone with a rival, and even from a distance any Norwegian Airlines plane is instantly recognizable.

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For lectures, interactive workshops, one-to-one coaching and writing on branding and other communication topics contact the author Andrew Hennigan at or call 0046 730 894 475.


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