Can ‘rebranding’ redeem Air India?

It’s a tough time for airlines. One look at the news outlets will tell you it’s even worse for Air India. It is safe to say that the airline’s glory years are comfortably ensconced in the past and have been so for a while now.

27 Feb 2015 | By Shinmin Bali

Air India has been at the receiving end of fairly regular bad press of late. The most unforgiveable reason of which, we assume, was being the reason for some cricket fans having to miss the recent India – Pakistan World Cup cricket match. 
Not too long ago, a new modern day rehashed mascot for the airline emerged. The press picked it up, didn’t seem to take too kindly to it and soon enough the airline took to Twitter to ‘clear the air’ that the Maharajah continues to remain the mascot but that the ‘new’ version would be featured in its communication.

A news report in The Times of India dated 18 Jan 2015 attributes the following comment to a senior Air India official that handled the makeover: “The new Maharajah is aligned with the modern times and with the new AI which is also trying to cut flab to become a lean commercial entity. The Maharajah now has a leaner, young, sporty and more dynamic look.” 
Some brand watchers contend that the rebranding should have followed some evidence of inherent change in the brand.
Can a visual rebranding exercise actually spell transformation for the company?
Anand Halve, co-founder, Chlorophyll, notes, “Maharajah, unfortunately, seems to draw only contempt at the moment. The Maharajah was invented to be this charming individual that represented the hospitality of India and in those days it was targeting international flyers not Indian. They have to now decide what Air India is all about today. Air India needs to redefine its offer to the consumer.”
Nalin Khanna, group CEO, Vertebrand, believes that it needs to let go of its dated way of operation. “Air India is rooted in the past so strongly that it’s finding it difficult to evolve. In any case, if there is a deep rooted surgery required, band-aids don’t work. SpiceJet is facing troubles as well but people still continue to fly with both Air India and SpiceJet primarily because there are no options available. A brand should have a strong conviction about the change it wants to drive. Air India, at this stage, needs transformational changes and not symptomatic ones.”
Rakesh Thukral, managing director, Edelman, suggests elevating the experience. He notes, “Air India will have to enhance the experience. It isn’t that people have stopped liking Air India, but that the airline now needs to focus on what aspects of their brand are liked by their flyers and try to build on that. There has to be an overall package which is about, customer service experience, engagement, actual empirical experience.”
Lloyd Mathias, chief marketing officer, HP India, explains how to look at rebranding as a solution to the airline’s problems signifies completely misidentifying the point. “The problems of Air India are fundamental, rebranding cannot save Air India. Improving everything right from bookings to timings to flight experiences, loyalty programme and overall communication is what the airline needs to look into.”
Rajiv Desai, chairman and CEO, Comma Consulting, minces no words as he says, “A brand is not just about an identity, symbols and pretty pictures. It is about the values. What are the values we associate with Air India right now? They’re late, they’re inefficient, they’re completely non-customer oriented, they first need to instill value into their brand.”
Mathias notes how Air India needs to approach the issue with a value-oriented focus. He opines, “Rebranding by itself will not help until you’re able to alter your value proposition. If Air India isn’t looking at its in-flight service, the quality of staff, service as a whole, then rebranding, by itself, doesn’t make sense.”
Anand Halve, co-founder, Chlorophyll
“Changing a logo or a mascot is the least important part of the exercise. Are you fundamentally changing something that defines you as a brand? A brand, ideally, is a statement of what it believes in. Right now, customers have no idea what Air India is about. ”
Nalin Khanna, group CEO, Vertebrand
“Rebranding can be physical which involves changing the logo, mascot, the look of the brand. The other has to deal with the ‘feel’ of the brand. Changing your brand is important in case of trying to better the experience your customers expect from you. If the customer doesn’t feel that the staff behaves in accordance or that the services provided are as promised then no amount of tinkering with branding and/or upping your activities on social media will help. ”
Rakesh Thukral, managing director, Edelman
“The customer experience and visual perception of the brand are linked. What people see and what people experience collectively forms their perception towards a brand. The brand personality and brand experience needs to liven up a bit. ”
Lloyd Mathias, chief marketing officer, HP India
“Whenever Air India decides to turn itself around the right way, it must focus on the value proposition being put forth. It needs a consolidated approach that touches every aspect of the customer experience. ”
Rajiv Desai, chairman and CEO, Comma Consulting
“Before going for cosmetic changes, they need to define their value system to abide by. Feeling a sense of non-accountability, except towards the civil aviation ministry, is working against the airline. ”
(This appeared in the 20 February issue of Campaign India)