AI had too many brand names

Air India dumped the Centaur logo three years after it was readjusted to point upwards; Indian Airlines changed its name to Indian just two years before its merger.
The cashless Maharajah must be hoping for a miracle to shed his excess baggage. Air India’s mascot since 1946, the Maharajah keeps on smiling at us from the hoardings all over the country, but the smile lacks cheer these days. For, India’s national airline is bankrupt.
National Aviation Co of India Ltd that operates Air India is expected to register a loss of around Rs 5,000 crore in 2008-09, largely due to high operating expenses. Not that the airline was making money earlier, but many in the aviation industry attribute the current crisis to the government’s decision in 2007 to merge Indian Airlines (IA) with AI into one company. While the idea was good as it could have achieved economies of scale, the shoddy implementation has delivered a few hard knocks to brand Air India.
Look at the way the management has made a mess of the brand. The logo of the new airline is now a red-colored flying swan with the ‘Konark Chakra’ in orange, placed inside it. But advertising and branding gurus are yet to figure out the reason for dumping the earlier logo – the Centaur, a stylish version of star constellation Sagittarius which had become a part of the airline’s identity since 1948. Sagittarius, the archer, is the ninth sign of the Zodiac. The Greeks represented this constellation in the act of shooting an arrow and it symbolised movement and speed.
AI executives say the flying swan has been morphed from the Centaur, whereas the ‘Konark Chakra’ is reminiscent of IA’s logo. But experts say the decision is as illogical as the earlier initiative in 2005 to tweak the logo and the name of the airline. That time, the management removed the hyphen between Air and India and decided that the Centaur logo will be readjusted to point upwards to show the “progressive growth” the airline had made.
But no one noticed the subtle changes even though a lot of money was wasted. The airline had in between changed the logo to Sun, which didn’t work, and had to bring back the Centaur.
Equally illogical was the change of the name ‘Indian Airlines’ to ‘Indian’ just two years before its merger with AI. The logic then was to revamp the domestic airline’s image in preparation for an initial public offering. The logo was also changed to the Konark chakra. The experiment was hugely expensive, too. All the 40 planes were repainted to sport the new logo, setting the airline back by around Rs 200 crore. But the re-naming remained good for only a few months as the name of the brand changed to Air India after the merger. Result: All the planes are being repainted again to make sure that the latest logo is visible prominently.
AI owners are killing their own brand. 12-15 years ago, when the merger proposal first came up, the management had decided to do a consumer survey to find out the value of the IA brand and whether it should be changed once the two airlines merge. The survey showed that IA was a distinct brand and should not be killed.
AI executives, however, justify the name change to Indian, saying it was necessary to differentiate the brand from other Indian airlines after the sector was opened up to private competition.
Many also object to the use of the wheel in the Konark temple as part of the new logo. The inspiration for the new logo for a service that means traveling across the skies be a bulky, monolithic structure that is set in stone and is static, says a designer from the National Institute of Design, which had created the earlier logo.
But the logo and name change is just part of the story. Ad agencies say the main problem has been that all these changes have not been accompanied by a consistent brand communication strategy. For instance, after the merger of the two airlines, there have been just eight print advertisement campaigns. Additionally, the carrier’s communication with its customers has been limited to the announcements of its new flights or fares. Besides, too many creative agencies were involved, with each working on one part of the project without anybody having a holistic strategy.
What has also worked against the brand is its failure to connect with the youth. How can a brand support itself on emotional bonding with the older generation alone? The main problem has been the airline’s deteriorating product quality and the growing competitive landscape.
But there are quite a few who are in no hurry to write the brand’s obituary. Brands don’t die that easily. Brand is like a life. It stays in the memory. So it would be incorrect to say that the IA and AI brands are dead. Conceptually, they can be revived. The brand is making continuous improvements in all areas of operation.
Others say AI still has some chance if it takes inspiration from the Incredible India campaign, which has changed India’s image to a contemporary young country. If a country can do it, so can an airline.
A former AI director, who is now with a private airline, says many other airlines such as North West and Continental also have old aircraft, but they don’t show up as old. People would still have a soft corner for the airline. They may not go out of their way to support it, but if everything else is equal, they may like to fly Air India. Air India is hoping just that.