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Too Little, Too Soon? Revamping Its Look Should Have Been Air India’s Last Priority

While the airline is showing improvement in certain areas, its focus should have been on improving the product on offer fully before thinking of a rebranding strategy

By Anjuli Bhargava
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On August 10, as the Tata-run erstwhile national carrier Air India unveiled its new brand identity which incorporated a change in its logo, colours and livery, a torrent of protests followed. 

Employees — present and former — expressed severe disappointment with the new look including what they termed the “lack of association with eight decades of flying”. The new colours and logo left many staffers — more former than present — unable to relate to or identify with the new look, with several of them taking to social media to express their anguish. 

The emotional reactions from those directly vested in Air India were largely echoed almost across the board by the flying Indian public. Many were less than enamoured by the new look, colours and identity and labelled it “uninspiring”. Others said that they preferred the old logo — the Konark Sun — which was more representative of India’s rich cultural heritage. The iconic and much-loved mascot of the airline, the Maharaja (created in 1946) remains the mascot, but “has taken a bit of a backseat in its new and latest avatar”.  The Maharaja will now be restricted to cutlery and napkins and in the premium lounges of the airline. The airline’s new tail-end design and colours met with almost a unanimous thumbs down, although the painting of the underbelly of the aircraft with “Air India” received a thumbs up.

What Does The New Logo Reflect? 

Aviation industry representatives described the new logo and colours as “wishy-washy” and reflective of the “confusion” that currently prevails at the carrier.  “By pulling in the purple in the new Vista logo, the airline has tried to take a leaf out of Vistara’s present look as the merger approaches but as I see it, it is neither here nor there, Brands don’t work that way,” said a former Air India CMD, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said the new Air India look and feel did not match IndiGo’s strong brand and imagery. Air India, going ahead, will need to compete with IndiGo’s tongue-in-cheek advertising (read: “Late Is A Four Letter Word”', “Sixteen Going On Seventeen”, “Sleep With Your Wife”) that appeals to a growing young audience, especially on domestic routes. 

A former member of IndiGo’s management team said that even SpiceJet’s Red, Hot and Spicy tagline and imagery had stood it in good stead and was firmly etched in the minds of Indian fliers even as the airline’s fortunes rose and ebbed from time to time. “To compete with this - even just domestically - I would have expected a more distinct and characteristic rebranding”, he added. He said that simplicity in colours was what worked best both in the case of IndiGo and SpiceJet and even for Go First and  Jet Airways. Another sharp rebranding that they pointed to was by US carrier Delta which now has a new eye-catching logo that represents change (the sign delta) and colours that represent the American flag. The airline has lived up to its name (delta or change), with almost 20 logo changes since inception, representing what it stood for at each point. 

Former managing director and COO of Condor, Uwe Balsar, said that he was, in general, wary of rebranding exercises as they can tend to backfire for external or internal reasons, or both. He cited the attempted rebranding of German Condor Airlines into the British Thomas Cook Airlines, an exercise that backfired after the Germans felt the safety aspect was eroded and the airline no longer felt “German”, an external reason. Another reason it did not work was because the cabin crew and staff rejected the change almost to the point of revolt, the internal reason it didn’t work.

Will The Rebranding Be Effective?

Brands experts too were skeptical of both the look and the effectiveness of the rebranding exercise with the new logo and colors leaving many cold. Harish Bijoor, a brand management expert, said that while Air India had no option — like BOAC and British Airways — but to shake off its past imagery which has vacillated from a gold standard offering to sub-standard over the decades, it ought to have waited to first revamp the offering fully. “This is a tough one. Any flier will now board the aircraft with enhanced expectations and the onus will be on the airline to meet those”, said Bijoor. He said that the better option would have been to sort out the offering before the image, instead of the reverse that they have chosen to do. “Let people start talking about how much the service has improved before rebranding would have been my approach” he argues. 

What Did People Like About The Rebranding? 

Perhaps the only aspect that employees and brand experts were united and reasonably pleased with was the Air India name being splattered on the aircraft’s underbelly, so anyone who makes an effort to look up would be able to see an Air India aircraft flying past. A former executive director of the airline said that while he felt a better font could have been picked, the fact that Air India is painted on the underbelly would ensure that passengers relate and identify with it. 

Bijoor added that the Air India brand has always enjoyed a “mental ownership” with the flying Indian public and this would help continue that, as he saw it. He echoed the negative sentiment the aircraft tail and colours have uniformly drawn arguing that “simplicity in colours is key in brand recall”.

In the defence of the Tatas and the management of Air India management, it is important to point out that very few embrace or welcome change and when this change is fundamental in some sense, it can prove difficult for many to digest. Moreover, it was critical for the airline to shed some of the baggage it accumulated in the last two decades before it embarks on a brand new journey. The airline, through its new look, has tried to depict a ‘window of possibilities’ while it attempts to signify “limitless possibilities, progressiveness, and the airline’s bold, confident outlook for the future”.

This is where I’d like to be the party pooper and point out that it’s hard for me as someone covering and watching the airline closely for over 25 years to feel real excitement at this “too little, too soon” rebranding exercise. The Tatas and its new CEO Campbell Wilson seem to be in some kind of rush, something I find quite disconcerting. There are still many issues with how Air India operates on a daily basis, despite the fact that several metrics (such as punctuality), especially on domestic routes, are already showing considerable improvement.  Right from aircraft, the product on offer, staff attitude and morale, to training and safety standards need improvement and its new “look” seems like the last thing they should have been worried about. One can grow to accept or even like the new look, as long as many other variables and factors begin to fall in place. 

Without going into these more worrisome details in this article, let me end by saying that all that glitters is not gold and that the airline is still many many moons away from the limitless possibilities it speaks of. Change as and when it truly happens will be felt in many more ways than livery, logos and colours but that day while attainable still seems quite far.

Editor's Note

A reader pointed out this advertisement by Air India after reading the Captain Speaking column, which I'd like to add struck me as "corny and unfathomable".

Till the very end, it's hard to understand what the advert is referring to and  Air India could have spared itself this expense!


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