Air India brand: Little bit of humour & smart branding can go a long way for Air India

Air India brand: Little bit of humour & smart branding can go a long way for Air India


The Air India brand can be revived and embedded in public consciousness if its new owners can establish a nostalgic connect while sprucing up the product, said brand experts. This can be achieved despite consumers turning increasingly agnostic to brands and brand identity as a concept apparently losing relevance in large marketplaces, they said.

“I think it’s a myth to believe that customers are brand agnostic,” said Piyush Pandey, executive chairman of Ogilvy. “If that was so, every day you would be changing your soap. If that was so, you would not be using a lot of things that you have used forever.”

Tata will try to bring back the Air India of its glory years, when it had memorable service that was accompanied by smart, sometimes irreverent advertising.

“The emotional bond with Air India of people like me, and many like me, is huge. Let’s not predict this before they unfold their cards. If the Tatas can create a Titan they can do this too,” Pandey said.

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The Air India Maharaja “stands for India. For any brand, any mascot, any logo, any identity is as meaningful as what they do with it.”

Begun as Tata Airlines by JRD Tata in 1932, it was renamed Air-India International when it began overseas services in 1948. After nationalisation in 1953, two carriers were set up — Indian Airlines for domestic services and Air-India for overseas. JRD, however, would stay on as chairman until 1978. The hyphen was removed in 2005.

But before that, in 1938, Bobby Kooka joined Air India. He and art director Jal Cawasji came up with the Maharaja, the Air India mascot. They would shape the carrier’s image for decades to come, including conceptualising the Maharaja.

Michael Mascarenhas, the airline’s marketing frontman for three decades and its managing director in 2001, said “no other airline has ever had a mascot a like this.” The Maharaja was an inspired choice, he said.

“It came by sheer chance and it was adapted brilliantly. When you wanted to promote skiing by promoting Switzerland as a destination, you showed the Maharaja skiing. When you wanted to promote Rome, you showed him with a priest, having a loaf of bread in his hand on a Lambretta,” he said.

Uttara Parikh, an integral part of Air India’s brands team for decades, remembers her time working with Kooka and coming up with ideas for hoardings outside the headquarters building at Nariman Point in Mumbai.

The Air India office would start functioning at 9:15 morning. A minute later, Kooka would call Parikh with a fresh idea for a hoarding. Bahadur — she recalls just the one name — would be called from advertising agency JWT. Once the idea was approved, a painter called Creado was summoned all the way from Juhu. He would hand-paint the hoarding in a few hours and it would be ready by evening. Later on, top models and stars such as Zeenat Aman would feature in Air India posters.

The sharp wit that informed Air India’s advertisements often got the team into trouble.

One of them was just before the delivery of the Boeing 707.

“The Maharaja was shown seated on a rocking chair in female garb as if he was expecting a child and knitting as a pregnant woman would be knitting. And it said, Can you keep a secret?” Parikh said. “But the British deputy high commissioner took great offence to this. And he phoned the head of our advertising agency, who also happened to be British, to say how can you make such a joke?”

This was because it just so happened that the queen of England Elizabeth II was also expecting at the time, pregnant with Prince Andrew.

Nargis Wadia was one of the first graphic designers at Air India, joining the airline in the 1950s and working closely with Kooka and Cawasji to design, among other things, cheeky posters advertising international flights.

Wadia called them “uninhibited in colour and depiction.” For a poster announcing flights to Paris, she took inspiration from the can-can dancers of the French cabaret. Their leotard-clad legs spelled out the destination and the ‘i’ in Paris was dotted with the head of the Maharaja.

“There were some old-fashioned parliamentarians who took umbrage at that. How can you have the head of the Maharaja ogling at these ladies in leotards? It was very silly,” said Wadia.

When they wanted to advertise slumberettes in new planes going to London, the poster showed a cabin attendant cradling the maharaja in a reclined seat.

These memories are what the new management should play up.

“Sometimes, service brands can ride on an essence of good old-fashioned, nostalgic values. In present times, with so much turmoil, the comfort appeal of brands that belonged to a bygone rose-tinted age could work,” said Agnello Dias, cofounder of Taproot Dentsu.

“Perhaps one part of consumers’ minds subconsciously miss the relative stability and calming influence of an era when emotional influences were far more earnest, sincere and innocent. In the case of the Maharaja, the Tatas could build upon that brand essence through a contemporary filter.”

Dias cites the sample of RD Burman’s composition Dum Maaro Dum being featured in the music accompanying the launch of Apple’s iPhone13 recently.

“It shouldn’t be that in your face — the key is to put out subtle cues reminiscent of earlier, better times,” he said. “The Maharaja is more relevant than ever, especially because in this utilitarian environment, people crave nostalgia. I hope the Tatas can revive it, just like they should Air India.”



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