The Airline Brand With The Oomph Factor

IndiGo Completes 10 Yeras Of Operation This August

This August it will be ten years since low-cost carrier IndiGo operated its first flight between Delhi and Guwahati. Today it operates 719 daily flights to 40 destinations and is widely regarded as the bellwether of Indian civil aviation.

While its competitors struggle in the face of headwinds to stay relevant in a difficult aviation market marked by policy muddle and endless restrictions, IndiGo continues to fly high.

Oomph is not a word you would associate with the anodyne world of business, where topline and bottomline pressures make the liveliest of executives lose their muse. Not so civil aviation, a business that has oodles of oomph and tends to attract flamboyant tycoons whose muse scarcely, if ever, deserts them.

In 1999, when Virgin Atlantic prepared for its inaugural flight to India, in a code share agreement with Air-India, the British carrier’s showy chief Richard Branson told me in an interview that the aviation business and sensuality are inextricably linked. “Flying has to be a seductive experience, hence sexy big flying machines with sexy gizmos and sexier women serving you on board,” he said.

Collett Everman Woolman, the founder of Delta Air Lines, put it memorably: “Running an airline is like having a baby—fun to conceive, but hell to deliver.” Driven by the fun-of-conception, entrepreneurs of different hues are seductively drawn to the aviation business; they have their moment under the sun before retreating into the darkness.

Sometimes, an airline brand in the marketplace bucks that trend. Singapore Airlines did. Southwest Airlines too. Or Ryanair. But success stories are few. So few that the same ones get bandied about. An Indian airline brand has joined that list of usual suspects.

IndiGo's 6E Story

 

IndiGo has scripted its own 6E story.

 

 

This fiscal IndiGo announced its eighth consecutive year of profitability —a  feat no Indian airline has ever achieved. Its market share is now    pegged at 38 per cent. In the troubled Indian civil aviation sector, which has always lived with stories of rank incompetence of Air-India, the national carrier, IndiGo has scripted its own 6E story. Sexy story.

Brand feistiness

It’s at once a story of brand austerity and feistiness. A simple strategic formula of low fares, on-time flights and a hassle free experience has become its recipe for success. Its marketing spends have been judicious and yet IndiGo created a confident, cheerful, ubiquitous brand that has a cheery presence.

The airline has steadfastly stayed the course in a sector in India notorious for dilly-dallying and shilly-shallying. Remember how, in 2009, pushed into a corner by its decision to sack pilots and cabin crew, Jet Airways boss Naresh Goyal made the startling revelation that his mother arrived in a dream and ordered him to take back the staff he had given the heave-ho.

IndiGo has no public relations department, no marketing head and believes in the adage ‘no news is good news’. But IndiGo employees, and that count is now well over ten thousand, have access to Aditya Ghosh, the self-effacing lawyer-turned-chief executive officer of the airline. Email, SMS or even WhatsApp—it seems Ghosh responds to every message that he gets, often also to feedback from flyers, a tactic that turns them into influencers. No wonder, the brand has a lively presence in the digital media space.

Ghosh spends a great deal of time in the hiring of his employees, including his flying crew. In the days when Vijay Mallya was flying high as the ‘King of GoodTimes’ it was absurd to have this thickset, gruff man declaring in a video message played on all flights that he personally selected his stewardesses. Taken with his self-cultivated playboy image there was something unmistakably titillating about the suggestion. Kingfisher’s svelte air hostesses in red miniskirts certainly made competition stewardesses seem frumpy in comparison.

IndiGo Flying Crew

 

IndiGo spends a great deal of time in the hiring of its employees, including the flying crew.

 

The truth is Ghosh interviews his stewardesses too but would be loath to allow any risqué connotation to come into the equation. He is the anti-thesis of Branson and Mallya type aviation top honchos known for their over-the-top salacious comments. Ghosh’s focus is on maintaining a young, smart fleet and monitoring on-time performance of the flying machines.

IndiGo operates a single aircraft type—Airbus A320s, seating 180 passengers, which saves costs in terms of hiring, training as well as upgradation. At the end of March, IndiGo had 719 daily flights serving 35 Indian cities and five international destinations—Bangkok, Dubai, Kathmandu, Muscat and Singapore. It has one uniform class of passengers and does not spend on creating lounges at airports. The airline’s average fleet age is just over three years, which implies low maintenance costs and greater punctuality in aircraft operations.

Touchdown to wheels up

IndiGo has modeled itself on Southwest Airlines, the Dallas-based American carrier that has attained a legendary corporate status over its 45 years of operations. Both carriers aim to hasten matters to improve ontime performance from the time the aircraft lands to when it takes off again. In aviation parlance it is called ‘touchdown to wheels up’. All the deplaning of passengers and cargo, cleaning refueling, boarding of passengers and cargo, pushing back from the tarmac and takeoff—a sense of urgency means that over a period of time IndiGo is able to achieve higher utilisation of aircraft, keep costs lower and are able to fly more passengers.

The no-frills service also means that the cost of serving an additional passenger is relatively low.

At the start of 2013, IndiGo became the first Indian carrier to take delivery of A320 aircraft equipped with Sharklet wing-tip devices. Sharklets improve the plane’s aerodynamics and significantly cut its fuel burn and emissions by as much as four per cent on longer sectors. It’s on running a tight ship and cost-saving measures that Ghosh and his team have built the airline.

IndiGo Merchandise Make Flying A Cheerful Experience

 

 

 

Flying IndiGo is somehow cheery, or at least less depressing than most other domestic carriers. 

 

 

 

Of course, being the transport du jour there is no escaping brand marketing for an airline company. And IndiGo has done quite a job of creating a lively brand personality. There is clarity in IndiGo’s brand communication, never does the airline stray from its core—every press release the company issues reiterates its simple philosophy: formula of low fares, on-time flights and a hassle free experience. The airline’s brand promise has been its guiding light.

Flying IndiGo is somehow cheery, or at least less depressing than most other domestic carriers. From reusable cookie jars to stories on the sandwich package—nothing you get on board an IndiGo is boring. Even the airsick bags say: Get well soon.

To begin with the name is remarkable, combining as it does ‘India’ and ‘Go’. And it owns the colour indigo, the shade between blue and violet in the colour spectrum; everything to do with the airline—from the aircraft interiors to the staff uniform and table linen—is in that dark shade of blue.

Marketing triumph

The brand consistently scores on marketing ideas, whether it’s boarding ramps, instead of steppers, or the recent special step-up for children at check in counters. IndiGo is one of those rare brands that focuses entirely on its brand identity. No brand association with a celebrity; its print and outdoor advertising have almost always just had the brand logo with the message: Phoren return; Sheikh it, baby; Welcome abroad; Bong voyage; Kem cho?…

IndiGo - Step up boarding for Children

 

 

 

IndiGo is one of those rare brands that focuses entirely on its brand identity.

 

 

 

The one I remember the most went: Every supermodel’s favourite airline. Gift of the gap—On IndiGo, seating is thoughtfully designed with an extra two inches of legroom, so you are as comfortable as possible in flight. A visual of lissome legs to go with the message.

The one I remember the most went: Every supermodel’s favourite airline. Gift of the gap—On IndiGo, seating is thoughtfully designed with an extra two inches of legroom, so you are as comfortable as possible in flight. A visual of lissome legs to go with the message.

The one I remember the most went: Every supermodel’s favourite airline. Gift of the gap—On IndiGo, seating is thoughtfully designed with an extra two inches of legroom, so you are as comfortable as possible in flight. A visual of lissome legs to go with the message.

On occasion, the brand is not loath to taking digs at others, or being provocative. “Let the bad times roll” it declared at a time when Kingfisher, which had taken potshots at it in the past, was going down the tube. The reference, of course, was to Kingfisher’s tagline: Let the good times roll.

IndiGo Standard Time

 

 

 

The smartest turn of the airline’s play with words comes when the stewardesses announce the time at the start and end of each flight.

 

 

 

More recently, another billboard went: Sleep with your wife—Same day departures from all metros. These campaigns have underscored the airline’s success mantra of low fares and ontime flying. The smartest turn of the airline’s play with words comes when the stewardesses announce the time at the start and end of each flight and add IST—IndiGo Standard Time.Today’s successful brands have a stellar social media presence and IndiGo scores there too. You will find on Twitter and Facebook many pages that narrate stories about IndiGo. Not just gripe stories; there are an equal number of stories that praise the service.

IndiGo Campaign - Sleep With Your Wife

IndiGo has targeted the corporate frequent flyer without quite seeming to do so.

 

One of IndiGo’s remarkable brand successes has been how it has targeted the corporate frequent flyer without quite seeming to do so. No, it has not created a swanky business class to differentiate it from cattle class. But with its obsessive focus on being on-time, every time, the airline has lodged itself in the mind of the corporate executive. A brilliant example is the airline’s commercial released in 2010.

Everyone has an airline story to tell. Most of them are desultory, depressing stories about missed connecting flights, lost baggage, being stuck in the middle seat and sitting like a mannequin for five hours, rude stewardesses, etc. Some of these stories are more alarming—about sudden nosedives that gave you thank sinking feeling or, the more recent one, about an IndiGo aircraft in Jaipur mistaking a road running parallel to the airport as the runway.

About IndiGo, however, you will find an equal number of stories narrating positive experiences. That’s not based on any hard evidence; just a perception but an unshakeable one. The brand has also cleverly tapped into our yen for consuming stories. Research has shown that human beings are wired to listen to stories. And feel good stories prompt the body to produce feel-good hormones.

IndiGo gives us these stories aplenty.

IndiGo Heroes - Feel Good Stories

 

Feel good stories prompt the body to produce feel-good hormones. IndiGo gives us these stories aplenty.

 

Just a couple of weeks ago, an IndiGo pilot Harish Nayani found he had a Kargil war hero on board his flight. He announced Naik Deep Chand’s presence on the flight, a gesture that received tumultuous applause from 180 passengers and later from the public at large, as the story went viral on social media. Naik Deep Chand had fought bravely in the Kargil war losing both his legs and right arm.

Turbulence ahead?

So, as brand IndiGo prepares to complete ten years of flying high, are there any signs of turbulence, or will tailwinds ensure smooth sailing in the years ahead?

Vistara and its popularity with corporate travellers is sure to be causing worry to the airline’s top honchos. The Tata-Singapore Airlines venture is a full service carrier, operates from better airports in both Delhi and Mumbai and the food served is good and free. And the difference in fares is not huge; in fact, often it is comparable.

There are hence unmistakable murmurs of protest as IndiGo charges for every extra kilo of baggage and, like other low cost carriers, is keeping fares low but charging for every facility—from front of the plane seats to faster check-in services.  The effort to keep operations lean and mean often means that the check-in attendant is also tagging and often loading your bags on the belt. That means it takes more time to check-in and at peak morning or evening hours, with serpentine queues, even IndiGo faithfuls become restive.

The Road Ahead For IndiGo

 

Will tailwinds ensure smooth sailing in the years ahead for IndiGo?

 

Also, just recently, the airline’s penchant for staying out of controversy is being tested. There is no doubt that IndiGo has joined Jet, Spice and others in opposing the government’s move to abolish the 5-20 rule. Domestic carriers must fly for a minimum of five years and have a fleet of at least 20 aircraft to be allowed to fly international routes.

Ratan Tata and many aviation analysts have described this opposition of established carriers to the abolition of 5-20 rule as ‘protectionism’. For Tata, in particular, this situation harks back to the vicious ‘protectionism’ that he faced in the mid-1990s, when private airline operators colluded with Indian Airlines and corrupt politicians and bureaucrats to prevent Tata Airline from flying.

In 1997 I had written a cover story for Business India magazine on how a conspiracy was hatched to ‘kill’ the proposed Tata Airline, a joint venture airline proposed by Tata Industries and Singapore Airlines.

Of course, undeniably, entrepreneurs in India need to ‘work’ the political system in their favour to make any headway. IndiGo has worked that political system to come through a miasma of policy muddle and corruption to take wings and stay in the air.

That a fine airline brand emerged from those political manoeuvrings is quite another matter.

(This is the first in a series of marketing and brand features that Sanjeev Verma will write exclusively for YellowBulbs. You can reach the author at blog@yellowbulbs.com)

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Comments

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5 Comments

  1. YellowBulbs YellowBulbs on May 30, 2016 at 7:37 pm

    Thank you! Truly grateful for your kind words. We will keep sharing original content in marketing.

  2. Amy on May 31, 2016 at 7:27 am

    I couldn’t resist commenting. Well written!

    • YellowBulbs YellowBulbs on May 31, 2016 at 9:11 am

      Thank you Amy for your feedback. :) Cheers!

  3. Ragini Seth on June 3, 2016 at 7:35 am

    such a nice story. enjoyed reading about the airline we all fly on.thank you & tell me this is the sunday observer sanjeev verma? the film critic? ragini

    • Sanjeev Verma Sanjeev Verma on June 3, 2016 at 8:26 am

      Thank you, Ragini. Yes, indeed the film critic from aeons ago… Been through many avatars since those heady days of the nineties–a business editor, a corporate propagandist and now a communication consultant. Keep reading my stories here, at least one every month. Regards.

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