Careful of your own shadow – Kingfisher Airlines

It’s only so far you can go on the internet. Follow as many “places to be” boards on Pinterest, but there is no substitute to being on an African Safari, and only a plane can take you there. Today, more than ever, people and ipads are moving around the world and locally. Still, somehow it’s only as infrequent as Lady Gaga’s costume disasters that we hear of an airline major nose-dive.

So it’s a reasonable argument that airline industry world over is turbulent and Kingfisher isn’t the only one suffering. Having said that, aren’t businesses, especially the good ones supposed to ride these turbulences. Especially in the airline industry which is rarely in net positive. I mean it takes either the government or someone with Bhurj Khalifa full of cash stacked or an ego the same size to enter the industry. Usually it’s the last variety that fails most terribly at most business.

Today as Kingfisher Airlines is confronted with the fate of the Avisaurus, I wonder about the reasons and the ones that stick out most sorely are lack of financial prudence and poor leadership. Subliminally though it seems like a case of inflated ego.  Now you might wonder why then should a youth marketing forum discuss it. The reason is simple: Because creating a brand isn’t only about developing  bright red coloured logos.

Right from its start, back in 2005 (around Vijay Mallya’s son’s 18th birthday, what’s his name??)Kingfisher Airlines did not really have a solid product in place. If you don’t have a clearly differentiated offering what must you build a brand around? What was communicated was – “top notch in-flight experience”. That to me for a country that was learning the difference between a boarding pass and the flight ticket was too much of a frill. Indigo, another Indian airline that commenced operation within a year on the other hand knew its meat from the sides.

They single mindedly focused on being reliable and smart. Now as one looks at their communication and overall flying experience it is that simple focus being reinforced over and over again. In the process they have busted the myth of low cost airlines being cheap. All this when Kingfisher was busy recruiting models for air hostesses did not matter if they pronounced Delhi as Daily. In the name of inflight experience they also handed out terribly painful chineese headphones, a first in the country and one that we could certainly do without.

During these 6 years if I was to ask people why they would fly Kingfisher the general answer for the first 2 years would have been : it seems luxurious. An aspirational brand was being built around the personality of their promoter, Mr. Vijay Mallya who since then has spent too much time between F1 circuits and IPL parties. Now as he fails gloriously he must ask himself a question he should have in ’05; what does Kingfisher the brand stand for beyond Vijay Mallyas own flamboyance? This is important because way back in 1996 when we heard OOO LA LA LA OO LE O (did I do it right?) we thought of Kingfisher as a beach side chill out brand. Fun, yes Fun and youthful. This was further reinforced when they started doing the famous calendars. You see it was glamorous but seemed approachable and fun.

From there on we don’t really know why Vijay Mallya started wearing excess jewelry and picking up swords when he should have really sent his son to a good business school and bought some armor.

We don’t know whether Kingfisher will give up and pack operations or be bought over and rescued, but whatever happens Kingfisher Airlines is the case of what could have been. There were clear signs that the man at helm then a youth icon for the unapologetic brand of work hard, party harder leadership had started to do just the latter. To make matters worse he brought in his son to build in double quick time what he would have on his own eventually. Bad PR.

Modeling himself on Richard Branson, Mallya though started well, has missed a few tricks in building a brand:

1. Build brands on real value. Virgin across the world has one principle-> to disrupt the market by offering value to the customer where there seems none. Kingfisher Airlines should have been built around that principle.  Good times at an Indian Airport or within the flight mean being able to move from check-in to security comfortably and then not having to cross fingers in prayer for the flight to stop moving circles on the tarmac  and take off on time. Big gap that Indigo addresses quite well now.

2. Be pleasant and speak the customer’s language. One of the things that Virgin Atlantic does really well is make the whole seat belt routine worth a listen to. This when no less than General Manager, Marketing, for United Spirits chooses to mock an enraged customer’s popular relative.

3. Give yourself time to build a reputation, a brand. I know a few people who’ve spent time working in junior positions in Marketing roles at KF Airlines. They told me how much fun it was. Great except that, it was more the night before the day at work. The employee exodus is one of the very worrying aspects of the downtime Kingfisher Airlines is witnessing. Developing a great brand is about educating employees what the brand stands for and then communicating it via them at every touch point building stories. It is also about encouraging them to scrape out new opportunities to deliver value. From a communication point of view the brand seems to have stagnated. I’ll be surprised If I would have missed a genuinely cool piece of communication Kingfisher has delivered either as an airline or as the parent brand.

4. There is a difference between a smile and a smirk. Every brand has a face. A facebook is a young college going curious kid with an average social life and loads of mischief  in his eyes. Google is a geek with square glasses. HSBC is a good looker in suit. Nike is a top athlete, face full of sweat. What’s Kingfisher? A Smirk? When what it should have been all along is an honest relaxed smiley.

Hope other aspiring young brands from India do not get consumed by their own shadow and go about the journey of building a brand organically and sincerely. For now though its cheers to the last KF that got me through this post.



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