It is plainly apparent that the decision to buy Air India is rather risky for the Tatas, given both the debt and the reputation burdens. Especially since they already are de facto proprietors of Vistara and AirAsia, and the carnage caused by Tata Steel’s Corus acquisition is still fresh in operating memory. Which is exactly why an inspirational approach to customer segmentation can help win the day, where the ethos of the Maharajah is smartly integrated and not blindly rejected.
As a keen student of both the category and the brand, it is clear that the Maharaja of yore and his charismatic value system were the abiding adhesives for this benchmark airline. Imagine for a moment, the Nawab of Pataudi as the brand personification of the legendary Air India, the latter drawing seamlessly from an Occidental-Oriental fusion. A rabid stickler for perfection, insistent on the finest graces known to civilisation, accustomed to food and drink that exceed every par, flaunting a delightfully derisive sense of humour, demonstrating the effortless ability to unify cultures and exuding nobility that extends to every functional detail. Bobby Kooka’s ‘Foolishly Yours’, published in the 1960s, is the finest piece of brand literature I have read to date and a timeless epitome of the original Air India ( this I have covered extensively in buzzincontent.com).
Rather interestingly, this was also the aspirational persona for flyers in the early days, for whom the act of international, or even national, air travel was the marker of irrefutable arrival. Thus when every experience was designed to create a temporary kingdom, customers across the globe were wildly appreciative. The main reason why this airline was the preferred poison for customers in the prestigious London-New York route, Singapore Airlines based its service ethos on the Maharajah, it was a pioneer customer of the 707 and 747 and even Salvador Dali designed a bespoke ashtray for premier travellers. I must duly suggest that the success of Air India was a derivative of pioneering customer centricity, as deciphered and delivered by a sincere and passionate management.
So, to me, the secret lies once again in being obsessive about the customer and this is exactly where innovative segmentation and the new age Maharajah must happily collide. On segmentation, I must dwell briefly on inclusive and not exclusive, as the secret sauce for managing the entire ‘Tata Sky’ portfolio, as it is being lovingly termed. For today, even in hotels, the same fellow will happily patronise multiple experiences, from pure play economy to full attire business, depending on routes and objectives, business or pleasure. So, the business planning must dwell sharply on building a portfolio management strategy, where all the three entities and their varied products collaborate to create a winning route map for the common owner.
On the persona of the Maharajah, it must be said that the new-age hyper-success is a creature of merit and not entitlement and that is where the narrative must begin. He and (thankfully) she are delighted to merge with popular reality while continuing to thrive on well-deserved privilege, an infusion of Western values that dictate the new normal. This person is happy to pay for the finest experiences for genuinely living and not just digitally projecting, equally comfortable in shedding the exceptional for comfortable normalcy and is technologically ahead of the game, thriving on an increasingly universal identity. What the Tatas must do is to capture this customer sentiment and redefine its portfolio, replicating what JRD did in the early years.
So, here are a few indicative thoughts on the acquisition and experience strategy necessary to win the battle for the Indian skies. The first is a portfolio management template that allocates specific roles for the three entities. Vistara being the Lexus or Acura of the piece, a limitedly scalable bespoke service that caters to a ‘Four Seasons’ mindset audience, seeking an immeasurable excess. Air Asia is most surely the democratic unifier, offering impressive access for an ‘EDLP’ entry point, quite like P&G of yore. Air India remains the all-inclusive yet selectively exclusive patriarch, an umbrella that gives shelter and provides wings, for everybody but not just for anybody.
The second, most obviously, is a relentless penchant for customer centricity, unleashing both early process and emerging culture to devise experiences that are sustainable and provocative. It does help that aviation is a largely open source industry where everything from seating to cuisine to equipment is totally a la carte and proprietary acumen is limited, except in management commitment and service ethos. What the glorious Air India did wonderfully was to tap the ambitions of an era that is long superannuated and what the new Air India, and indeed Tata Aviation, must do is to blend the emotions of both millennials and elders, in creating the overall experience mix. It is worthwhile to note the case studies of Turkish Airlines and Garuda Indonesia, which managed to gain five-star status (quite unexpectedly) in a short period of curating excellence.
The details of the experience will be the subject of a separate exploration, but what I must insist is the resurrection of the Maharajah, both physically and as a credo. Not certainly as a symbol of retrograde continuity but indeed as a beacon of evocative change, representing the vast motivations of the new-age fliers and their diverse foundations. The King is dead in one sense but Long Live the King in every other sense.
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