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BW Businessworld

Fifty-Fifty: Should Air India Continue To Use The Maharajah?

The answer to the Maharajah’s continued usage may actually be somewhat counter-intuitive. Maybe he should just become a corporate symbol, like a logo and shed some of his active versatility.

Photo Credit : Shutterstock


Soon as the acquisition of Air India by the Tatas was officially confirmed, I sent out a short questionnaire to about 100 of my frequent flyer friends. Almost all seasoned travelers, mostly C-suite occupants. I personally also called a few of them just for a better understanding. The feedback was intriguing, if not surprising.

When did you last travel on Air India, I asked? Most said they had not really been on the national carrier in almost a decade, perhaps more. But why did you keep away? 52per cent said bad attitude; 22per cent stated poor service; 14per cent blamed terrible punctuality. 38per cent ticked ‘no particular reason’. If and when you did travel by Air India, what was it that you liked? 60per cent loved the spacious Dreamliners. 28per cent said the food was very good, especially Indian cuisine. 22per cent said the on-air staff were very well mannered, polite and helpful in business class. 37per cent were pretty uncharitable: they said they liked ‘nothing’. 

Do you like the Maharajah mascot of Air India? 74per cent found him memorable and differentiated. 35per cent found him to be cute. But does the Maharajah signify luxury? Almost everyone said no. So what does the Maharajah stand for? ‘Indolence’ was the near universal verdict! Royalty? No. Style? Certainly no. Luxury? Again, no. So, should the Air India continue to use the Maharajah as its mascot going forward? The house was a bit divided on that one. ‘Yes’ got 31per cent votes, ‘No’ 33per cent while the balance took the safe ‘May be’ option. 

Given the mixed response on the Maharajah’s continued usage, what options do the new owners of the airline really have? 

What are the positives? There is near universal recall of the Maharajah amongst fliers, both current and lapsed users. That is for sure. And that really is the biggest positive. Knowing that, for the period 1950s to the 1970s, Air India used the mascot to its fullest, with the Maharajah playing an active role in most of the airline’s advertising. He was there announcing new destinations, he was there romancing new services and he was there trumpeting all the new news about India’s national carrier to the world. The Maharajah was uniquely Indian; was deployed with reasonable imagination and represented the luxury and class of one of the world’s finest airlines at that time.

But then the rot set in. The Air India product, the Air India service and the Air India standards plummeted. And with the decline of fortunes at Air India, also started the decline of the Maharajah. As one of the respondents in my research so succinctly put it, “The state of the Air India Maharajah is very similar to the state of the real Maharajahs in India. Most of the real royalty are broke. In fact seriously broke. Their palaces are old, run-down and leaky. They have some old family silver. And yes most still flaunt old family titles. But the unalienable truth is that these folks are vestiges of a forgotten past. Much talk about past glory and family exploits, much pomp and show, but no real intrinsic worth. The Air India Maharajah too is a poor caricature of its own self. A pauper dressed in regal plumes.”

So the negatives of the Maharajah are kind of self evident. It is a bit of an anachronism: old, and dated. A bit fuddy-duddy too. Out of sync with modern realities and the current generation of flyers. Actually more symbolic of the ills of the Air India of the past few years (decades, more like) rather than luxury or sophistication that it once represented when it was first created. 

Purely from a communication stand-point, the Maharajah still has promise. And potential. Its near 100 percent recognition and recall is of course its biggest plus. An amazing asset that will take decades to build or re-build with any new replacement. Also, the Maharajah and Air India are almost hyphenated in the brand’s recall. On the face of it, it would be really stupid to kill such a powerful asset. A good ad agency, and a good client marketing team working together, could give the Maharajah a whole new life. But it is not an easy ask. 

If one were to get down to brass-tacks, every element of the Maharajah can be re-examined, and then re-imagined. Is the loud red robe of the mascot too old? Does it need a visual re-haul? The Maharajah has been outfitted in the past in three-piece suits and other outfits, and has carried them off pretty well … so he has versatility and malleability … he can be made to adapt to more modern couture, if the need arises. The same goes for the turban: does it contribute to the dated look of the mascot? Perhaps yes. I won’t even discuss the moustache for now: Sorab Kaikushroo (better known as Bobby Kooka), the Maharajah’s creator patterned his look after an affluent industrialist of those times, Syed Wajid Ali, but himself said, “We call him a Maharajah for want of a better description. But his blood isn’t blue. He might look royalty, but he isn’t royal”. And therein lies the crux of the issue.

The Maharajah is royal, but he is not really supposed to be royal! He is supposed to epitomize an airline that went from regal to decrepit and may again be restored to a quality service under its new owners, but which may not be as luxurious or as celebrated as it once was. The poor Maharajah is kind of lost in the midst of all the change and turmoil. 

The answer to the Maharajah’s continued usage may actually be somewhat counter-intuitive. Maybe he should just become a corporate symbol, like a logo and shed some of his active versatility. His usage can then be truly and purely symbolic – representing an enriching and enjoyable flyer experience, without carrying the weight of any imagery beyond that. It is a very tough call to ground the playful mascot and reduce him to just a quality seal. But for now that may really be the best way out – an honourable retirement where he is still around but not as active as before. The senior citizen status would be a win-win for both the Maharajah’s myriad fans and his detractors.  

Dr. Sandeep Goyal is Managing Director of Rediffusion. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Dr Sandeep Goyal

The author was Founder Chairman of Dentsu India. He has authored Konjo – The Fighting Spirit and Japan Made Easy, both Harper Collins publications, on his 25 years of working with Japan.

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