Of logos, mascots, Air India and brand preference

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Reports suggest that Air India is planning to change its mascot “to tweak his image to make it more in tune with the changed times”. I thought the new representation (if true) was atrocious. It is inelegant and a neither-here-nor-there mishmash of the old concept and a possible new one. A mascot or logo is meant to convey a visual idea in an instant and make the brand inviting…likeable. I am not sure if the new representation does that.

Many pundits have said there is a vast difference between a mere logo, identity and a brand. A brand is a collection of thoughts & images accrued as a result of a variety of acts, beliefs, values & communication. A mascot can be a part of that residual imagery and a logo is merely a representation…a mark of the brand in its simplest form.

In Air India’s case the logo is “a red coloured flying swan with the ‘Konark Chakra’ in orange, placed inside it”. The mascot, the Maharaja (first created in 1946), has been used on and off in Air India’s communication. There was a time when all of its print ads featured the mascot. Air India had a visible topical outdoor campaign too in the early ‘90s. But I am not sure if the Maharaja can truly be called a mascot because of its inconsistent usage. Nevertheless, the equation between the two is strong as the imagery is unique, powerful and stands for something.

Having said that, I feel it is time to stop using the Maharaja completely. I feel it has outlived its purpose – much like the Marlboro man and Asian Paints’ ‘Gattu’. The history behind the Air India mascot and its usage is captured thus:

‘We call him a Maharajah for want of a better description. But his blood isn’t blue. He may look like royalty, but he isn’t royal.’ These are the words of Bobby Kooka, the man who conceived the Maharajah.

The Maharajah began merely as a rich Indian potentate, symbolizing graciousness and high living. And somewhere along the line his creators gave him a distinctive personality: his outsized moustache, the striped turban and his aquiline nose.

What began as an attempt as a design for an inflight memo pad grew to take Air India’s sales and promotional messages to millions of travellers across the world. Today, this naughty diminutive Maharajah of Air India has become a world figure. He can be a lover boy in Paris, a sumo wrestler in Tokyo, a pavement artist, a Red Indian, a monk… he can effortlessly flirt with the beauties of the world. And most importantly, he can get away with it all. Simply because he is the Maharajah!

In my view, the mascot served its purpose during a certain period of time. India was perceived as the land of maharajahs for many years even after independence. Foreigners were fascinated by the palaces and the mystique associated with our royalty. While that is still a part of India’s many attractions, I feel it is not the most dominant one. India has moved on and so has dominant perceptions about India among foreigners. Also, it is up to us to have a cohesive, single-minded messaging about brand India – be it through its national tourism campaign or its national airline.

The interpretation in my mind while seeing all the Air India ads with the Maharajah mascot: it was about making the customer feel like royalty. He isn’t royal himself (as outlined above) and hence took many avatars in the marketing communication. I think if at all a mascot is to be used (beyond the logo) it has to take cues from what the maharajah stands for and not necessarily the maharajah (or his modern day, jeans clad avatar) himself. Also the mascot, used separately from the logo (unlike Michelin and its company mascot Bibendum, colloquially known as the Michelin Man) is a bit unwieldy and gawky in my view.

Aside from logos and mascots, brand revival takes a lot more than merely changing them. However, a logo and brand identity do play an important role in changing brand perceptions. Coupled with a powerful, compelling brand proposition and communication, the combination can make a huge difference to brand fortunes. Remember Mahindra Rise? Needless to say, what the communication promises has to be matched by on-ground performance (in Air India’s case, on-air performance too, I guess). So a mere tweak of the mascot is not what the doctor ordered for Air India. I think it would take a combination of a compelling, relevant brand proposition, the brand living up to it on ground and then a powerful logo or mascot (if needed) telling that story.

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