The Indigo Airlines incident: a few observations

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Many have written about the recent incident involving Indigo Airlines from the POV of public relations and brand imagery. A good read on how the brand should have responded is here and a good podcast on the brand’s image is here. Here are my observations on the incident:

Discipline and courtesy in public space

Indians are not known to be polite in public places. We don’t follow rules either. We will not form queues or wait for our turn to be served in shopping malls, airports, train & bus stations and so on. We think nothing of crowding the billing kiosk, check in counter or the ticket window jostling our way, trampling over others if need be. The concept of ‘personal space’ is non-existent.

We are also not mindful or appreciative of the work done by those in the service industry. When the airline staff announce that all phones be switched off or be kept in offline mode, there will always be a few who simply ignore the announcement and go on speaking loudly on the phone. Sometimes, they brush aside the staff’s personal request by shooing them off with a ‘I know better!’ look. We will stand up from our seats as soon as the plane lands even after an announcement to remain seated.

We are also not known to be courteous to such staff, especially those who do jobs which are considered to be menial. And if such staff cannot speak good English, they fall even further in our eyes. When we get into the airport bus we will all crowd near the exit gate leaving a lot of space at the back. And if an airline staff requests us to move back, it will be done reluctantly not realizing that they are just doing their job trying to make the flying experience better for everyone.

I am not aware what triggered the fracas in the incident pertaining to Indigo Airlines or if the passenger flouted any rules or was rude, but generally speaking we love not to follow rules or be courteous in public places.

Brand narrative: not always in brand’s control

Many pundits brush off the claim that in today’s world a brand’s narrative is not always in brand’s control. Pretty pictures and smiling staff in a corporate campaign have always had a limited impact – it is the actual service experience which matters most. It is now even more important in the age of the smartphone video and social media post.

In the pre- social media world, the front line staff would bear the brunt of a poor customer experience for a short time – when the actual incident happens. In today’s world, they become the brand for the customer with a smartphone camera, a Twitter account and access to 24×7 media. The impact of a 15-minute brand experience can last for days if not weeks. The impact is not just on brand imagery but on the brand’s finances as well – as seen in stock market prices.

Less visibility is not such a bad thing for brands

I am not trying to link the above incident with investments in digital marketing, but most brands are caught in the FOMO bind, desperately trying to be visible throughput the year on various media channels. Sure, for all brands it is important to be seen in the right context among the right audience.

In the airline sector, which is so dependent on search, it is critical for a brand to show up high in search results, be top of mind etc. But there is also merit in creating mystique around your brand by limiting visibility – only when absolutely needed. Being visible 24×7 in media robs brands (especially premium ones) of an aura…a halo. As I said, this has no direct link to the Indigo Airlines incident but generally speaking I think brands should resist a check list approach to all media and be selective in terms of visibility.

Bad news travels faster in the digital world

In the corporate world, we are told to deliver bad news first, ahead of any good news. The approach is to tackle such on priority. However, it appears that the brand's management did not take appropriate action when they heard of the incident first. If the video had not reached media houses through the whistle-blower we may not have heard of it at all. In an era where news travels fast, bad news travels faster. We are all eager consumers of 'sensational' in news and also love to see big brands fail. Click bait headlines and listicles are popular for a reason. Good news (say profits) from brands like Apple are not as popular as bad news (product performance issues). In this context, a service brand not realizing the importance of quick and visible action, hoping that the incident will not come to light is a bit puzzling.

Brand affinity weathers storms

All said and done, if the brand commands an affinity based on its product or service performance, the chances of retaining customers despite hiccups, is fairly high. The likability which comes from 'nice' advertising has a role to play in creating brand affinity but that feeling is ephemeral. What truly matters is creating a customer base which looks forward to interacting with the brand thanks to consistently positive experience. I think Indigo enjoys that position thanks to its delivery. On several WhatsApp groups which has frequent travelers as members I see many committing to stay with the brand. Also as Anant Rangaswami says in his podcast, airline travelers will choose a brand if the connectivity is convenient and the price is right. While they may poke fun of the airline thanks to such incidents they are not going to avoid flying it altogether due to such incidents.

Scope for competitive advertising? The jury is out

Brands have indulged in competitive advertising for decades. It can take the form of comparative advertising (usually a feature-to-feature comparison) or gently or aggressively deriding the competition. Samsung has been taking potshots at Apple over the last few years with a mocking tone of voice (the latest one being 'Growing Up' timed with the release of iPhone X).. Apple made fun of the PC in its 'Mac vs PC' campaign taking the humorous route. There have been other legendary competitive ads too - Pepsi & Coke, BMW & Audi etc. Soon after the Indigo incident, Air India sent out a tweet (which was later deleted) which said, 'we raise our hands only to say Namaste!'. They also sent out a tweet saying that there's was an 'unbeatable service'. The dig at Indigo Airlines was unmissable. What is different between these set of ads and the examples cited above? In the examples cited above, the brand taking potshots at the competition did not appear to seek mileage out of an unfortunate incident, say an accident. When there were reports of Samsung phones exploding, Apple (or any of the other Android phones for that matter, as far as I can remember) did not make fun of it through paid or unpaid 'advertising'. In the case of Air India, customer service related incidents could easily occur with them facing the music as were. So the communication may have served to score some temporary brownie points but unlikely to cause dissonance and 'switch' in large numbers. 

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