How much is the Air India brand really worth?

With speculation rife on the sale of Air-India, the question that arises is how much the brand Air India is really worth. With excess staff, below par service, and other inefficiencies, experts have been speculating that the only real benefit for buying Air India is its brand value. (which does not include the value of its other tangible assets.) The buyer might have to take over a $5 billion debt, roughly half of the total debt of Air India.

Once upon a time, Air-India was the epitome of good service and airline hospitality. The famous Maharaja was designed by JWT to signify the feeling of being treated like royalty both in-flight and on the ground.

S.K. Kooka and Capt. V. 1948. (source: airindiacollector.com)

‘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’ is what SK ‘Bobby’ Kooka the Commercial Director of Air India is once known to have said. Famous for having conceived the Maharaja along with Umesh Rao of JWT in 1946, the Maharajah is one of the oldest mascots in the world. Kooka was later Chairman of JWT ( then Hindustan Thomspon Associates ) and could watch the Maharajah and Air India advertising grow in stature and popularity.

“We can call him the Maharajah for want of a better description. But his blood isn’t blue. He may look like royalty, but he isn’t royal. He is capable of entertaining the Queen of England and splitting a beer with her butler. He is a man of many parts: lover boy, sumo wrestler, pavement artist, vendor of naughty post cards, Capuchin monk, Arab merchant…

Bobby Kooka

The Maharajah dies a 100 deaths

Come the 80s however, with frequent changes to the Chairman of Air India resulted in the Maharajah dying a 100 deaths. Air India chiefs were keen to kill the Maharajah in of something new and more contemporary. One such case was when in the late 80s one Air India chief hired Landor the well-known design firm to redesign the logo of Air India in 1989. An airline identity change is one of the most expensive identity changes for any industry because it involves re-painting all the aircraft, the livery, the ground vehicles and every signage in every country. But Air India went through all that bravely, eager to dump both the Centaur, which was their logo for the longest time and the Maharajah who was accused of not being in tune with the times. Rajan Jetley then Managing Director of Air India had said in defense of the new logo, “It is a public statement of change and a product exercise in the classic marketing sense.” The logo was an oval sun on a sash.

Air India aircraft painted with the new sun and sash logo in 1989

This was painted on the tail of the aircraft and the Boeing 747 Rajendra Chola became the first aircraft to carry the new logo and the livery. This facelift is known to have cost Air India $35 million back in in 1989. But the public started questions about the change immediately missing their familiar brand Air India. Questions were also raised in Parliament about the change of identity. But in spite of the identity change, the Maharajah seemed reluctant to leave the brand and its advertising. For every one person who didn’t want him, there was a loyal fan who wanted him back.

This was true of consumers as well. The Maharajah doll as shown above, once upon a time had a pride of place in the living room showcases of most Indian families. The brilliant sun logo was short lived. A few years later Air India was back with the Centaur which had been its identity since the airline first started out as Tata Airlines.

2007 – Anxious Times

The merger of Air India and Indian airlines put the question of Air India’s identity once again on the dock. The then Minister of Aviation Praful Patel wanted to morph the insignias of the two airlines so that it reminded the travelers of both Air India and Indian Airlines. Along with the identity change, the eternal question remained whether to retain the Maharajah or not but he seemed to have outlived yet another crisis in the history of Air India. The logo of the merged airline was a Flying Swan with the Konark Chakra placed inside it. But the charm that the Maharajah once exhibited seemed to have deserted him. He is no longer charming and has forgotten his antics and his quirky puns.

How much is the Air India brand worth?

Brand Finance

Some external consultants value the Air-India brand at about Rs 5000 crores. (Moneycontrol). That doesn’t seem much considering that the Kingfisher Airlines brand had been valued by Grant Thornton in 2011 at Rs 4100 crores. At Rs 5000 crores the brand value is one-tenth of its overall debt.

Saurabh Uboweja, international brand expert, and CEO, Brands of Desire recently told the press, “The real value of Air India is in the brand and not in the physical assets of the carrier. The carrier has aircraft which has nothing distinctive enough to be procured and it has human resource assets averagely aged between 55 and 56 against other carriers’ who have a staff of average age between 27 and 30. So there is no benefit in taking over Air India unless someone is planning to encash on the brand and not the physical asset”

Does Air India really have a place in the table of the most valued airline brands in the world? In the evaluation of airline brands done by Finance Air-India does not find a place in the top 50 airline brands in the world. American Airlines the most valuable airline in the world was valued at $9811 million in 2017.

In the meantime, we have to hope that the prospective buyer is up to the challenge of creating evolutionary change for a brand that has been in steady decline over the years largely because of its public sector ownership.

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Prabhakar Mundkur has spent 40 years in advertising and worked in India, Africa and Asia. He is currently Chief Mentor with HGS Interactive a part of HGS in the Hinduja Group. He is on the advisory board of Sol 's Arc (solsarc.org ) an NGO dedicated to special education for intellectually challenged children. He is also a member of Whiteboard ( whiteboardindia.org ) which supports senior management of NGOs in financial management, PR, Communication and HR through pro bono expertise.

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