Siddhartha Butalia of AirAsia talks to Social Samosa about the impact of the pandemic on the aviation sector, revival, and tactical use of social media marketing in this phase, and consumer trends that mould the future of the industry.
Aviation was amongst the most adversely impacted industries globally by the crisis. Global passenger traffic fell by 66% in 2020 v/s 2019 while domestic passenger traffic dropped by 56%. While organizations aligned with their business continuity plans, Air Asia India pivoted its operations and functions to ensure that all its verticals and employees could use this time to reset, re-learn and rise. Siddhartha Butalia, Chief Marketing Officer, Air Asia India speaks at length about the Air Asia India social media strategy, business revival strategy, marketing trends in the aviation industry, and more.
First wave of COVID-19 v/s the second wave – what has been the impact of the crisis on AirAsia and the overall sector?
When the first wave of the pandemic began to impact our region at the beginning of 2020, we had the foresight of learning from other AirAsia group airlines and operations in China. We embarked on an agile 3-phased strategy, adapting on the go with a keen eye on the dynamically changing consumer sentiment through digital dipsticks. The insights from the three phases, which we distinguished as those of Response, Recovery, and Rejuvenation, broadly hold true this year as well, albeit at an accelerated pace.
How do you ensure that the business objectives are met and what are the marketing initiatives that were undertaken to keep the hopes for travel afloat?
We demarcated our business objectives on the basis of our three-pronged approach and phased communications strategy in tandem with market realities and consumer sentiment.
Phase-1, marked by lockdown and significant travel restrictions, at the national level in the first wave and at the state or regional level in the second wave, is defined as a period of isolation. It was marked by the dominant sentiment being that of uncertainty, concern, and confusion. In this phase, it was imperative that the response be to serve the immediate needs of our guests, being empathetic and engaging rather than selling, and demonstrating flexibility, such as by extending cancellation and change fee waivers to our guests with our #FlexIt with AirAsia campaign.
In Phase-2, a period of restricted travel, while consumer sentiment remained cautious, we focussed on initiatives that helped build a sense of community and a spirit of resilience. Our #HumansOfAirAsia campaign featured individuals who went out of their way and demonstrated acts of kindness to those in need in their local communities. As an airline, we deployed our excess capacity to facilitate travel for those in need, specifically stranded migrants with our #UmeedKiUdaan (Flights of Hope).
In Phase-3, the period of cautious optimism, with resurgent demand especially for leisure travel, we engaged fans and followers on social media to share their #FlightsOfImagination and celebrate the memories they missed with our #TimeToTravel campaign. We also continued to leverage our advantage as a digital-first and data-driven brand to enable safe, seamless, and contactless travel experiences that we believe will define the new normal for years to come.
The pandemic brought in a new way of marketing – the focus shifted from customer acquisition to retention. How did AirAsia adapt to this change?
Rather than a shift in tactics, as with many other areas where the past year has accelerated nascent trends, many of the changes we witnessed in this period are fundamental, here to stay and mould the new normal. The first major change has been in the demographics of travelling audiences, who have been decidedly younger and more diverse. This brings its own behavioural changes with it and necessitates relooking at the customer journey from booking to travel more holistically.
Younger consumers are more digitally engaged, optimistic and resilient. They are open to new experiences and service offerings, adapting quicker and adopting new norms with alacrity and enthusiasm. This has enabled us to drive digital adoption in the customer journey, such as tripling the proportion of web check-ins, which in turn delivers data insights and opportunities to engage and extend the customer journey well beyond the duration of the physical service interactions. Simple interventions such as opening web check-in up to 14 days before the travel date and implementing advanced auto seat assignment algorithms, help us minimize queuing and turnaround times at airports, while ensuring safer, smoother, and touchless travel experiences.
Thanks to this, our guests emphatically rate taking a plane as among the safest activities, significantly safer than eating out or visiting a mall, with a substantial reduction in the risk perception, even over the past year. Hygiene and safety measures have increased in importance to being among the top three drivers of choice dominating people’s minds. In our latest consumer survey, nearly two-thirds of outstation travelers indicated a clear preference for air travel over any other mode of transport including personal and hired vehicles.
The travel business was at large impacted. How did you gauge the consumer response? What were the ROI expectations and were they met?
While travel and tourism continue to be affected globally, the nature and extent of the impact, as well as the pace of recovery, will differ across regions. In April 2021, the top 3 domestic aviation markets in the world were China, the US, and India. Yet, the 5-6x gap between India and the top 2 markets is indicative of the long-term potential, which is where our focus has remained. Bain & Co.’s Global Air Travel projections from last month forecast India having the fastest recovery globally after China.
Keeping our sights on this potential, we hunkered down and took every opportunity to secure pole position on the hygiene factors of airline choice, leveraging data to derive a deeper consumer understanding and deliver a long-term competitive advantage. In anticipation of a rejuvenation driven predominantly by younger demographics, we introduced new products such as contactless home to airport and airport to destination baggage delivery services with AirAsia FlyPorter and launched partnerships with trusted brands in the travel ecosystem from premium hospitality groups to global car rental services.
We invested our efforts in developing new digital platforms including an independent website, airasia.co.in, and an advanced AI-powered chatbot, Tia. We also made a concerted effort to engage with our guests, travel partners, suppliers, and promoters to prioritize the factors that are material to our stakeholders and develop a long-term sustainability strategy that will hold us in good stead for years to come.
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How did you leverage social media platforms during this phase?
Apart from the hygiene updates on travel guidelines and safety measures that were par for the course for the industry, we realized that the most interest and engagement was driven by authentic activities outside the traditional remit of “content marketing”.
Two of the initiatives that we undertook in the initial stages of the pandemic stood out in this respect. The first – ‘Umeed ki Udaan’ (Flight of Hope) was borne out of an immediate need to safely fly displaced migrant workers back to their hometowns from across the country. Starting with the first flight on 28th May 2020 from Mumbai to Ranchi, we collaborated with like-minded organisations, individuals, governments, and not-for-profit institutions to help alleviate the plight of over 4,500 migrant workers across 15 cities in a span of 3 months.
In June 2020, at the height of the initial pandemic response, we launched the AirAsia #RedPass, celebrating our 6th anniversary as an airline by asking people to #PassOnTheGoodwill to doctors across the country, offering 50,000 free flights in recognition of their sacrifices. With the overwhelmingly positive response we received on our RedPass initiative, we proudly extended the offer on India’s 74th Independence Day, to our other heroes in uniform on the frontlines, members of the Indian Armed Forces, while extending priority boarding and baggage service across our airport stations.
Which social media platform was the most effective for marketing and why?
The diverse nature of each platform, the audiences that inhabit them and the algorithms that drive engagement mean that each has its own distinct place and independent measures of effectiveness and efficacy.
On Twitter, which has seen phenomenal growth and democratization in India recently, and which by its nature demands a real-time response, we have focussed on speed and accuracy of the information, adopting a multilingual content strategy and leading the industry on service parameters including response and resolution rates.
Our engagement levels in the past year on Twitter alone have grown over 20x, while at the same time we have enhanced our response time to a fraction of what it used to be and resolution rates across social channels to industry benchmark levels.
On Facebook, we have amassed 1.3 million followers ensuring that our share of voice far exceeds our share of market by a factor of 3.5x, driven by content that sparks conversations and meaningful interactions. The platform offers the most powerful audience insights and diversity while being universally adopted, which enables engaging with relevant cohorts for a myriad of campaign objectives from awareness to consideration and conversion.
On Instagram, the focus has remained on curated media content for a relevant audience that has been the most rewarding for engagement and brand love.
How has 2021 started out for AirAsia- consumer and business sentiments alike?
Throughout this period, we have continued to monitor macroeconomic factors and consumer sentiment closely through ongoing travel intent surveys and data analytics. Towards the end of 2020, there was a resurgence in optimism and travel. A substantial base of historical travellers has however remained cautious. Flying remains the preferred mode of transport by far, favoured by a majority of travellers, while personal vehicles have steadily increased in popularity, gaining from other modes of road and rail transport.
The dominant purpose of travel is likely to remain holiday and leisure demand and those visiting friends and relatives (VFR), although the latter has been declining to pre-pandemic levels gradually after peaking in the second half of 2020. That said, our analysis of conversion from intent to subsequent action indicates that people tend to travel for business needs more than they expected to, while they meet their family slightly less than they plan to, but nearly a third of holiday plans in this period have not finally materialised.
What are the key factors that have strived your personal growth as a marketer? What is your Marketing Mantra?
Having worked across industries and geographies, from consumer products to automotive, and beverages to luxury hospitality and aviation in Europe and the Asia Pacific, one of my learnings has been that the fundamentals driving human behaviour are category and culture agnostic. At the same time, engaging effectively requires a combination of empathy borne from experience, a rigour of analysis that precedes insight, and the ability to appreciate creative value sans intellectual deconstruction.