Brand Saga: Air India, eight decades of being the ‘Maharajah’ of advertising

Air India advertising journey

From introducing us to the iconic Maharajah to creating the ‘Truly Indian’ brand image, the Air India advertising journey has been a major part of the airline company’s success story. We take a detailed look at the marketing saga…

Travelling has taken a backseat since the pandemic hit the world and definitely should not be a priority, given the crisis. However, that doesn’t stop us from reminiscing the good old days from India’s flag carrier, Air India’s chapter and how the airlines soared to great heights. An expedition that started in 1932 has its wings spread across continents and continues to contribute to the aviation industry. All of it was backed by the company’s strategic approach towards advertising and consumer-centric marketing efforts. This week’s Brand Saga dives into the Air India advertising journey spanning more than 80 years.

A Flight of History…

 J.R.D Tata in October 1932 himself flew Tata Airlines’ (now Air India) first single-engine de Havilland Puss Moth, carrying air mail from Karachi’s Drigh Road Aerodrome to Bombay’s Juhu aerodrome and later continuing to Madras (now Chennai).

The foundation for Tata Airlines was laid in April 1932 when J.R.D. Tata scored a contract from Imperial Airways which lead to the formation of the aviation unit of Tata Sons.  The airline launched its first domestic flight from Bombay to Trivandrum with a six-seater Miles Merlin and later in 193 was renamed to  Tata Air Services which got re-christened to Tata Airlines.

Once World War II ended and regular commercial aviation service in India went back to normal, Tata Airlines changed its name to Air India and became a public limited company in July 1946.

A year after India became independent, the Government of India took control of 49% stakes of the airline and in June 1948, Air India’s first international flight to London’s Heathrow Airport took off from Bombay (now Mumbai). In 1960, with the introduction of the first Boeing 707-420 aircraft, Air India became the first Asian airline to foray into the Jet Air services and a couple of years later also became the world’s first all-jet airline.

With each passing year, Air India kept introducing various destinations across continents.

Air India Advertising Journey

Air India adopted an aggressive approach when it came to advertising and marketing. For an airline that breathed the independent years and was introduced much before the war eruptions, Air India eyed newspaper advertising and radio as viable options to reach out to the not-so-modernized Indian population.

An advertisement of Air India in 1947 talked about how an Air India flight would cost INR 140 if fliers wanted to catch the festivities real-time at the time of India’s Independence.

The print advertisements were created in a way that the message containing information about the various flights, operations on the ground, discounts on fares, and offers are conveyed in a simple yet bold manner.

Yesteryear actors and actresses like Zeenat Aman and Bill Fox were featured in magazines and newspapers to lure in the attention of the readers towards the information disseminated by the airlines.

From showcasing the air stewardess and hostesses clad in traditional Indian sarees along with the rebranding news in the ’70s to communicating the exotic and luxurious stay that the airline offers with the tagline ‘Air India Has Something Money Can’t Buy’ – Air India’s print advertising strategy in the initial years formed the crux of its further stints.

Cut to the present days of digital, the Airlines is equally active and continues to invest in print advertising trusting.

The Tale of Logo & Taglines

Over the years Air India has experimented with its taglines – from endorsing its ‘Indianness’ through ‘Truly India’ to the ‘Unbeatable Service’ slogan which harped on the seamless consumer experience that the airlines claimed to offer to keep its desi avatar intact keeping attached to the ‘Soil of Bharat’ and its traditions with ‘We raise our hands only to say Namaste.

Air India has kept its identity and color scheme Red and White since day one symbolizing the lavish palace-style carvings; their windows were painted in a similar archaic manner and were designed in line with the slogan Your Palace in the Sky.

Online data suggest that the very first logo of Air India was chosen by the business tycoon J.R.D. Tata himself and was launched in the year 1948. It was a centaur, a stylized version of Sagittarius shooting an arrow in a circle representing the wheel of Konark- the logo represented the airline until 2007.

Air India underwent a rebranding excerise in 2007 wherein the new logo imbibed a red-colored flying swan with the ‘Konark Chakra’ in orange, placed inside it. The flying swan was morphed from Air India’s characteristic logo, ‘The Centaur’, whereas the ‘Konark Chakra’ was derived from Indian’s erstwhile logo.

The new logo features prominently on the tail of the aircraft. While the aircraft is ivory in color, the base retains the red streak of Air India. Running parallel to each other are the orange and red speed lines from the front door to the rear door, subtly signifying the individual identities merged into one. The brand name ‘Air India’ runs across the tail of the aircraft

Tale of ‘Maharajah’ – The mascot

“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,” said Bobby Kooka, the man who conceived the Maharajah.

The iconic ‘Maharajah’ first made its appearance way back in 1946 in Air India when Bobby Kooka as Air India’s Commercial Director and Umesh Rao, an artist with J.Walter Thompson Ltd., Mumbai,(now Wunderman Thompson)  together created the Maharajah.

Adorning a mix of red and yellow ensemble and the typical Indian style turban, this now-familiar lovable figure began merely as a rich Indian potentate, symbolizing graciousness and high living. Considering the true desi connect with a dash of sophisticated looks, his creators gave him a distinctive personality: his outsized mustache, the striped turban, and an aquiline nose.

Air India’s brief for the agency was to create a mascot design an inflight memo pad which owing to its familiar approach towards the fliers grew to take Air India’s sales and promotional messages to millions of travelers across the world.

In 2015, the mascot was given a complete makeover, the brand being represented by a younger version. The stout-looking figure clad in the royal avatar was now donning modern attire that jeans and sneakers and the age-old turban were ditched for the spiked and stylized hairdos. The younger version of Maharajah of Air India, according to the company’s official website, today 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.

Touted to be no less than a world figure flying millions of passengers across the globe, Maharajah has completed more than 60 years of existence and has become the most recognizable mascot, thereby being an integral part of the Air India advertising journey.

His antics, his expressions, his puns have allowed Air India to promote its services with a unique panache and an unmatched sense of subtle humor. As per the airline’s data, Air India has won numerous national and international awards owing to the Maharajah for humor and originality in publicity.

Air India advertising journey – The TV Edition

Riding high on the success of its print campaign, Air India hopped onto the television wave that cropped up in the independent era of India. The black and white idiot boxes were slowly getting replaced by colored devices TV commercials were becoming a rage and an integral part of communication by brands.

Air India too rolled out advertisements within a limited budget on TV where the mascot Maharajah accompanied the national carrier as it flew across the world.

Also Read: Brand Saga: Bata India’s revolutionization of seasonal footwear one ad a time

Targeting the international in-flight comfort and services that it offered, a 1970s TV commercial by Air India showed how flying to the States can become a pretty boring business, which probably explains why flying an Air India 747 to New York isn’t half as crazy as it sounds. The commercial was broadcast live in London markets.

During the 1990s, a theme song on Air India, Hum Hai Air Indian was created to bring all employees together wherein it played like an anthem to discover pride in working for Air India.  The aviation sector was privatized and most of the crew unions were going on strike. To keep the unity and strength of the airlines alive, the company came up with the theme song to lift the spirits of its employees.

There were many regional versions of the advertisements promoting comfort and unmatched services offered by Air India in terms of refreshments, in-flight offerings, and delights.

In 2008, post the company’s rebranding activity, it rolled out a TVC displaying the first class mode, in flight space, multiple entertainment options and WIFI facilities of the airlines.

Further, at the end of the decade, Air India became the official airline partner of the Common Wealth Games being held in Delhi. This TVC was created to focus on the games and build its association with Air India.

Stay Tuned as we unravel more facets of the Air India advertising journey in the next chapter coming week.