Mumbai: Tony Fernandes hasn’t spent a rupee on advertising his planned domestic carrier, but his strategy for AirAsia India and his views on the local market seem to make their way to the front page of Indian newspapers on most mornings these days. Brash, loud, red baseball cap-wearing Fernandes has managed to become, as one news agency put it, a “quote-hunter’s delight”.
Sample these comments: “Mr (Ratan) Tata is a fantastic guy. It is a fantastic experience working with him, although I have not gone to bed with him,” he said, of the former chairman of the Tata group. Or another time, when he tossed competitor’s names about, and pointed to a rule that prevents local airlines from flying abroad until they complete five years of operation and own 20 aircraft, Fernandes said: “That’s probably put in by Naresh (Goyal) or someone else to protect themselves. You are laughing, so I am right.”
Fernandes takes after good friend Richard Branson in that both use their personalities to promote their endeavours.
But as a late entrant into an already crowded market, experts say that Fernandes will need more than his trademark histrionics to make a dent.
“AirAsia is up against stiff competition in the Indian market. The market leader IndiGo for instance, is a well-entrenched airline, with new aircraft, clean cabins, reasonably priced tickets, good on-time performance, a highly motivated staff and loyal customers,” said Amber Dubey, partner and head, aerospace and defence, at global consultancy KPMG.
“Everything, including the simple concept of the cabin crew wearing wigs to save pre-flight preparation time, is geared towards improving efficiency. In terms of marketing, they (IndiGo) have some eye-catching billboards and television commercials, but they don’t overspend on marketing. They watch every rupee they spend,” Dubey said.
Which is perhaps why the Malaysia-based entrepreneur is busy piecing together a marketing strategy, which will include everything that India loves—films, music and sports. By sports, he means, football, not cricket.
“AirAsia has great brand recall and we will do brand-building strategies—we will get involved in movies, music and sports, maybe football. We own a football club (Queens Park Rangers), which did badly, but it may sound bizarre—we expect football to gain momentum in India,” said Fernandes, who wants to steer clear of India’s national obsession‡cricket.
Sponsoring a team in the infamous Indian Premier League (IPL) would be akin to a “kiss of death” for AirAsia, he said, making perhaps, a passing reference to Vijay Mallya-promoted Royal Challengers Bangalore.
An in-film branding deal saw AirAsia featuring heavily in the recently released Neram (made in both Tamil and Malayalam). Fernandes indicated that more such deals could be on the anvil, with a focus on south India.
AirAsia has already announced it will steer clear of big airports such as Mumbai and Delhi to keep costs down.
SpiceJet Ltd, owned by media baron Kalanithi Maran, will be its closest rival as both have similar business models. The Maran family also has interests in media and films, making it imperative for AirAsia to create a strong connect with consumers in those markets.
Fernandes also hosts The Apprentice Asia based on the US version hosted by real estate tycoon Donald Trump. “I enjoyed doing the show and it has tremendous positive rub-off on the AirAsia brand,” said Fernandes.
The approach is a cost-effective one, said Vikram Malhotra, who was chief operating officer of Viacom18 Motion Pictures till recently and vice-president, marketing, at Kingfisher Airlines Ltd prior to that.
“Their decision to use movies and television as a mass influence medium is a smart and shrewd strategy to get into Indian households at a low outlay but high impact,” he said.
He said this was even more true of markets in the South, where Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam cinema had an even greater influence.
“The strategy is bang on for those markets,” he said. “What is critical for any new entrant into the Indian market is to nail that fine blend of product service, to become the airline of choice, and competitive pricing.”
In the past, airlines such as GoAir, Silk Air (sister company of Singapore Airlines) and the now-grounded Kingfisher Airlines have used films successfully to promote their brands.
Fernandes is also looking at music to promote the brand. This may have something to do with AirAsia’s association with Bollywood actor John Abraham, although both men declined to offer any information.
“Tony comes from the music industry background, with Richard Branson being one of his mentors, so you can be assured of some disruptive strategies inspired from that,” said Dubey of KPMG.
“The best bet for the AirAsia brand is Tony himself. His whole persona, his baseball cap, his hard hitting one-liners, taking names, saying things that no airline promoter would be caught saying in public—all this gets him costly air time and front-page coverage for free,” Dubey said.