With a promise of ‘limitless possibilities’, Tata Sons Chairman N. Chandrasekaran unveiled the new logo of Air India last week, planning to take the airline forward with a new brand identity and a confident outlook for the future.

The airline’s new A350 fleet will bear the new logo, named ‘The Vista’, from December 2023 onwards. CEO and Managing Director Campbell Wilson revealed the carrier would also spend close to $400 million to refurbish its existing aircraft, with all the legacy 777 and 787 Dreamliner planes refitted by next year.

Shortly after the announcement, social media was abuzz with consumers weighing in on the rebrand and the money spent. Many questioned the decision, including Indian author-politician Shashi Tharoor, who took to X (formerly Twitter) to write: “What really matters to passengers is fixing the interiors of the planes. Service is good; but the aircraft, seats et al are creaking. The passenger experience comes from what’s inside the aircraft, not what’s outside.”

It’s perhaps the need to overhaul its passenger experience that prompted the former state-backed Indian carrier to take this bold step into bringing the legacy brand into the 21st century, say experts.

“Like with any other organisation, the brand is not just a subject of how the world looks at you, but also about the perception of the people who work for you. In the case of Air India, a brand makeover was necessary, signalling the airline cutting away from past, but not from its legacy,” said Ajay Awtaney, an Indian aviation news and analysis expert, who is also the founder of LiveFromALounge.com.

“The airline is looking at this branding exercise as cutting away from the history, where people don’t recognise it as the most trusted premium airline. To change this perception, they are starting out with a new brand identity and other customer-facing touchpoints,” Awtaney added.

Brand makeover

Several airlines have successfully undergone rebranding, the Abu Dhabi–based Etihad Airways being the most recognised example in this region. Launched in 2003, the carrier embarked on a rebranding strategy in 2014 to cater to an upmarket clientele. This included new staff uniforms designed by Italian haute couturier Ettore Bilotta, a new logo, new livery, and the launch of a three-room suite with a shower and even a Savoy-trained butler.

However, customer feedback saw the airline later move away from the luxury proposition to one that offered high quality and value, with the airline’s then Head of Commercial at Etihad Airways, Jamal Al Awadhi, referring to it as more “inclusive” and “relevant” for its users at the APEX Middle East and Africa conference in 2018.

“Most companies undergo a rebrand to shift in the direction the brand itself wants to head,” said Dubai-based Omnichannel consultant Anthony Permal.

“A company may either look to modernise its brand because the logo may be too old, or there is peer pressure driving that decision, or the target audience has changed and they need to find a way to connect with their new customer base,” Permal explained.

Air India’s makeover will eventually lead to a marketing strategy that will connect with customers of today. “Nostalgia doesn’t work anymore, and legacy brands are starting to understand this,” he said.

For Dubai-based frequent flyer Sujjay Kothare, the Air India facelift holds of little value if the airline doesn’t deliver on its promise of serving its customers.

“I travel almost weekly to India for work and my airline of choice remains Emirates, unless I’m heading to smaller cities which don’t feature on the airline’s network,” Kothare said. “Air India would be an ideal choice in those instances, but its track record of delays, older aircraft and questionable service often convinces me to pick a budget carrier such as IndiGo instead.”

Kothare’s concern is one that is echoed by many on social media, several of whom saying they have long abandoned flying with Air India over such concerns. The fact that Air India is now owned by Talace Private Limited, a fully owned subsidiary of conglomerate Tata Sons, remains irrelevant to many critics, or the news that the carrier is pending merger with sister airline Vistara, a joint venture between Tata and Singapore Airlines.

“An end consumer may look at the Air India rebrand today and say it’s not needed, but change will happen, even if it takes 5 to 7 years,” said Awtaney. “At the end of the day, it’s a starting point. For the customer, the notions about Air India are ingrained from the past - unreliable flights, broken seats, bad frequent flyer programme. Things that did not signify a great airline.”

According to Awtaney,  in terms of brand promise, Air India has taken the first few steps in a direction similar to Emirates. “What the brand makeover suggests is ‘don’t think of us in the past’. They are positioning themselves as warm, hospitable, deeply Indian things that are associated with India itself. Ultimately, it will take years of reinforcement marketing, brand association and a good product to deliver the whole package.”

As Air India turns a page in this new chapter, buoyed with a facelift and a pending merger, only time will tell whether this change will prove successful in the long run.

(Reporting by Bindu Rai, editing by Seban Scaria)