Like the rest of the aviation industry, Indigo Airlines, has also faced a turbulent few months since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in India. Domestic flights resumed towards the end of May 2020, easing the pain to an extent, but with stringent guidelines and a growing number of cases, airlines are flying nowhere close to full capacity.
We caught up with Nikhil Dhar, director – marketing and communications, Indigo and Wieden+Kennedy Delhi’s managing director, Gautham Narayanan, to learn more.
Could you sum up how difficult marketing has been during the last five months?
Nikhil Dhar (ND): Overall, from an industry perspective, aviation is at the forefront of the Covid virus and has been badly hit. It was very important to be prepared when the lockdown ended. We had to inspire consumers to be safe to fly. We have trade partners - a lot of the bookings come from them and we had to get them ready and geared up. We had to prepare and get our staff ready too. It was both external and internal challenge. We started planning way in advance to communicate to our stakeholders about our safety.
What's been the communication to people during this time to get them back to the skies? How is it different from earlier marketing strategies?
ND: We didn’t want to talk about safety in a mundane way. We wanted to take the child like route to get consumers to understand and at the same time wanted to maintain the Indigo tonality. We have sort of rebranded to a ‘lean, clean, flying machine’ message. We are clearly articulating the strong points of being lean and clean and we are obviously a flying machine. The idea behind this was not do a bunch of social media posts and print ads, but to also have this message across all touch points. Across the journey from pre-booking to travel at the airport, we are communicating this everywhere.
Gautham Narayanan (GN): During this time you have to be careful of your tone. Safety and sanitisation would be the top priority. We knew it was the case with all the airlines. Indigo's voice is very important for the aviation industry as a whole. We wanted to communicate something serious in Indigo's tone. What we found is that when you look at industry communication around safety and sanitisation - we think we're standing out. When we started doing surveys around this – we saw we are placed very high. From a share POV, Indigo's share has gone up too during Covid to 60 per cent.
Since the end of May, travel domestically resumed. Any trends you're seeing here?
ND: When we started - most of it was necessary, emergency travel. Over the last month or so, we are seeing travel has picked up a bit besides emergency travel. We're seeing some business meetings for SME owners who are heading to factories etc. We are starting to see non-emergency travel too. The only category that hasn't picked up is leisure travel.
With different rules in different states - how important is it for airlines to be communicating with consumers right now?
ND: On our website we are notifying this to our consumers. We are sharing regulations on social media, and with travel partners too that can spread the message to the consumers.
We also send an e-mailer before consumers travel to remind them about the rules. The objective is to get rid of the stress and anxiety consumers may have at this time. We just want to make air travel simple and easy at this moment.
Gautham Narayanan (left) and Nikhil Dhar
A large chunk of your fliers had tickets booked and the covid pandemic hit and would be looking at refunds - what communication efforts have you made with them?
ND: We created credit shells quickly. And as part of the whole Covid pro-active communication, we had a voucher design for them to articulate how much money they have, validity, etc. Earlier, we had credit shell for three months, now we have offered a year's validity. We have given enough time for people to use this credit shell. Transparency and consistency are two pillars we want to have with our consumers.
GN: Credit shell is my favourite brief of my year. It was a tiny bit of design - and I found it interesting. For two meetings in a row I asked Nikhil what was keeping him up and he said the volume of calls to the call centre and how they were flooded. We spoke to the call centre business managers, and they said there was a lot of confusion. So, we created our own brief between Nikhil and the agency, to decrease call centre volumes. We got this out then and said that as an airline we're not going anywhere. We solved what we think was an operation problem with a bit of design. No one is going to Cannes with that, but that's what got me and Dean excited and we wanted to be an essential commodity at this point of time.
A social media post suggested in July 2020 you serviced 1.2 million passengers. How would that compare to July 2019? What would your guesstimate be about being back to full capacity?
ND: At our peak we served two lakh consumers every day. We are flying at 30 per cent of our capacity right now. We think another 18 months to get back to full capacity. 70 per cent should be achieved by March 2021.
The air bubble arrangements for international flights have been arranged. Do you think the consumer will be open to taking these flights or will there be a sense of fear in travel?
ND: About the air bubble, we’ll be announcing something in a couple of days. But what is interesting is the charter option. Since we started this, we've done more than 800 charters. We've carried 1,50,000 passengers on our charter programmes. On a demand perspective, we want to promote this and say how safe air travel is. We believe there's enough demand for this. A lot of people want to come back to India or go back to their respective destinations.
With regards to leisure travel, would people be looking to fly internationally more to countries that have been less affected by Covid (UAE being an example)?
ND: One of the interesting opportunity and we're waiting more clarity is around the IPL in the UAE. There's a possibility that people might travel for that. In leisure travel - visas are stricter. So, at this point consumers want to travel domestically. So, leisure travel will first open domestically than outside of India.
You had recently rolled out an initiative to reach out to and thank the frontline workers. How has the response to that been?
GN: We are proud of the tough cookie initiative. For me, it's the process which was interesting. The whole process of working with Indigo is enjoyable. When the pandemic broke out, we had a process which started. We first took down advertising that we believed could be insensitive. The next thing we did was go into PR and almost crisis communication management. We had the simplest matrix in the world and it became very usable. We got revenue generation ideas for when things would get better. We had a chat with Nikhil and in a week we had a deck of 12 ideas. In two weeks, the initiative was live.
ND: It was both a revenue generation idea and a way of showing gratitude towards them. As an airline we have spoken about safety since the outbreak of the pandemic. We also wanted to thank the frontline. We have 80-100 doctors booking with us every day. And this is our way of showing our gratitude to them.