The Tata group acquired 100% in Air India and the Maharajah is back in Ratan Tata’s palace. Can the mascot be contemporised for this day and age?
After being grounded in the hangar for a while, Air India (AI) is ready to spread its wings and fly again – with a little help from the Tata group. The company recently acquired 100 per cent stake in AI and its subsidiary Air India Express or AIXL (a low-cost airline that focuses on short-haul international operations, especially in the Middle East market). Tata has also acquired 50 per cent stake in the joint venture Air India SATS (airport services on ground and cargo handling).
The Tatas will now get ownership of iconic brands like AI, Indian Airlines (IA) and the Maharajah. AI has a fleet of 117 wide-body and narrow-body aircraft, and AIXL has a fleet of 24 narrow-body aircraft. A significant number of these aircraft are owned by AI.
JRD Tata originally founded the airline in 1932 and it was called Tata Airlines at the time. In 1946, the aviation division of Tata Sons was listed as AI and, in 1948, AI International was launched, with flights to Europe.
However, in 1947, when India gained Independence from the British rule, the newly formed government bought 49 per cent stake in AI. In 1953, the government bought the remaining stake, and AI was nationalised.
Now that AI is back in Tata’s hands, the company has the right to possibly revamp one of AI’s most iconic mascots – the Maharajah. It first came into being in 1946 and was almost synonymous with AI’s communication.
According to the AI website, the Maharajah’s first appearance in AI was in 1946. Bobby Kooka, (then) AI's commercial director, and Umesh Rao, an artist with J. Walter Thompson, Mumbai, together created it.
The Maharajah design first made an appearance on an inflight memo pad. The aim was to take AI's sales and promotional messages to millions of travellers across the world.
Today, the diminutive Maharajah of AI has become a global figure. He 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. Simply because he is the Maharajah.
Ananda Ray, former creative head at Rediffusion, opines that AI, as an airline, has always carried a distinct design. “Whether it is the food served or the design outside the windows, AI flights have always been memorable. The Maharajah is one of the most recognised mascots out there. He can easily be adapted to modern times,” he says.
Ray adds that in his previous avatars, the Maharajah was always relevant to the context – he could be seen posing for a photograph at the Eiffel Tower, or vacationing on a beach in France. “If he were to star in an Instagram Reel or be part of a GIF on social media, it would not look out of place, considering how versatile the Maharajah has been in the past,” he adds.
Kurnal Rawat, creative director at Landor & Fitch, points out that a mascot is always a key brand asset, if it has created the desired affinity within the target group. “The Maharajah has always been topical and relevant with trends, so, that’s not an issue. He can talk about a variety of topics, from cryptocurrency to space travel, and it will be accepted by the audience.”
Rawat talks about the different ways the Maharajah has adapted to situations – he can be a jetsetter, he can go to Silicon Valley thrice a week and, at the same time, he can take a beach vacation in Bali as well.
“Now, the Maharajah can go all out, have a personal Twitter (Insta) handle, Snapchat filter, etc. He can even have his own air miles currency. The only thing we need to keep in mind is to be respectful of his avatar. After all, he is royalty,” he concludes.
Ashwini Deshpande co-founder, director, Elephant Design says that a modern Maharajah will represent modern India. “He will be empathetic, efficient, inclusive while maintaining his mischievous charm. As a global Indian, he will be expected to know and use technology with as much ease as he once used magic carpets,” she explains
Deshpande goes on to mention that India has found an equal and respectable place among top influencers in the world. She visualises him doing a hi-five rather than the bent subservient posture we have been seeing him do.
“In today’s day and age, I suppose the Modern Maharajah will be fitter and agile. He will eat and promote healthy food that comes from sustainable and fair sourcing,” she says.
Talking about the Maharajah in a modern context, she starts by mentioning that today, brand building is all about story telling. But interestingly, Maharajah was always telling stories, even through a single static print piece.
“I believe the Maharajah can now come to life in all his glory because of immense multi-media possibilities. It will be a perfect fit. A mascot has to exude contemporary values and behaviour to be able to stay relevant. Iconic brands like KFC, Betty Crocker and Quaker have refreshed their mascots from time to time keeping relevancy as a priority,” she signs off.