Opinion

Kingfisher: A bird in two minds

SHYAM G. MENON | Updated on December 26, 2011

Is Kingfisher in aviation a victim of Kingfisher’s success in beer?

“Wish I had an aeroplane

I'd fly away up yonder

Till you could write me the perfect song

It'd be a song for the people

It'd be a song that everybody could sing along...”

The story of Kingfisher, the beer brand, was once a lot like the John Mellencamp song, My Aeroplane. Beer belongs to the mass market. Many people enjoy beer. Many have had beer as their introduction to alcohol; not as many would have hit something harder for their first high. Years ago, when pubs sprouted in Bangalore, Kingfisher's home town, they too revolved around beer.

In the aviation industry, the equivalent of beer would be low-cost carriers. They bring flying to all. Businesses, however, have peculiar trajectories. Over time, Kingfisher, the beer brand, became not only huge; it also became iconic in India. With free market and foreign investment, there are costlier beers and cheaper ones available. Kingfisher may not top on price but it has brand recall and market share that would be the envy of competition. As top dog, Kingfisher's choice of sponsorship has graduated to glamorous calendars; its choice of brand extension in 2003 was aviation within which it aspires to be a premium airline, not mass market carrier. As an image, Kingfisher has moved up.

A PREMIUM AIRLINE

In 2007-08, Kingfisher the airline found its low cost partner in the erstwhile Air Deccan. The latter was the beer of the aviation market. Kingfisher could have repeated its beer story. Air Deccan stood for affordable flying, not much different thematically from beer's ascent in India. Apparently, the script didn't work.

Now, as Kingfisher the airline tackles loss, it has stated that low cost is not its preferred play. It wants to cater to the upper segment of the market. Consequently, Mr Vijay Mallya's press conference of November 15, telecast live, conveyed a confusing picture. On the one hand, he wants to service the upper crust. On the other hand, he wants an operating environment that allows reduced costs. For anyone listening that would have meant one thing — unlike those old days when many got introduced to beer through Kingfisher, here the introductions seemed done and the push was for higher margins in aviation.

What else can the mix of reduced operating cost and upmarket clientele mean? Why should the government give concessions to a whole sector when the intent of the airline in trouble is to service those who can afford?

Why shouldn't the government separate low cost carriers from full service players and offer the reduced operating cost environment selectively?

Kingfisher's case would have been stronger, and it would have lent muscle to the actually relevant call for reduced operating cost, had its focus been all of us and not a few. But do brands, once they've arrived, relive old history?

I felt Mr Mallya's statements at the press meet betrayed the predicament of someone riding a tiger. In this case, the tiger is not aviation industry or airline, it is brand — it is what Kingfisher has become.

BRAND AS TRAP

What Kingfisher has become in beer, it wants to be in aviation, because the same brand cannot be two different things in two separate businesses. King of Good Times in one; it has to be so in the other. Is that why Mr Mallya prefers the premium category in aviation, ignoring the slower paced story of Kingfisher's evolution in beer?

In the architecture of brands within the UB Group, very likely, there is the need for synergy in Kingfisher's multiple avatars. Further, the image of the older business cannot be dented by brand Kingfisher's travails in aviation. To its credit, the group seems to have put its full muscle behind the airline.

ANOTHER NAME

Yet, ask yourself what Mr Mallya's business plan can be if he had called his airline Pelican or Flamingo or Magpie — anything avian but Kingfisher? I suspect he would have thought differently; he would have thought creatively. More important, he would fit a brand into the real needs of people and not fit people into the needs of a successful brand.

That's what Kingfisher itself was in its early days — it represented the many colours of a fun drink called beer. Then it froze into what it had become, which is alright in the business of alcohol that has been Kingfisher's maturing ground since 1978. But change the arena and expect a new business to match a profile of brand patiently cultivated in a different business — that may not work.

Another bird name may not sound as splendid as Kingfisher but it may have provided Mr Mallya's airline immunity from other brands at UB, given it room to think for itself and grow the affordable segment of the market. Is Kingfisher in aviation a victim of Kingfisher's success in beer?



(The author is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

Published on November 21, 2011

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