A Window of Opportunity: The Lack of Cultural Nuance in Air India’s Rebrand

7 Feb, 2024 | Admin | No Comments

A Window of Opportunity: The Lack of Cultural Nuance in Air India’s Rebrand

In the landscape of global aviation, where airlines strive for a distinctive brand that echoes both relevance and familiarity, the recent rebranding of Air India has emerged as a poignant chapter. Last year the airline announced a massive rebrand and new identity rollout. The iconic Maharaja mascot, once synonymous with the airline’s face, now stands at a crossroads.

While initially exciting, the Air India facelift took an unexpected turn by opting to sideline historical nuances in favor of positioning the airline within the ‘global market’. The rebrand seems to turn away from what could have been a very significant change. Travel is a market that feels akin to quicksand, undergoing constant change, where preferences oscillate between consumers and corporations, and budgets redefine scopes overnight. Designers face the intricate task of delicately balancing brand legacy with the desire for a new and innovative approach. The Air India rebrand prompts us to explore not only the transformation of a logo and wordmark but also the deeper implications of cultural distinction being turned into consumable morsels for the West in the name of progress. 


Founded by JRD Tata, an industrialist, entrepreneur, and India’s first commercial pilot license-holder, Air India (originally known as Tata Airlines) established itself as an independent company in the country’s aviation sector, launching its first aircraft in 1933.If you came of age in India during the early ’90s, the aviation scene was characterized by simplicity, with only a handful of airlines dominating the skies. Among them stood the Maharaja mascot of Air India, first conceived in 1946 by Bobby Kooka, Air India’s commercial director, and illustrated by Umesh Rao, an artist at J. Walter Thompson. Characterized by a potbelly, distinctive oversized curled mustache, sharp nose, striped turban, and a calm expression, he stood as a symbol of the nation’s hospitality etched into every Indian’s memory forever. The identity before the rebrand showcased the Flying Swan silhouette and the Konark wheel within, complemented by a deep red wordmark and Devanagari script. It marked Air India’s distinctive presence in the aviation sector and encapsulated an era when air travel was a novel and privileged experience—a time when aviation in India was synonymous with wonder and wealth.

Initially establishing itself as an independent entity, Air India bloomed in India’s aviation sector before being acquired by the Government of India in 1948. After operating under government ownership for roughly 70 years, Air India was reacquired by the Tata Group in 2022. In December 2023, Tata announced the rollout of a new global brand identity for Air India, led by the London, UK, office of Futurebrand in collaboration with its Mumbai counterpart. The rebrand also seems like a valid step to distance itself from the negative pushback accumulated during decades of government management. But, the agency charged with redesigning one of the oldest airlines in India was left with a research task that must have been both daunting and exhaustive.

Air India’s historic fleet of iconic Boeing 747s, nicknamed “Your Palace In The Sky,” featured interiors curated by Tata himself. The fleet epitomized luxury travel’s golden age, with the renowned Maharaja Lounges and a first-class cabin adorned with Indian motifs, vibrant bandhani print uniforms, Gupta period art, murals from the Ajanta caves, and Kashmiri textile patterns. The white facade and red ‘jharokha’ windows became a signature. Air India was known for amalgamating heritage and meticulous design.

While the history of the aircraft featured so many elements to draw inspiration from, the new identity seems to limit itself. The updated logo and livery feature a revised color palette, and typeface and the airline’s mascot now assumes a predominantly subdued role confined to the premium classes. As a component of the rebranding effort, the airline has launched a fresh website and app, along with initiatives such as round-the-clock customer service, full lounge access for premium passengers, and a revamped loyalty program.

The logo underwent a major overhaul, replacing the previous red swan and Konark Chakra with a gold window frame symbolizing a ‘Window of Possibilities.’ The wordmark appears impressive along the entire length of the fuselage. While the custom type family designed in collaboration with Fabio Haag Type, Air India Sans, is a crisp addition to the identity. The new visual system features deep red, aubergine, and gold hues, along with a chakra-inspired pattern and the main element i.e., ‘The Vista’ graphics.

Inspired by the 747’s jharokha window, the Vista graphics use the window as a framing device. Though neatly executed as an animation, the gradients and chakra patterns seem force-fed into the system. The sarees, designed by celebrity designer Manish Malhotra, are sharp and don’t dilute the essence or authenticity of the uniform but rather transform it.

While the new identity aims to position Air India as a globally recognized brand, some critics argue that it might have diluted its distinct cultural elements. Introducing a more minimalist logo, featuring a gold window frame, deviated from traditional symbols like the red swan and Konark Chakra, potentially disconnecting from the airline’s rich heritage. The shift in the mascot’s role, with the Maharaja appearing predominantly in premium classes, signaled a departure from its historical international prominence. 

The public reaction to the Air India rebranding in India has been a mixed bag. While some individuals appreciate the airline’s efforts to change its image, others have criticized the changes for potentially disregarding cultural nuances. Positive feedback emphasizes the modern and vibrant aesthetic, considering it a step towards aligning with global standards. However, there are concerns about the potential loss of the airline’s distinctive identity and whether the rebranding adequately honors its rich history.

When comparing Air India’s rebranding with other global airlines, it becomes evident that the pursuit of global standards often leads to a certain level of homogenization in identity. In an interesting development, the new branding of Air India bears a resemblance to another airline, Vistara, also owned by Tata. This similarity is not coincidental, as Tata Sons and Singapore Airlines have agreed to consolidate Air India and Vistara by March 2024. This consolidation highlights the challenge of maintaining distinct brand identities while aligning with global standards in an industry marked by increasing convergence.

In an article titled ‘Are rebrands starting to look the same?’ writer Elizabeth Goodspeed phrased it right “While designers might debate the intricacies of truly unique branding, beneath these immediate concerns, there’s an underlying truth: what’s seen as popular often holds a key to broader appeal and effectiveness.” The tension between global aspirations and cultural preservation is a challenge faced by many companies seeking international recognition. Air India’s rebranding reflects a broader trend where the quest for global standards (aka recognition from the West) poses challenges in maintaining cultural nuances. Air India’s rebrand underscores the delicate balance required to navigate growth strategies while preserving the unique cultural fabric that defines its identity.

Roshita Thomas is a writer, designer, and business development manager. She previously worked with Porto Rocha as the Operations and New Business Associate and as the Editorial Assistant for Oculus Magazine with the American Institute of Architects. She graduated with a Master’s Degree in Design Research Writing and Criticism from SVA shortly after which she worked with Buck alongside the resourcing team.

Banner image licensed from Unsplash+

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