Powering Jet Airways with a Yellow Rose

Powering Jet Airways with a Yellow Rose is the story of how the flower came to be chosen as the symbol for the airline. The story has been extracted (with a few modifications) from the book A Dance with the Corporate Ton: Reflections of a Worker Ant.

I joined Jet Airways as Head of Marketing Communications in 1998. At that time, the airline was ruling the skies over India, lauded for its professionalism and efficient services. Naresh Goyal and the team he had assembled, led by the CEO Nikos Kardassis, had done such a good job with the airline’s product and service design, the airline had never felt the need for advertising, considering it a waste of money.

It was not a view, however, that Nikos subscribed to as he believed in the power of advertising.

He asked me to research the airline’s image in the eyes of the passenger market. He felt such research was critical in the light of a resurgent national carrier, Indian Airlines, which outstripped Jet in terms of a large fleet and route network.

The research we commissioned clearly threw up that Jet was seen as efficient but lacked warmth in its service. The research finding was not surprising as the airline was very focused on being business like in its approach and processes. As a result, warmth and a personal touch had become a casualty.

The solution we finally found was beautiful in its simplicity.

The fact was that almost every aspect of the Jet product and service design had an emotional pay-off for the consumer. All we had to do was highlight it.

That was the brief to Lintas (now Mullen Lowe Lintas), the agency I had worked for and who continued to handle the Jet account.

I remember briefing the agency and chalking out the matching emotional benefit to every rational product fact.

Let me give you just one illustrative example here.

Prior to terrorist-dictated security measures at airports and revenue-dictated parking rules, families would often wait at arrival lounges for their loved ones. Further, outstation trips and air travel then were not as passé as they are now. That being the case, fathers were often expected to bring back novelty gifts for their kids. Half the family excitement over an arrival was the anticipation over the gifts.

That was the emotional consumer insight. Couple that empirical behaviour with the fact that Jet delivered passenger bags on the belt before the first passenger reached the baggage pick-up point and what you got was an ad that read, “Bags delivered on time so that you never have to keep your loved ones waiting”.

If I recall correctly, visually a man carrying a teddy bear and a suitcase was seen walking away from the conveyor belt to reinforce the point.

There was a series of ads done on these lines, matching product/service feature to consumer benefit.

When Nikos saw the work, he loved it but pointed out that something was needed to bring all the aspects together and symbolize the fact that Jet Airways was a caring airline; something that could become a brand property.

That remark led to the agency coming up with the idea of the yellow rose, a global symbol of warmth and friendship.

We now had the right campaign. However, the campaign promise would come to naught if the airline staff did not work towards epitomizing the qualities of the yellow rose in their daily actions.

That thinking led me to brief Lintas on an internal communications program, which would precede a public launch. The program, I told the agency, had to begin with a mission statement for the yellow rose.

The unveiling of the yellow rose mission would be followed by a series of internal posters with questions such as:

“Will we be remembered for your smile”?

“Will we be remembered for your caring touch”?

The visuals for the posters featured staff interacting with passengers in various recognizable service situations. One of those posters, “Will we be remembered for your caring touch”, was based on my personal observations of how airline crew tended to look down on non-English speaking and traditional Indians. The poster showed an elderly man dressed in the traditional South Indian veshti and angavastram and a smiling air hostess ministering to his needs.

The whole change management package was dubbed Operation Revitalize within the airline.

What thrills me to the day is the memory of how everyone who saw the work loved it at first sight. So much so that Naresh and Anita Goyal [1] unhesitatingly signed off on a promotional plan entailing an expenditure of Rs. 60 million. It was a handsome sum for that time, and something the airline had never before considered spending.

Once again, I witnessed the truth of logical solutions to a business problem and great work selling itself.

We launched Operation Revitalize at a road show for airline staff in Chennai. It was the first of several, back-to-back road shows in all the airline’s major hubs across India with staff from the smaller stations travelling in.

I remember the feelings of trepidation I had. The airline had committed to spending a great deal of money on an advertising campaign (a first for the organization). I knew that everything depended on the audience response to that first road show. If the show turned out to be a damp squib, the whole program was at the risk of being called off.

As it turned out, I was worrying needlessly. It was such a rip roaring success that Naresh Goyal immediately issued invitations to the entire Board of Directors to come attend the road show at the next destination. In fact, the entourage travelling with us thereafter kept growing larger and larger.

I remember tearing up at the conclusion of the Chennai road show. I guess the tears were ones of both relief and happiness at the tremendous response to the yellow rose and the work unveiled. Seeing my emotional state, Nikos pulled up a chair and made me sit down, just like Rajiv Kaul had once done in the Oberoi Towers.

Post the road shows, the yellow rose was unveiled to the external public fittingly on Valentine’s Day, 1999. All major newspapers that morning carried full-page advertisements announcing the airline’s commitment to live up to the promise of its new symbol, the yellow rose. But, I think, the biggest impact was made on board all Jet aircraft the same day when the crew warmly greeted every boarding passenger with a yellow rose and wished her or him a Happy Valentine’s Day.

Hearing the stories the in-flight crew had to tell post that day, I can tell you that the passenger response surpassed anything I had seen from previous campaigns in my career.

It was also gratifying to see the number of compliments pouring in from all over the world.

But the biggest high came when Jet Airways received the Best Domestic Airline Marketing Program award from the Washington based Air Transport World.[2]

Yes, there is no doubt in my mind that the work I was instrumental in creating for Jet Airways is my biggest career achievement.

Why then did I leave the airline around a year later?

——–end of book extract—–

Post Script: I have narrated the Yellow Rose campaign story here from the airline’s perspective. But it would be highly remiss of me if I failed to mention the names of the creators of a campaign I consider to be my biggest career achievement. Those names are Zaheer Mirza and Elvis Sequeira who came up with such a terrific creative answer to the agency brief. Zaheer and Elvis were backed by the agency account team, led by Raj Gupta and Chandradeep (CD) Mitra. The campaign would also have never been possible without the sheer commitment and hard work put in by the then juniors on the account – Vinie Alex, Kedar Teny and Chaitanya (Chintu) Bhosle. Vinie was my backbone at the agency, taking all the pressure from my relentless demands. Chintu traveled with us across India once we discovered he could sing (the talent was in his genetics as he is the grandson of Asha Bhosle). At each show, he sang an anthem composed specially for the campaign launch. He particularly brought the house down at the Mumbai road show by singing a version of the ever popular, classic Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan. 

As for Kedar? I recently reconnected with him courtesy Facebook and almost the first message read: “There are some moments in a working career that are precious and have a lasting impact. I remember we were launching yellow rose and some hoarding artworks had to be released. I worked all night, reached you in the evening, took the changes, went back to office, made the artworks, went to the processor and gave the Zip drive to the Jet Printer and reached your place in the morning with the digital prints. You served Idli and Molgapudi for breakfast. Ha ha ha… those days when there was no e-mails, Jpegs and attachments.” 

The execution of the yellow rose campaign in a flat 8 weeks from the sign-off would never have been possible if my small team in Jet Airways hadn’t willingly camped out at the office with me. Jessica Furtado, Shaiqua Vyas and Monica, no amount of gratitude will suffice for your hard work and support. Finally, I must mention a girl, Nandita, we roped in on a freelance basis. You would have never imagined she was a freelancer – she was that committed! I should also record my gratitude to Kutub Imani who was in my personal employ then. Kutub was as much a part of that Jet team as anyone else.

[1] Anita Goyal is the wife of Naresh Goyal. At the time of the yellow rose campaign, she worked in the airline as Vice President Marketing & Sales. Currently, she is Non-Executive Director on the Board as per the company website.

[2]Air Transport World (ATW) is a leading monthly magazine serving the needs of the global airline and commercial air transport communities. Established in 1974 to recognize excellence in the air transport industry, the ATW Airline Industry Achievement Awards are the most coveted honour an airline or individual can receive (ATW website).

Featured Cover Image – Breathtaking yellow rose by Edward Musiak Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

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