Passionate in Marketing in conversation with Divya Kumar, Manager – Public Relations and Sustainability, Air Asia


Divya Kumar, currently leads the Corporate Communication and Sustainability mandate for AirAsia India and has successfully built brand equity and amplified media visibility for the brand. Having spearheaded the PR mandate since its inception in different capacities, Divya single handedly managed the external and internal comms for AirAsia India in the initial years to establish AirAsia India as a future oriented and reliable brand.

With agility and attention to details ingrained in her style of functioning, she has been able to navigate through the crisis comms of the brand with ease. As one of the few women in a male dominated aviation industry, she has carved a niche for herself by working on many successful campaigns. Divya received an award of Excellence in Communication from TATA Sons Limited for the Best PR Campaign 2016-17 for AirAsia (India) and the Digixx 2017 award by AdGully for the Kabali PR Campaign. She has firmly led the internal communications for the brand along with playing a key role in employee engagement activities to further augment the voice of the senior management to bring awareness to a lot of internal campaigns.

It has been a year since the world went into a standstill and India entered a period of lockdown, following the corona virus pandemic. While almost all the sectors were impacted, aviation was one of those who got hit the most. AirAsia India, being the youngest airline, was motivated to convert challenges into opportunities. Passionate in Marketing caught up with Ms. Divya Kumar to discuss how the current situation has affected the concept of brand building and communication especially in the contest of airline industry.

How have the effects posed by the current situation changed the concept of brand building and communication? 

Covid-19 has been a time of unprecedented crisis and uncertainty. This has led to an increased importance of brands that people trust. During these difficult times, people obviously veered towards brands that they trust. Naturally, hygiene aspects such as trust, safety, ethics and other such credentials took precedence over price that became less important. Coming from a house of two world-class brands – Tata Sons and the AirAsia Group that have both built the trust of people through the years, our focus at AirAsia India mirrored  the strategy of our parent companies to increase the trust our customers had in us. 

In this new normal, the proliferation of digital media is revolutionizing the concept of communication as individuals at large are migrating exclusively to digital media for content consumption. Brands have become more attentive to consumer sentiment and are listening to what the consumers expect out of them. Conversations with the audience have become more empathy driven, focusing on the brand ethos, presenting diverse viewpoints, building trust and prioritising the consumers’ needs.  

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about a notable change in the overall Brand & Communication strategy of AirAsia India, and Communications through earned media, outreach and engagement has become integral to having a dialogue with our guests. Communication is one of the greatest tools that can be used for brand building and ensuring that the relevant planks of the brand’s positioning resonate in the minds of our audience.

Sustaining a brand identity during a crisis is critical. How can this be maintained, and what are the aspects to it? 

In the latest Brand Finance report, AirAsia was rated as having the highest growth in brand value in Asia and the second highest among all airlines globally. This saw us enter the league of top 25 most valuable airline brands in the world. AirAsia also had the highest year on year increase in Brand Strength among the 10 strongest Airline Brands in the world. AirAsia is one of only four airline brands in the world to have an AAA+ rating on Brand Strength, for which the drivers are marketing investment, familiarity, loyalty, staff satisfaction, and corporate reputation. 

The corporate reputation that brands build over time are equally important to internal stakeholders and AirAsia India has had constant support from both Group companies in navigating through the pandemic.  Despite the uncertainty amidst the pandemic, we continue to invest in marketing, digital advancements and training for our staff. Internal studies have shown that our employees feel reassured about their jobs and positions although the travel industry at large continues to struggle. Being sensitive and empathetic towards their needs have made them feel valued. 

Maintaining a brand identity and ensuring that it remains robust, especially during situations of crisis is integral to brand building, reputation and communications. Taking cognizance of one’s brand value proposition and how that aligns with the interests, needs and understanding of various stakeholders in the current scenario is important in order to be relevant. Unprecedented situations such as the pandemic and its effects have called for utmost attention to the kind of efforts and initiatives that brands involve themselves in. Brands ought to ensure that they are being cautious and respectful while communicating to their customers. 

The key to navigating through these precarious situations is to ensure that we are always listening, communicating and extending empathy, understanding and providing any form of aid or support that we can offer to be seen as a brand that has an effective and empathetic Comms strategy. 

In the past year, the Marketing and Communications landscape has transformed significantly. To survive in tough times and thrive when the time is right, we turned challenges into opportunities and embarked on an agile three-pronged strategy of ‘Response, Recovery & Rejuvenation’. This strategy continues to be relevant for the brand as we engage with our audience and adapt to the changing dynamics quickly.

What are the opportunities and challenges that Covid-19 presented to the ambit of building brand and communications? 

Covid-19 is a disruptor and catalyst that has presented a plethora of opportunities as well as challenges to the area of communications. As the media landscape underwent changes, brands pivoted their strategies accordingly, to enable comprehensive channels of communication and outreach. The last one year has been a dynamic period that witnessed the increasing shift to digital, as online mediums witnessed increased participation, and spokespeople of various organisations across the world explored different platforms to share their thoughts. This change created a premise for communications professionals to push boundaries and think beyond existing means, understand the pulse of the media as well as the brand, and transform the existing scope of communication into strategic, focused narratives that matter. 

Being a nimble and young airline, we decided to lead the way to establishing what the new normal for air travel would be. As a digital first airline, we adopted an agile approach and introduced a host of initiatives to help our guests experience safe travel. AirAsia India was one of the first airlines to take up safety and hygiene related communication with guests including video communication on what the post-covid airline operations would look like. We were the first to introduce SMS bag tags as an alternative to printed baggage tags to minimise contact and time spent in check-in counters. Adopted of DigiYatra in Bengaluru, introduction of a contactless baggage delivery service called ‘FlyPorter’ and partnering with service providers that follow similar safety protocols such as ours are all long term changes that we brought about in our operations. 

Given the uncertainty and ever-changing state and regulatory restrictions, advisories and guidelines, AirAsia India introduced the ‘FlexIt’ product to ensure that customers had the greatest flexibility if their travel plans changed. With ‘FlexIt’, consumers were provided with the option of unlimited changes for their bookings, irrespective of the travel dates, without incurring any flight change fees. We also introduced a revamped version of ‘Premium Flex’ fares, which in addition to unlimited changes, also offers a choice of seats, and the lowest charges of only ₹500 for cancellations made beyond 72 hours before the scheduled flight departure.

Communicating these initiatives to our guests, reinstating safety norms and engaging with our guests constantly using all our channels have been the real opportunities and challenges that Covid-19 presented to us. It gave us a chance to pave the way to the new way in which people fly.

What is your take on communication and its role in creating a brand? 

Communication is at the heart of creating a brand. Every effort undertaken to create a brand, from conception to sustaining it happens through varied layers of communication. I believe that effective, compelling communication has the ability to create and establish brands. The journey of creating a brand building exercise often commences with answering the five Ws and one H – what, where, when, who, why, and how. This determines the intent and extent of how communication will play a role in their endeavours, and the role that it will play in marking its presence, growth and success. 

Communication is not about just talking to consumers; it is a two-way dialogue that is more than advertising, and to do with learning from consumers about their expectations and understanding their sentiments. Keeping track of NPS, conducting Travel Intent Surveys, investment in a new ORM platform, ensuring 100% of mentions and queries on social media are addressed and constantly updating guests about changes in SOPs and travel guidelines on all channels are some of the initiatives that helped in building credibility for our brand.

We doubled down and revamped our approach to capturing and leveraging insights from Net Promoter Score surveys and guest feedback and deployed an entirely new Online Reputation Management ecosystem. Augmenting our Contact Centre and Social Media response teams with volunteers from other functions including senior management, Ground Services, Security, Sales, Cabin Crew & Pilots has helped other internal stakeholders gain a deeper understanding of the critical role we play as an airline in people’s lives, connecting individuals and families, and a reminder of the empathy with which we need to serve our guests, specially in such trying times.

Social media is a crucial part of the Communications function. Channels such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram offer a comprehensive approach to brands allowing them to interact directly with their customers, attract new ones and increase their exposure. But it is also to be kept in mind that as much as these platforms have the power to build and make a brand, if not used with a well-thought through strategy, they also have the ability to break a brand.

The pandemic showed us that uncertainty is the only thing certain, resulting in numerous cancellations and changes in flight schedules. We are proud to say that AirAsia India is the fastest to respond to guests on all our communication channels amongst other airlines. As per Locobuzz ORM Software, the average first level response time taken by AirAsia India was 14m 15s in May 2021 and 13m 21s in April 2021 which is the best amongst other airlines. 

We also realised that people were communicating on channels such as facebook and WhatsApp that were familiar to them. Our AI powered chatbot TIA, available on or on WhatsApp Chat at +91 63600 12345 can assist guests with modifying bookings, provide travel advisories, policies and FAQs, terminal info, process instant refunds, advise flight status, issue a copy of the itinerary and take feedback. This has enabled us to listen to our guests in real time about their experience and respond to them quickly. For us, Communications is not a strategy to tell people what we do, but to define who we should be and what we should do to help serve our guests better.

How do you think communication strategies will differ in the new normal? 

Communicationstrategies have evolved and are now factoring several aspects as we continue to navigate our way into the new normal. In addition to being pervasive and critical, communication strategies are becoming more empathetic, evocative and conscious. Communication was never a ‘one size fits all’ strategy. Brands have revamped plans and are open to exploring narratives that will focus on building trust and offer value to consumers. 

At AirAsia India, the choice of media has also changed significantly post-Covid, and some of them have worked well to boost brand visibility. As I mentioned earlier, earned media or PR and communications worked very well for us. We realised that campaigns that generated a lot of eyeballs and appreciation were those that were amplified using PR, Communications and Social media.

Looking back at some of our very successful campaigns, ‘Umeed Ki Udaan’, ‘AirAsia Red Pass’; earned media and PR created much more exposure and reach when compared to paid advertising. The interesting take away from some of these campaigns is that these initiatives were things that we naturally undertook as part of our brand ethos without thinking of them as PR campaigns. ‘Umeed Ki Udaan’ was AirAsia India’s response to understanding the sentiments of our migrant guests and extending empathy while flying them back home. AirAsia Red Pass was an initiative to use our capacity when we felt the need to pay tribute to the Armed Forces and Doctors who were toiling through the thick of the pandemic in 2020. ‘Humans of AirAsia’ was another effort by us to recognise the contribution of our Allstars* towards the community when the C0vid-19 pandemic started. 

All of these initiatives had the most traction and organic amplification in the media and among consumers owing to the believability and nature of the act. That is exactly how our Communication strategy started looking in the new normal; by sharing real stories, generating trust, living and breathing what we stand for as an organisation and not resorting to creating content using influencers to sell our brand. 

What is AirAsia India’s strategy on expanding the target audience and attracting millennials as a part of brand and communication strategy? 

The communication strategy for AirAsia India has always been in line with our ethos of being among one of the youngest airline in the country which has its footprint set firmly on the pillars of its core values – Dare to Dream, Be Guest-Obsessed, People First, Safety Always, Make it Happen, One AirAsia, and Sustainability Spirit. 

We are committed to and believe in the long term potential of aviation in India. We believe in that because we think that while travel & tourism will probably recover by 2024, there is a demographic dividend that India has. has been a notable demographic change in air travel. Younger consumers are spending more and post covid, flyer demographics have seen an increase in younger and more male consumers. People in the age group 20-29 have been the most willing category to travel or make travel plans. Based on these insights we have been making changes to the kind of communication and media choices to appeal to the younger audience.

There is tremendous potential for air travel in India considering the current dynamics. The AirAsia brand appeals to younger consumers and we will therefore be a brand that is most relevant to these consumers who are a large part that contributes to the growth of aviation in India.

Do you have any suggestions for aspirants entering this field?

There is never a right or wrong time to enter the field of communications. Being well-read, following trends, unleashing creativity and an eye for good content is not bound by age, gender or qualification. Give yourself enough time before you decide if Communications is your long-term career choice. The dynamic nature of the industry, the complications that come with crisis management, interacting with a wide set of people and the adrenalin rush that you get out of creating successful Communications campaigns can be overwhelming and satisfying at the same time. 

Be open to new ideas and look out for spaces that will allow you to grow personally and professionally. The beauty of Communications is that there is tremendous scope for development and advancement. Twenty years ago, live streaming a comms campaign was not at all a thing; but now, it is an important part of every comms teams’ strategy for their brands. 

Whether you choose to be an in-house communications professional or join a Public Relations consultancy or build a brand for yourself as an independent consultant, be prepared to learn, unlearn and relearn as the opportunities and situations that you face will have diverse outlooks depending on the industry you choose to operate in.