SimpliLeader: Sanjiv Kapoor, COO at SpiceJet, on Branding, Social Media, & How the Airline is Being Turned Around
As part of our SimpliLeader series, through which we showcase the best minds in aviation, we met the Chief Operating Officer of SpiceJet, Sanjiv Kapoor. Sanjiv has been at the forefront of good times — and tough times — that the “airline with a heart” has faced over the past 18 months or so. Besides steering the airline through two different ownerships, he has also led the re-branding of SpiceJet, giving it a human and emotional touch. We met him at the airline’s headquarters in Gurgaon to discuss matters ranging from airline branding, to fleet specific questions (including Q400), to his views on the importance of social media, the resurrection of SpiceJet and future initiatives of the airline.
Here’s Part 1 of our conversation, followed by edited excerpts below the video:
SimpliFlying: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background in the aviation industry?
Sanjiv: Like you I’m an aviation nut. I have loved airplanes since I was a kid, built model kits since I was 6 years old and I have always wanted to be in this line. So when I first finished college, I joined a software company for 2-3 years and I hated every second of it. Then I went to business school with the express intent of changing careers. After business school, I got into consulting, and very soon joined Northwest Airlines, where I held a number of different roles. I moved to Bain where I led the aviation practice for Asia and Europe, working mainly on turnaround, strategy, network planning. And now here I am at SpiceJet as the Chief Operating Officer since November 2013 — and it’s been a very interesting year and a half.
SimpliFlying: Fantastic. We have noticed you have worked with airlines across the globe as part of the team, and as a consultant. How would you compare that experience with your experience at SpiceJet?
Sanjiv: Every experience is different, with certain similarities. Every airline wants to maximise its revenues and minimise its costs, and have something different to offer to customers, survive and prosper. The one airline, which I did not really work with, but which was a Bain client before my time (and the experience of which I think SpiceJet has gone through, and is going through) is Continental. In the early 90s, Continental had almost run out of money, and then one investor got into it, what became TPG – Texas Pacific Group.
A lot of it was fixing the basics, not over complicating things, and very importantly, taking care of the staff — who, in turn, will take care of customers, which in turn will take care of you.
Bain was hired to help them turn the airline around and it has become a Harvard case study now. If you read what they did to turn the airline around, that has almost been the bible, which I have tried to follow for the past year and a half I have been at SpiceJet. A lot of it was fixing the basics, not over complicating things, and very importantly, taking care of the staff — who, in turn, will take care of customers, which in turn will take care of you. I have been following this mantra, but of course there’s a lot more than that. You have to take out the costs relentlessly; you have to be ruthless in your network; you need to be very clear in your positioning and branding. At the end of the day, it is a people business and if your staff is not committed, it’s not going to work.
So I think that lesson from Continental, where it became one of the most successful turnarounds ever, I think SpiceJet went through something similar in December, where people had given up on us, flights were suspended for half-a-day, but we are coming back strong.
SimpliFlying: You spoke about Continental. Are there any aviation brands that inspire you, and you would like SpiceJet to be inspired by?
Sanjiv: Well there have been many brands in the aviation space that have done exceedingly well, if you look at PanAm and TWA, they were iconic brands. More recently, I’m a big admirer of how JetBlue has positioned itself. Southwest is a granddaddy, but Southwest is more ULCC (Ultra Low Cost Carrier), and we believe in India ULCC model has limitations because the cost structure is very high here. I have been a big admirer of AirAsia, especially before they came to India, but now it’s good competition. I think they have done a fantastic job in branding and positioning. There are also a few airlines who have taken it too far — I won’t name them, who were a bit too tacky and childish in some sense. We want to stay away from that and pick from the best.
I think social media is a great way to get the pulse of the customer. You have the opportunity to convert those who have had a bad experience to be your fan, if you respond well to them.
In the non-aviation world I think there are two personalities, who are brands themselves: Steve Jobs and John Lennon. Steve Jobs said “Think Different” and that’s how you do, and John Lennon also thought differently. In some ways, he was Steve Jobs’ twin, in challenging the status quo. John Lennon said something which rings true, “Life is what happens to you, when you are busy making other plans”. I think nothing could be truer for what has happened to SpiceJet in the last few months. We had everything lined up and were heading in the right direction, and funding did not come through. Why I admire these guys is because they were not stereotypes, they broke the mould, and they wanted to think outside the box. I think in the last one year SpiceJet has done certain things — like the Holi Dance to our fare sales, to our branding and positioning — by thinking different, and that has fundamentally changed Indian aviation in many respects, from being a fixed menu environment kind of pricing to a much more dynamic, exciting and passionate environment.
SimpliFlying: Sanjiv, what’s your take on the importance of social media in the aviation business these days?
Sanjiv: I think it is very important because that’s where people pick up news. I don’t watch much TV these days, and neither do so many young people. I think social media is where they get news on anything. So being present there, being visible and having a personality there is very important. SpiceJet has its own handle. I have been quite active myself because during time of our crisis, there were many rumours about our operations, shut downs etc. I went to social media to counter the rumours and state the facts. I’m dialling back a bit on it now because we are past that stage. I think it is a great way to get the pulse of the customer. You have the opportunity to convert those who have had a bad experience to be your fan, if you respond well to them. There are so many people who swear by us now. While the business is complex, and there are many problems we can’t address on Twitter, I think it is a great place to get pulse of the market.
Stay tuned as we bring you the second part of the interview, touching on topics of fleet rationalization, branding, consumer connect initiatives and more.