I was excited to compare notes with another marketing professional, but one with a very different wheelhouse – Shashank works with in airline marketing, not with business aviation. And much of his work is international, while ours is mostly in the United States.

shashank-1I’ve been connected with Shashank Nigam for years, and have been following the Simpliflying blog for a number of years, and today we were able to sit down for an interview.

Shashank Nigam, the CEO of SimpliFlying, is one of the world’s leading experts in aviation marketing. His company, SimpliFlying, has worked with over 75 airlines and airports on marketing strategy since 2009. Shashank recently published his first book, ‘SOAR’,¬† which showcases eight of the most innovative airlines in the world. SOAR sold out its first print run within ten days.

Shashank’s impassioned, straight-shooting and honest perspectives have found their way to over 100 leading media outlets, including the BBC, Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Airline Business. He studied Information Systems Management and Business Management at Singapore Management University and Carnegie Mellon University. Hailing from India, he splits his time between Singapore and Toronto.


Transcript  РWhat Can we Learn from Airline Marketing?

shashank nigam Paula Williams: Really glad that we got this opportunity because we’ve been connected for quite some time and it’s nice to be talking about something that you’ve done. So anyway, tell me about you, Shashank. What are some of the things that you’re really interested in and how did you get to where you are today?

Shashank Nigam: I have a technology background actually.

I used to work within a mini startup in Boston. But I used to like planes a lot. I really used to like aviation, and I think I’ve become more of an aviation geek after I’ve started flying than I was even before. And there used to be these times I would see these planes coming into the land at Boston and then I’d try and identify them.

And I’d give myself a fist bump if identified it correctly as, yeah, that’s a [INAUDIBLE] 340-600 coming in from Heathrow. And then I’d go check in online on flightaware or flight24 and yes, that’s correct. So one day my team lead saw me doing this stuff and he said, hey, why don’t you just go work with an airline?

And I was like, yeah, maybe I should. But guess what? That was 2008. And half the airlines in the world were bankrupt. The other half were going bankrupt. So not necessarily the best time.

Paula Williams: Yeah.

Shashank Nigam: And I did look around a little but didn’t really pursue that option much.

So and I also have this big interest in branding, in marketing. I’ve written two books on branding with a professor of mine when I was in college. So there was that inherent interest and I sort of combined them both. And I realized, you know what? There isn’t really anything going on at the intersection of aviation and marketing, the true fields that I’m interested in.

And that’s where SimpliFlying was born as a blog on which I would write twice a week. I was very consistent, especially in the first few years. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday there would be a post on something to do with airline branding and after about six months I realized there was a pattern.

That airline marketing is indeed different because guess what? Our brand engagement with the kind of Coke is maybe ten minutes. Brand engagement with Starbucks is perhaps a couple of hours. But our brand engagement with an airline can last from two hours depending on whether you’re flying from either Salt Lake City or Los Angeles, versus 24 hours if you’re flying from Salt Lake City to Hong Kong, right?

And airlines keep applying the same principles as Coke and Starbucks, especially when it comes to marketing. And they keep failing all over again, they didn’t learn from it. And that was the big realization that, hey, you know what? Airline marketing is different. For example, if it’s snowing outside and you’re sitting in the Starbucks right by the slopes, it’s nice and cozy, guess what?

Your coffee tastes even better. But if it’s snowing outside, and your flight is canceled, and you’re at the airport, guess what? The airline sucks, and at that time, airline brand cannot just brush this off and say, not my job, Paula. Not my job there, Tom. We had to have airlines evolve the way they did marketing and that’s what is the fundamental for Simply Flying.

We help airlines become remarkable. And we’ve now consulted with over 75 airlines and airports, specifically at the intersection of aviation and marketing. And have become very well known for our work in digital and social and mobile [INAUDIBLE] as well.

Paula Williams: Right, well, that makes perfect sense.

Shashank Nigam: Yeah, it’s been a fantastic journey over the last seven years.

John Williams: That’s sort of a nice intro into your concept of SimpliFlying but what makes your company unique?

Shashank Nigam: [LAUGH] Well, what’s unique about SimpliFlying is the depths we have both in aviation and in marketing. In our team, for example, we have ex-pilots, and people who’ve worked with airlines, and at the same time we’ve got agency folks who have worked on the marketing side.

There’s this unique intersection of the two depths that we bring in. That’s quite unique and it’s also the models we’ve been using. We’ve really learned from experience, just to give an example. In the last one and a half years, eighteen months or so, we’ve worked with some of the largest airlines in the world on customer service fantasy.

Because they’ve been trying to figure out, how do we do customer service right, especially in the age of social media. So now I don’t think there is any other company that has worked with seven airlines, specifically on social care, right? So that gives us a lot of depth of knowledge, from everything to customer care, to crisis communications, to guerilla marketing, or even [INAUDIBLE] .

Paula Williams: Yeah.

Shashank Nigam: And it’s only airlines we are talking about. We’ve kept our focus very, very razor sharp. It’s not business aviation, it’s not airports. It’s very specifically airlines.

Paula Williams: I see, well, that makes perfect sense. Also, you’re based in Canada, is that right?

Shashank Nigam: I am indeed based in Toronto, personally.

SimpliFlying is headquartered in Singapore and we actually have staff in multiple countries. We’ve got a full time staff in India, in Singapore, in Spain, the UK and Canada. So we are really spread out. And that’s a little to align with the airline flights we have in different time zones.

It’s good to have a project manager in their time zone.

Paula Williams: That makes perfect sense. So, you wrote the book in 18 months. So I guess two questions. One is, why did you decide to write a book, which is a lot of work? And the second thing is, how did you manage to get it done with all of the consulting that you’re doing?

Shashank Nigam: Yeah, that’s a very good question. So, just to give you a bit of background, the book is called Soar, like soaring and a soaring eagle. And the concept actually came way back in 2008 when I wrote a whitepaper on airline branding called the 6x Airline Model. In which I said there was 6 unique factors that makes airline marketing very unique, from brand externalities, like the weather situation I spoke about.

To brand x factors like Singapore Girl, or Tony Fernandez, or Richard Branson, something that others don’t have. And the book really is many, many consultants start out with, let me write a book and then I’ll start a consulting practice over it. In our case, the books really come at the back of aviation consulting, and from our experience of working so many years in the industry that has really just proven the initial model that I came up with.

So, the book is written because we felt, guess what? Every airline can be remarkable, and the best way to learn from these airlines, best way to be inspired actually, is to learn from the best airlines in the world. So Soar features eight airlines from different parts of the world which have become sustainable brands in their own right.

It’s not just about marketing, it’s truly becoming respected brands. Your second question was how did I get to manage to get it done with all of my consulting work? I do have my team to thank for it, because book writing, boy, it takes a lot of time, and it takes much more effort than I had ever imagined.

It is the most intense project I’ve ever undertaken. And at one point it was sucking in every single hour I had in the day, because of travels. January this year I’ve traveled in the same [INAUDIBLE] from Helsinki to Oakland. As far north as you can go in, and as far south as you can go in one month, doing these interviews.

So there was so much material, consolidating it, trying to get the themes out. I try to make sure I’ve got the interviews, it was a ton of work. And I could not have done it without my team who then took on the primary load of delivering signed projects, delivering the trainings and doing a lot of travel for our primary consulting and training work.

John Williams: Interesting. So how did you go about choosing the airline brands that you featured in the book?

Shashank Nigam: Yeah, that was a very detailed process actually. The premise was, what did the best airline brands do? They delight customers and inspire employees. Because it’s not just about putting a nice marketing campaign.

One was that I wanted it to be a global spread. My aim was to have at least one airline from every continent, which I think we got very close to. We’ve got Singapore Airlines, Air New Zealand, Air Asia from Asia, and Asia-Pacific. We’ve got Turkish Airlines and Vueling from Europe.

We’ve got kulula from South Africa, and we’ve got Southwest in the US, in the Americas. The other aspect was, out of these eight airlines, there are four legacy carriers and four low cost carriers. So it’s a very good split between the budget model as well as the full service model.

But most importantly, we wanted to see airlines that have stood the test of time, and it’s not just a shooting star. It’s a brand that is sustainable, so you’ve got Southwest and Singapore Airlines, the two of the most profitable airlines in history, which are consistently profitable. You’ve got the likes of Air New Zealand, which are hopefully, in the last decade have come back from bankruptcy in the early 2000s, into becoming a huge marketing powerhouse.

We’ve got Air Asia, which is led by a leader who’s just as charismatic, known as the Richard Branson of Asia, almost. So we tried to get a very good spread, where people can learn from very different aspect of airline marketing and airline brands. Right, so I think it’s really interesting that you started the book as a result of your consulting instead of to launch your consulting practice.

Paula Williams: But was there a realization about airline marketing that occurred to you after you wrote the book?

Shashank Nigam: Absolutely. I think the first realization was, that you cannot market an airline, if there’s nothing to talk about.

Paula Williams: [LAUGH] True.

Shashank Nigam: And let me explain that a little bit.

An airline can create the most creative, the sexiest campaign ever. It might get you the YouTube views but it’s not gonna get buns on the seats. Because people today are very smart, they know that you’re trying to fake it. This is far from reality.

I’ll give you a simple example, Turkish Airlines. A lot of you might have been familiar with their Kobe versus Messi advertisements which went viral a couple of years ago. And how they were taking selfies around the world. Now those ads became really big and just spread around the world.

But it would have fallen flat had Turkish Airlines already not flown to more countries than any other airline in the world. Had they only flown to Turkey, guess what? It doesn’t really matter if you’ve got a YouTube video that’s going viral in the US, because you don’t really fly to the US.

Paula Williams: Right.

Shashank Nigam: But at that time, they had spent a few years building their network up. They flew to more than 200 destinations around the world, international aviation marketing to many cities, and then they went on from there.

John Williams: So, what prompted you to visit each of the airline headquarters to do the interviews rather than like this, or some other way?

Shashank Nigam: Yeah, absolutely. I felt I had to get in touch with the airline and feel the airline for myself.

Talking to someone over the phone, you might get the answers, but you don’t really get to connect with the people. And it’s only when you connect one on one, do you assemble the true stories. It was fascinating, for example, I was in Dallas at Southwest Airlines headquarters, and walking through their headquarters, it’s amazing how many and how many there are.

In the building, so guess what? If I had not visited I’ll think you know what Colleen had retired, but going there you feel no guess what? They are part of every day life at Southwest Airlines, and it’s phenomenal the kind of impact that they have on culture. Another example, Singapore Airlines.

Singapore Airlines is known to have the best products in the world when it comes to business class, and first class, and things like that. They’re known for investing dramatically much more in training their crew than other airlines. But what’s less known, is that they are very skimpy about spending.

They will not spend where it’s not needed. So something that you see as a passenger they will splurge. Something you don’t see as a passenger, they will really save costs and make sure they have the most cost efficient option. A simple example, many airlines I’ve walked into, we had lavish waiting rooms, all glass tons of clean models around you.

And it’s a nice, feel good area of plush leather sofas. At Singapore Airlines, you enter their office, and you wait at a security guard’s desk outside the building. And when the head of coms came to pick me up, and I’m like hey can’t you just upgrade this waiting experience?

For me, this is your headquarter, dual headquarters, right? Why am I queuing up, [LAUGH] at the security desk, and then have to wait here for quite some time? And, he said well, that just shows you where we are putting our money.

Paula Williams: And where’s that? [LAUGH]

Shashank Nigam: Now that’s a very specific thing that I learned by being there, which there was no way I could have learned whenever not going to the headquarters itself.

There were relationships are built with the people I interviewed, there was one lady who has worked with the airline for over 30 years. About 20 minutes interview she was in tears, she wasn’t holding back here she was in tears while we were talking and doing the interviews. And it was a very touching moment for her, and for I just learning what how inspired she was by her mentor in the airline.

This would not have happened, and I think the stories I’ve discovered and shared about these airlines in the book are truly unique, many people might have read about these airlines in newspaper articles. But guess what, newspaper interviews, and publishes six pages on a single crew member who went out of the.

Paula Williams: Right, I think that’s fantastic. So, you’ve interviewed the CEO’s and had these personal connections, or made these personal connections by being in the same room with the CEO’s featured in the books. So what did you learn about leadership in that process?

Shashank Nigam: That’s a fantastic question. I think there were a couple of very good lessons I learned about leadership.

Let’s take Tony Fernandez, from Air Asia, for example. Now Tony is a guy who leads from the front. He takes the bull by its horn, and he starts running. [LAUGH] And he will, fight the bull himself while the whole team watches, and the whole team cheers him on.

And you can see his personal style in good times, celebrating with the team, as well as bad times when Air Asia had that crash a couple years ago around Christmas. Tony Fernandez was tweeting from the front lines, he was the first person there before any of the ministers arrived.

He was the first person on the boat looking for the plane parts in the sea, and he was tweeting to his staff, you know what, I as your CEO will be with you throughout this time. I’m the leader and I take responsibility, it’s one of the toughest times in my life.

He redefined crisis communication for airlines the way he proactively approached the issue. So, good leaders I feel, take things personally and they really have a strong leadership self. Another example is Mr. Gochoopong from Singapore Airlines. Now he’s man you’ll see like Tony tweeting away everyday or on the front page of a newspaper.

But guess what over the last five years or so that he’s been at the helm of Singapore Airlines, he has seen the direction of the company by bringing people along. He’s very good at ensuring that the team is bought in the division, that the team is going and doing this together.

Wherein since he came on he has started school the local long haul airline, he ordered new planes and got new products going. He’s changed the overall strategy of Singapore Airlines into much more agile group, and he’s taken people along. So good leaders take people along. Another example I can share is I’ll say Air New Zealand.

Where, good leaders are visionary and they inspire not just their company, but the industry as well. Just a couple of days back, Chris Luxton, Christopher Luxton, the CEO of Air New Zealand held a meeting with the top CEO’s in New Zealand. And it was just a branch meeting and in the end they came out making a commitment to convert 30% of their corporate regal fleet to electric regals.

Suddenly, New Zealand will have one of the highest concentration of electric regals in the world. And guess what the initiative was led by Air New Zealand, where’s they started I think a few months back buying a fleet of electric cars for their office staff. Now, that’s completely different leadership, but it’s visionary leadership, it inspires the employees, it inspires the country.

It inspires the community. So these are just the few examples, I am sure I can go on for a long time here, but every single interview was revealing, and how down to earth these leaders were. How empowering they were to their staff. It was fantastic learning from them.

John Williams: Well that’s great from the leadership, what about the managers and directors? I’m sure you talked to some of those guys.

Shashank Nigam: [LAUGH] Yes. That’s where it’s the dirt hit the road?

Paula Williams: [LAUGH]

Shashank Nigam: I don’t know what that saying is.

Paula Williams: [LAUGH] The wheels hit the road, right.

Shashank Nigam: The rubber hits the road, that’s what it is.

Paula Williams: Yeah.

Shashank Nigam: That’s what it is. That’s where the rubber hits the road. And it’s these people who are interacting with passengers day in and day out, who reflect the true character of the airline. An example is Helena Cartinon whose been a flight attendant at Pen Air for I think over 35 years.

She’s one of the senior most flight crews right there. And, she was telling a story where Pen Air used to, Pen Air flies to Mumbai in India. And she adopted a few kids from a slum in Mumbai, and taught them Bollywood dance. Now, how is a Finnish crew supposed to know Bollywood dance?

She partnered with an Indian crew on Pen Air, and taught them Bollywood dance, and got approval from Pen Air to dress them up in child sized Pen Air crew uniforms, and do a flash mob in Delhi Airport.

Paula Williams: [LAUGH]

Shashank Nigam: And it was filmed and shot on YouTube, and guess what?

This was just something she personally wanted to do, but the fact that management supported her, shows that they trust her. Shows that they trust even the crew and not just a CMO type of person to do the things right, and to handle the brand well. That was I think very revealing for me in terms of the company culture.

He will, let’s say ad willing, this Spanish low cost carrier That I spoke at. They talked about creating a booking engine for Game of Thrones destinations. This was when the last Game of Thrones season was coming out, and all these guys in IT. And they’re just joking around.

What if you could fly beyond the wall. What if you could choose an exit row that is the iron throne? What if you could carry your pet dragons on board?

Paula Williams: [LAUGH]

Shashank Nigam: And they actually did it. They did it in just a couple of weeks and just a bunch of staff and they got together and they said, hey, we wanna do this as an experiment.

And this booking engine is still [INAUDIBLE]. You can actually book a flight to one of the nations on Game of Thrones, and book all your [INAUDIBLE] stuff and even get a seat on the [INAUDIBLE]. Now that’s not something that’s coming from corporate strategy. That’s not something even a committee can decide.

But that’s what empowered employees do. And it was these stories that truly came out when I spoke to the employees in the airlines.

John Williams: Interesting.

Paula Williams: That is fantastic. So, we’re there any interesting flights that you had while you were authoring the book? You did a lot of flying around that’s for sure.

Shashank Nigam: I did a ton of flying around for sure, you bet. One was a very interesting flight. I was flying down from Singapore to Oakland. It was an early morning flight, and so a full day flight, and I was seated in seat 1A, it was nice. And just before we took off, the last people to board business class were eight men, all in business suits.

Pretty typical, they boarded late, sat down. But there was this one man seated right next to me, to whom everyone kept coming. And then halfway through they’ll have a chat, they’ll hang around and chat. I didn’t really pay much attention until building the in flight chat system on there.

A fellow passenger texted me using the chat system. Do you know who you’re sitting next to? I go who’s that? That’s our honorable Prime Minster, Mr. John Keith. I was like, uh-huh. Okay, so I’m sitting right next to the New Zealand Prime Minister. Would I call this New Zealand Force One, then?

And then I ask them who’s this other guy who keeps coming up and speaking to him? He goes, that’s our honorable Finance Minister. Behind him is the Tourism Minister, behind him is our Commerce Minister, and they’re all coming from a conference that they where attending for [INAUDIBLE] and in the end, I had a nice chat with the Prime Minister, who seemed quite a down to earth guy.

We took a selfie together before getting off the plane. And off we went. [LAUGH] I thought, that was a fun, interesting flight.

John Williams: I would say.

Shashank Nigam: [LAUGH] Yeah, that was fun. And it’s not just up front, but I was flying Southwest from Boston to Dallas. It was a very early morning flight so we took off when it was dark and I’m a person who likes to read when planes are taking off or landing.

He goes guess what you can’t text or use a computer. So I was reading and it was dark and as the flight attendant walked past me checking on my seatbelt. Guess what she did? She just bent over and turned on my reading light. And I thought, that was awfully nice of you.

You didn’t have to do that, I’m sure that’s not part of your standard operating procedure, but you saw me reading, and you just turned on the reading lights because the lights will be dim soon. And things like that, just, I feel that having experienced each of the airlines for myself, left an impression on me that I would write authoritative data as a passenger.

John Williams: So having been through all this and all these experiences, what words of wisdom would you have for business aviation and the smaller aviation companies. The FBOs, the charter people and so forth that you can apply that what you are?

Shashank Nigam: Yeah I mean a lot of insights in store are unique for large organisations or VTC organisations.

I think one lesson that is applicable to every organisation whether [NOISE] or small. One lesson would be, take care of your employees. If your employees believe in the brand, if your employees take pride in their work, and if your employees are able to fulfill their dreams while at your organization, they will deliver, in a way that the customers come back.

I saw that in Southwest where individuality is encouraged, and each as an individual and they’re required to show off their individual strengths, a wrapping flight attendant that you might have seen. I just realized their individuality in the crew, it’s not encouraged at all. It’s about consistency across the Singapore girl.

You may never know the name of one of the Singapore girls after a long time. But you know there was a Singapore girl who interacted with you. But the fact is that they take an immense pride in being the Singapore girl and serving passengers as the Singapore girl.

Or take the example of Fin Air flight attendant. He takes pride in working for Fin Air because he’s trusted. He knows he’s trusted to make a decision to take care of the brand. So no matter what ultimately it’s the golden rule at Southwest. They say that treat others like you would like to be treated.

So if you treat your employees well, the employees will keep the customers happy and they’ll keep coming back.

John Williams: Very good.

Shashank Nigam: So the book actually goes, it’s on sale at Amazon, but unfortunately, a good problem to have was we ran out of the first print. We were sold out within the first ten days after we launched the book in London.

So the next print is gonna be available November 15th, just in time for Christmas and people can order the book on Amazon or SimpliSoar.com, simply with an i.

Paula Williams: Excellent, well, that’s wonderful. We have a book club and we’ll certainly be considering this title for our book club next year.

I think this is gonna be a wonderful look into the airlines, and how they do business. It’s a very unique view.

Shashank Nigam: Right, right. I’m sure you’ll find some of the stories inspiring and the others sudden life changing. [LAUGH]

I’m sure if you’re working with an airline, if you’re an aviation geek, if you’re working with an airport or even hotels, you will find this book very inspiring and applicable to your work.

So if you’re an airline executive or you want to be one, do buy this book and take a read. You can get it at www simplisoar.com, that’s S-I-M-P-L-I-S-O-A-R.com. Or tweeting me directly @SimpliFlying and we would love to engage with you.} else {..

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