AirAsia's doppelgänger: Can the copycat brand hurt AirAsia's brand equity?

AirAsia recently found itself in a bit of a sticky situation when it was faced with a doppelganger. Going by the name of Azeri Asia TV, the media channel is owned by Azeri Asia Holdings (M) Sdn. Bhd. The loyalty programme of the channel too bears resemblance to that of AirAsia’s, flaunting the name “Azeri Asia TV BIG Loyalty Programme”.

AirAsia in a press statement cautioned the public and said that this infringes on its intellectual property rights. It added that it had “never authorised Azeri Asia to use AirAsia’s corporate identity”.

Graham Hitchmough, APAC CEO of Brand Union, said the public statement made by AirAsia comes as no surprise. He added that strong brands also tend to be the most able and efficient in protecting themselves against such threats, by engaging the various communication channels at their disposal and pursuing legal action to defend the intellectual property that they have carefully developed and protected over time.

“AirAsia has a strong pedigree in harnessing their considerable goodwill, communications expertise, speed of action and corporate influence to protect their reputation and repel challenges, and there’s no doubt they will do so again in response to this crude attempt to benefit from their good name,” he said. He added that it is unfortunate that a successful, well-managed brand with strong, valuable reputation is vulnerable to plagiarism “by less reputable, opportunistic upstarts”.

The question, he said, is what possessed Azeri Asia to adopt such a deluded strategy. He added that “it is unlikely that the management was naïve enough not to know the inherent risks of what they were doing, so perhaps they calculated that the inevitable free media coverage would justify the risk”.

Joseph Baladi, former CEO of BrandAsian, said companies must be uncompromising in their efforts to protect their visual identities. The entire legitimacy of a brand can be telegraphed by the briefest of logo or wordmark sighting. He said:

Visual identities have the power to instantly communicate herculean efforts. The payout for these efforts is priceless consumer trust.

As such, it is not only unlawful but “height of stupidity” for other companies to believe they can simply borrow, adopt or brazenly copy what is meaningful and reflective of an entirely different brand.

Moving forward

Nonetheless, it is of little consolation to companies such as AirAsia that these efforts ultimately don’t benefit the plagiarists, Baladi said. He added that:

The process, if allowed to linger too long, almost always damages the brands.

“AirAsia should go beyond talking to acting swiftly to demonstrate that it walks the talk - straight to court,” he added.

Nick Foley, president Southeast Asia Pacific & Japan of branding agency Landor, said in reflecting upon AirAsia’s current woes, it is interesting to see how a more established brand such as Singapore Airlines (SIA) would respond to such a situation.

“The answer is quite straightforward. SIA wouldn’t have to. The problem for low-cost carriers such as AirAsia is that all they really stand for is low costs,” he said.  He added that great brands are driven by a single compelling idea. When companies understand this idea-led identity and apply it to their brands, the idea acts as a defense against other brands trying to vampire their identity.

“Slugging it out on cost is challenging because it is so transactional. As AirAsia is discovering, other organisations can create a similar look to a brand and hijack any positive association consumers may have,” he said.

Marketers of successful airline brands need to, as such, know that long term success is more than just offering low prices and flights to popular holiday destinations. Increasingly, even frequent and budget flyers are looking for holistic brand experiences.

Foley adds that in the long term, AirAsia needs to create a meaningful brand idea that lies at the heart of everything it does. He said:

If Air Asia can move from ‘tell and sell’ marketing tactics to ‘marketing with meaning’, it will be harder for another company to mimic its brand in the future.