The People’s Champion: An interview with Heidi Brauer, CMO of Kulula Airlines

Kulula was the pioneer low cost airline in South Africa, competing for local traffic against the established giant that was South African Airlines. To succeed, it focused on a few key routes, and looked to persuade a new generation of South Africans to fly, and fly Kulula because it was an airline for them. Consistently breakthrough challenger marketing has allowed the brand to grow to a 20% share in a fiercely competitive market, and stay a strong number two in overall passenger numbers to SAA, despite two further low cost launches in its wake.

Q: Who is Kulula for?

HB: I think Kulula is a brand for the people and that’s what we started as. We said: ‘South Africans, you deserve to fly, and let’s make it affordable for you, and let’s make it easy for you’. I mean, that’s our name, Kulula – it means ‘easily’ – so let’s make it pleasant for you, and let’s make it accessible from an experience point of view so that not only is it affordable, but when you’re on board you feel comfortable. You can’t do that whilst delivering it from a snobby place, because then there’s a disconnect. And so we’ve always been for the people, for South Africa.

Q: How does this challenger position of being ‘for the people’ translate into brand behaviour?

HB: We’ve always fought for things that are important to South Africans, things that are affordable, charities that are relevant. We’ve supported South African satire in the form of ZA News, which nobody else would support because we are authentically behind South Africans. And being authentic enables you to do things and test things and create things that are a little edgier and that are a little riskier, because you’re doing them in a context that is honest.

Q: Can you give an example of Kulula being ‘for the people’?

HB: In 2010 we had the Soccer World Cup in South Africa, and what happened was the airlines were all being accused of putting up the prices. So we decided to put out an ad, a print ad in the newspapers, to say ‘Actually, it is affordable to fly, and here are some prices’. It would have been nuts to ignore the fact that it was the Soccer World Cup, but there were very strict FIFA rules and regulations about what you could and couldn’t say or show, but we’re Kulula and we push things a little. So we pushed things a little and we had the odd soccer ball and we had the odd reference to 2010, and so on. Believe me, we consulted the guidelines, which were thick, but we also knew we were on the thin edge of the wedge. So we put this beautifully hand illustrated ad into the Sunday paper first, and it was to follow in the dailies. It was a pricing ad, and no sooner had it gone out and was due for its appearance in the dailies, when I got a phone call from our legal department, our internal legal department, and our lawyer said to me – I felt like I was 16 again – “Heidi ! What have you done?!” And I had this mixture of elation, because I knew exactly what it meant. It meant we were in trouble with FIFA, and I was thrilled. Because that’s what Kulula does, we challenge.I knew we weren’t in that much trouble. From a lawyer’s point of view probably we were, but from a brand point of view it was such an opportunity to be for the people again, because the people at the time in South Africa were just up to here with being told that ‘We can’t use 2010’ – gosh, we were in 2010. ‘We couldn’t use soccer balls’ – gosh, everybody was playing soccer. It was just getting ludicrous. So what did we do? Well, we needed to keep going on about pricing so our team at our ad agency came up with an ad then that took out all of the symbolism and wordage that we were supposedly not allowed to use and replaced it, but in the cheekiest, cheekiest way, and that was just the perfect balance of being cheeky, taking risk and being honestly and authentically Kulula, and South Africa and the world loved us for it. Because only Kulula could do that – because Kulula is for the people, for South Africa, a challenger, a supporter, and all of those things rolled into one. We got worldwide recognition and Kulula is known around the world as this little airline that could. So those are the kinds of things that Kulula does, and if there’s a cause outside of air travel or outside of travel that is meaningful for South Africans, Kulula will support it.

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