Kulula Not Getting There

Sarah Britten casts a sharp eye on Kulula’s campaign that plays on SAA branding

I have a soft spot for Kulula. From 2003-2005, I worked on the account as a strategic planner. It was tough but lots of fun; I gave lectures on the brand at the Wits Business School, successfully defended several ASA complaints with the exception of one (which showed a character climbing into a fridge to teleport himself to his mother in Durban) and gained loads of valuable experience. Since then I’ve followed its progress with great interest, and for the most part I’ve loved their campaigns. Like Nandos, Kulula is one of the few brands that can get away with almost anything.

Almost being the key word. SAA is reportedly unhappy with the latest Kulula campaign and have said they’ll fight it at the ASA. No surprises there. (For a view on the legality of this kind of advertising, you can take a look here.) What’s interesting about this campaign is that it should be an unparalleled success – who doesn’t resent all the taxpayer rondts disappearing into the bottomless pit that is the national carrier – but it isn’t. Why is the Saturday Star’s Brendan Seery giving it an Onion? Why, when I ask what people think about it on Facebook and Twitter, are most of the responses negative?

I first noticed the Kulula outdoor several months ago, when they used characters from other much-loved brand ads, including the Vodacom Yebo Gogo ads and the Klipdrift campaign. I love the idea of celebrating iconic ad characters in a campaign for a brand that owed much of its distinctive identity to advertising. But the idea only ever lived on outdoor, and it was never clear what its purpose was. Now, Kulula’s new positioning has been unveiled: it’s the most South African airline, a clear swipe at its taxpayer-funded rival.

Here’s what’s good about this campaign:

Unlike many campaigns, it’s carried through to social media where it has taken on a whole new life. There’s a Facebook tab and fans have been encouraged to comment on it. The campaign has become a social object, driving conversation about the brand. I’ll (un)happily admit to having a mini existential crisis about not being invited to the “Most South African Flight” (I mean jeez, how much blogging and talking about brands must a girl do to qualify?) but I think they’ve done a pretty good job of making the most of the footage they took. A once-off event lives on thanks to Facebook.

And here’s what I don’t.

Claiming to be the most South African airline is all very well, but then you have to back it up. Tell me why you’re the most South African airline. I’m not going to just take your word for it, and the fact that I’m questioning it now means it’s not territory that Kulula can claim without having to explain itself. I wouldn’t go as far as Brendan Seery, who lambasted Comair for the fact that they have the franchise for British Airways and so can’t possibly claim to be the most South African airline – but this campaign feels like it’s all about a clever idea that lacks substance. And no advertiser can get away with that kind of thing these days.

Kulula is an established brand now. It can no longer claim to be a challenger with as much credibility as when it launched 11 years ago. For one thing, it has become famous for delays, especially out of Lanseria. I don’t like SAA as a brand, but if I’m worried about getting to a meeting on time I won’t book with Kulula for exactly that reason. I’ve read far too many tweets about delayed Kulula flights to feel comfortable with using them, and if I’ve booked a return Kulula flight to George in April, it’s because somebody else made a decision on the airline and I’m fitting in with them.

Sorry Kulula. If you want to pick a fight with SAA, I expect more. Not good enough.

– Sarah Britten, marketing strategic planning advisor and brand consultant.