Cool green machine

You have to be careful of cool. It’s trickier than it looks. Ask people for cool companies, and they rattle off companies with cool ads.
But there must be more to it than ads. I don’t want to call a company “cool” on the strength of its lipstick; I want to know it has heart. Does it do decent by staff and clients, or is it stuck in ancient 20th century gladiator mode?

That does not mean: ignore the ads. Bad ads display uncool. Good ads are prima facie cool. They testify that the company gives head-space.

Like the windgat golf cart zooming past a tottering oom: “Expect more Jo’burgers in George.” A toddler on a beach packs razor wire round his sandcastle: “Expect more Jo’burgers in Durban.” A hunky surfer shrivels when his toe meets icy sea: “Expect more Durbanites in Cape Town.” This new series hits two jackpots. Firstly, it generates a laugh every time and, secondly, you never doubt who the advertiser is. These are “the kulula ads”, where smart ads are often “the ad with the ele-phant” or “the ad with the tug of war”.

“Someone got something right,” I say to Mr kulula, Gidon Novick. “That would be Morrisjones,” replies Novick, earning a cool upgrade. Who shifts credit that fast, to an agency that isn’t here to hear?

I’d thought they named kulula to capitalise on the sound, coolooler. No, it turns out. They wanted to kill off doubleyou doubleyou doubleyou, the only known abbreviation that in its spoken form is three times longer than what it abbreviates, world wide web.

The e-world is kulula’s core. The message is: “Come, customers, meet us direct, in cheap, cheap cyberspace.” They couldn’t do that with a lumpy stolid www Web address, chewing up ad time while listeners scribbled dots and @s on their cuffs. So they wanted the site right inside the name, something dot com.

Dot com was the nub and kulula was the bonus. But what a bonus: an African feel that slips lightly off even Anglo-Saxon tongues, vaguely evokes a sexy drink, and means “easy”. Three years old and it has a default slot on Seffrican tongues. That isn’t just from ads.

How did they do it? Gidon is wry about how they nearly did not. He and others had scouted the world, quizzing low-fare airlines. By the time they opened their doors with their low, low prices they were pretty cocky. So reality gooied a rabbit punch.

Puffing, shoving, swearing mobs crammed a tiny counter tucked behind the Sweets From Heaven store. kulula found that its system needed four minutes a passenger. They had 175 passengers a flight.

Nice, friendly Seffricans meeting a nice, friendly new airline were supposed to read their nice, cheap ticket and say “Ah, they want us two hours early. Sure.” Five people did and 170 hurtled in 90 minutes later, and every flight was behind schedule from crack of dawn. Worse, kulula had gone in for free seating as part of the happy-go-lucky flavour. That meant another scrum at the steps; everyone frantic for a front seat, aisle seat, lucky seat, or scared of a miscount, meaning no seat.

The fundis had already predicted a speedy demise, South Africans being allegedly shy of the Internet, terrified of exposing their credit cards, et cetera. Now here was shambles, too.

That Novick goes only light red, telling the tale, shows that the chaos got managed away. Well done, Novick, but klaps are needed, too.

The safety spiel on kulula is great after the over-modulated duchess on South African Airways (SAA) ordering you to shed your high heels when the plane crashes. kulula prefers realism — “kiss your arse goodbye” — and so much humour you want your purser to gallop to the rescue of Comedy Showcase. But … on the second flight the same cracks are just a script being read. By round three they’re lame and on flight number four you want the duchess back.

Novick can’t wait to reply, because he has it in hand. “At times I’d cringe, I’d feel my nails gouging the seat leather.” There’s a new brief; crew make every flight memorable, in their own way: “Dancing in the aisles if they like; anything. We say ‘be creative’. We don’t say ‘be creative the following way’.”

I hope that saves the seat leather. Even if it doesn’t I’m grateful for the attempt. My favourite purser at SAA made a game of his seven-syllabled multi-clicked name, until a dreary manager made him stop. Rather make them try than make them stop.

What of the cheapskate image? Are companies embarrassed to use kulula? Novick says: “Corporates are coming in now.” So far they’re few (three), but Novick is confident they’re seeing the light. It’s cleverer to fly cheaper.

I take half his point. In some circles it is status to book the chairperson Economy, but that takes a self-assured chairperson. Most spend to be seen where the spenders are. Nobody pays R1 000 premium for the R5 champagne. They pay to be among payers.

My mind’s ear hears ratchets hum in Novick’s head. Would a Premium Class in kulula be an oxymoron? I can’t see that deterring him.

kulula’s birth was innovation writ large: use the Web, control your own distribution. “Small airlines went through agents and got beaten up by big guys. To get shelf space at Pick ’n Pay, it helps if you’re Unilever. But on the Web it’s just us and the customer, and our sales cost is half a percent of the ticket price.”

Ah, price. Initially “kulula” and “price-cutting” were synonyms. No more. Price remains vital, but “full fare” and “low fare” have overlapped, and “price” has become roulette. On any airline, you might pay twice as much, or half as much as the person sharing your armrest.

Other things come in — ease, attitude, tone. That’s what kulula sells, with all the partnerships it can find, including the formerly shunned travel agents. Notice, says Novick, that kulula.com nowhere says “airways”. This is a distribution company. Distributing airplane seats is just the start.

Novick hasn’t touched on family. Parent airline, Comair, is chaired by David Novick, also known as Dad. Months ago, over beers, a kulula pilot was being mauled, as people are who work at companies that rise from nowhere. Nepotism came up. The pilot said: “You don’t get it. Gidon runs this company because he runs this company.”

I haven’t touched on money. I think I’m meant to tell you about return on investment and net earnings before tax and deductions. Permit me to politely decline, and declare revolt against maximum return.

Novick makes profits. I hope he always does. I hope he never makes the biggest profit, by cutting and squeezing and sacking. I hope his investors respect the notion of “enough” instead of squawking for an endless “more” while the sea of destitution laps higher on their, and my, island of prosperity.

kulula started with 40 people. It now has 380. That’s how cool begins. I’m not saying I switch — SAA’s tail has something that no other tail has. I am saying that as an addition to our nation’s life, kulula’s green gets a gold.

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