Image: AirAsia

What do you get when heavy metal music, painfully spicy Indian food and a cool, millennial-leaning budget carrier collide? Synergy, it seems.

“Tears are literally running down my face,” lead vocalist of Australian metal punk band High Tension’s Karina Utomo says, after taking a bite of a momo dumpling, doused in a ghost pepper sauce. She’s in Bangalore, the second stop of her mission to taste the spiciest foods in India, and has just signed a contract stating that she “will not hold the restaurant responsible for any mishaps, medical or otherwise.”

Utomo’s culinary adventure through India is documented in a four-part Vice Australia miniseries titled Hot Heads, the result of a content partnership with Malaysian low-cost-carrier AirAsia. “India was an important destination for us because our Australian customers could fly from, say, Sydney, Melbourne or Perth to Kuala Lumpur, and then on to India through our Fly-Thru connecting flight program,” says Rudy Khaw, head of Branding, AirAsia Group. “They could then travel within India with our local domestic carrier.”

“We didn’t want to change the type of content that people go to Vice for.” – Rudy Khaw, AirAsia Group

With a risk-taking millennial host, informal – sometimes bleeped profanities – and documentary-style filmography, Hot Heads is replete with many of the hallmarks of a classic Vice Media production. And that’s by design, Khaw says. “It didn’t make sense for us to be so hands-on because we didn’t want to change the type of content that people go to Vice for. It’s good to leave it in their hands, while giving them some basic guidelines of what would be okay for our brand.”

Some of these guidelines included how the AirAsia brand would be integrated into the footage: sparingly, and only when Utomo would logically be interacting with it in her travels. Examples include AirAsia crewmembers welcoming her on board or a map delineating her trajectory with a branded aircraft icon. “We wanted to be part of Utomo’s journey,” Khaw explains. “If it was something that seemed too hard sell – with us snapping a sticker here and our logo popping up there – it wouldn’t work. It would be too random; it needed to flow naturally.”

But airlines steering clear of in-your-face branding risk promoting the destination at the expense of their own brand, so much so that viewers finish watching a video without even realizing an airline played a part. “That’s a mistake a lot of airlines are making. And with destination content, you’re giving your competitors an opportunity to tap into that,” Khaw notes.

“It’s one of the first times we have a content partnership that brought this many eyeballs to our airline.” – Rudy Khaw, AirAsia Group

With Vice, AirAsia was able to carve out a slice in the middle, where brand integration works for all parties – especially the discerning millennial consumer, Khaw says. “It’s one of the first times we have a content partnership that brought this many eyeballs to our airline.” And with the current popularity of culinary travel among the cohort, the airline has surely left many hungry for more.

Packing the Heat was originally published in the 8.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.

Valerie is deputy editor at APEX Media.