American Airlines rebrand goes beyond the logo.
February 19, 2013 at 10:00 am
American Airlines announces a rebrand.
American Airlines recently launched its first major rebranding effort in decades. As part of the rebranding effort the airline replaced the iconic design by Massimo Vignelli with a new logo, quickly garnering the attention of marketing and business publications from Fast Company to Fox Business to Forbes. It should come as no surprise that within a matter of minutes, the new American Airlines logo was subjected to the assessment of millions of designers and branding experts – all of whom had strong opinions about the new identity. Many were outraged. Some called it atrocious. Some called it a disgrace. And even Massimo Vignelli himself expressed his disapproval. But before you pass judgment – if you haven’t already – there are a few things you should consider.
A quick history lesson.
Since 1934 American Airlines has been fundamental in the growth and success of American commercial aviation through a series of innovations that helped shape the industry. The company’s list of firsts include: the first profitable passenger-only flight route, the first airport lounge (Admirals Club at LaGuardia), the first electronic booking system, and the first commercial airline to hire a female pilot. Its impact on American travel is undeniable. Into the 90s, times were good, the airline was profitable – and like its raw metal aircraft, the brand continued to shine. In just a few years, the economic downturn in the United States would change everything. As conditions worsened in the early 2000s, American Airlines laid off thousands of employees, sold off subsidiaries, sold aircraft, reduced flights and did everything it could in a seemingly futile attempt to remain in business. But until two years ago, American Airlines had overlooked one of its most viable options.
A completely redesigned brand experience.
While the airline struggled financially, its brand — the perception of the airline in the minds of millions — struggled as well. As Mark Kingsley of Under Consideration recently put it, “Flying used to mean something.” More specifically, flying American Airlines used to mean something. So, in what might seem like a last ditch effort (after filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in 2011), American Airlines decided to make an investment in its brand. As part of this initiative, American Airlines and its branding partners have redesigned terminals, airplane interiors, added in-flight Wi-Fi to all new aircraft, and streamlined the on-boarding process to provide passengers with a more “modern, comfortable and connected experience.” They’ve re-architected their Admirals Club as well as business and first class with improved seating, better meal options and a more seamless check-in process. And to complete the initiative, American Airlines has developed a new training program for all employees designed to foster a “uniquely American experience,” a better culture and improved customer service for all. And, of course, to top it off they also introduced a new logo and new livery. Now, that’s what we consider a re-branding initiative!
Why is the conversation mostly about the logo?
Yet, as soon as the company announced its rebranding efforts, many of the same people who champion the concept of “brand,” and claim to build “brands” raised their voices in disapproval about the new logo – often glossing over the fact that, while American Airlines has in fact changed its logo, it has also completely reconsidered the American Airlines experience. There is an important, but sometimes ignored, difference between Design and Brand. In his critique, Massimo Vignelli is speaking the language of design. While design is an important part of this exercise, it’s not the most important. In my opinion, when it comes to brand, it’s important to remember that the logo is not the brand. In my opinion, the brand is anchored on the experience and how people feel about it. The logo is simply the graphic manifestation or visual representation of the brand. It is the shorthand that allows us to quickly recognize it among the other brands that clamor for our attention. It is a symbol of the brand, it is not the brand itself. The logo does not have the power to change the way that people feel about a company. It is the company’s values and actions that can do that, and therefore create an intimate and emotional connection which becomes the “brand”.
Success is measured by passengers not awards.
I like the way that Marty Neumeier, the Director of Transformation at Liquid Agency, defines a brand in his classic book, The Brand Gap. “A brand is a person’s gut feeling”, he wrote. American Airlines can’t control how people feel about the brand but they can certainly influence it. By way of this rebranding effort, American Airlines has made a powerful statement to passengers and employees around the world – a promise to provide a better experience. We all know that actions speak louder than words. In order to avoid the fates of other aviation icons like PanAm and Continental, American Airlines will need to take real action in order to live up to its recent promise. Just remember: If they succeed, it won’t be because American Airlines redesigned its logo. Or because the logo won a bunch of awards in branding or design competitions. In fact, it won’t matter whether we loved or hated the new paint scheme. If American Airlines succeeds, it will be because American Airlines invested in its brand. I think that the airline is off to a great start. But only time, and passengers, will see if the rebranding effort is successful.
What do you think?
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About Kelly Rupp
Kelly Rupp is a Brand Strategist at Liquid Agency. He has spent the past 5 years building integrated branding programs for clients in the B2B technology, healthcare, consumer electronics, and lifestyle apparel industries. Unafraid to challenge the status quo, Kelly is always looking for different and better ways to think about the concept of brand. Kelly is passionate about the future of brand building and helping to define how brands behave in 2013 and beyond.