A lot of the time I write these blog posts, they are specific to the content itself rather than a debate on marketing theory (or the limited amount I know about it!). The last few posts I’ve written are practical examples of that: the Selfridge’s No Noise concept, the post about Cohiba, etc… Sure, I’ve ended up straying into the area of theory on both those posts, but that’s only to illustrate what I’ve like or disliked about a certain piece of activity, rather than to have a musing on theory in isolation.
The reason that I’ve prefaced this week’s blog post with that comment is because what prompted me to write this post is the launch of a new visual identity by American Airlines and the fact that I don’t want to comment on it specifically. Primarily because I guess I’d stray into such subjective territory of “I Like It” vs. “I Don’t Like It”, not to mention the fact that I genuinely haven’t made up my mind what I think of it. I think it’s a good topic to choose as the branding of airlines is always a good source of discussion for public debate. Obviously, a lot of established airlines are physical representations of a country, as they are frequently referred to as flag-bearers. As consequence, this opens up a whole well of what national identity means to a particular nation. Sure this is changing with the massive growth of low cost carriers like Ryanair and EasyJet in the last decade and multi-national carriers such as Emirates. Having said that, the traditional and established carriers still have the tag of flag-bearer associated with them. The most famous example of the flag-bearer debate must be the British Airways Ethnic Liveries debacle of the late 1990’s. I remember being in my first marketing job in Prague and the letters’ pages of Marketing Magazine being chock full every issue with passionate submissions from marketeers on why it was a brave move or a stupid one.
For the uninitiated and the reason that I’ve decided to zero in on it, American Airlines previous visual identity had been one of the longest unchanged brand looks in marketing history. Introduced in 1968, it had remained almost completely untouched for nearly 45 years. The first aircraft to bear the previous identity is the one above that appeared in LAX in 1968: the only addition being the proud eagle between the two A’s on the tailfin. I had thought that it was the longest unchanged visual identity in recent use, but fellow Gooner and all-round design and branding guru Bill Wallsgrove of Brandvoice pointed out to me that there are brands out there (Tate & Lyle, Bass) that have much older and more permanent visual identities. Nevertheless, 45 years is still an extremely long period of time for any brand not to change its visual palette. In support of this change, AA have released the following video.
The video does suffer from some marketing bollox, but to be fair to it, it also does a great job of talking about AA’s heritage. In support of this video, they have issued the following blurb.
For more than two years, we’ve been building toward a time when the outside of our aircraft reflects the progress we’ve made on the inside. Today, we’re excited to reveal the next step in our transformation. We’re inspired by what we make possible—by our ability to connect you with the world around you. As we advance toward becoming a new American, we’re moving forward with great purpose and respect for our history—challenging ourselves to progress, to modernize, to innovate and to place you at the center of all that we do. We invite you to be part of our evolution.
In spite of AA’s size as an airline and a brand, I was still pretty blown away when they said it took them 2 whole years to commission this visual identity. I was reminded of this piece that I wrote last September on Court Line, the 1970’s UK charter airline and how their phenomenally unique visual identity was created from scratch in just 6 weeks. Having said that, I imagine the brief that the brand people at AA were working too was somewhat more challenging than a one line “create an airline with a holiday image” that was the remit of the designer behind the Court Line look. I imagine the amount of stakeholders sticking their oars into the AA process was quite something. Additionally, I’d also wonder to what extent the powers that be in AA actually wanted to change visual palette. In truth, this change was probably more forced upon them than anything else, as they allude to in the video above. For cost, safety and efficiency reasons, modern aircraft (Boeing 787, Airbus A350) are now nearly exclusively made from composite materials (see below) and not metals. This means that they can’t buffed to a shiny finish like a sheet of metal on an old aircraft could. And it’s pretty obvious from the shot of the prototype A350 below, not painting them is not an option.
As I said at the start of this blog, I was less interested in talking about my own view on it – rather I’m more concerned with how it’s going down with consumers, given that its previous look is nearly half a century old. I think it would be fair to say that this new visual identity does not appear to be going down well. From journalists to the guy who designed the previous livery, the reaction has been nearly overwhelmingly negative. I’ve put a selection of articles and tweets below from journalists, marketeers and consumers alike.
Good God, American Airlines. What have you done? skift.com/2013/01/17/ame… (I liked United’s tulip logo, but this seems way worse.)
— Rob Pegoraro (@robpegoraro) January 17, 2013
Funny: American Airlines Claims to Improve Customer Experience With New Logo – Forbes onforb.es/Y19Dfs
— Augie Ray (@augieray) January 25, 2013
— VANITY FAIR (@VanityFair) January 23, 2013
— Sam Fiorella (@samfiorella) January 21, 2013
American Airlines Rebrands Itself, And America Along With It trib.al/5iWbfib
— Fast Company (@FastCompany) January 23, 2013
Some of the reactions to it were along the lines of “I don’t like the font”, “I don’t like the lines on the tail”, which is principally the territory that I wanted to avoid getting into when I started writing this post. A good number of the negative reactions seemed to question the need for change, i.e. a lot of people preferred the older livery. However, they seemed to be unaware that AA basically had no choice, as I have highlighted above. And others such as Sam Fiorella from Sensei Marketing questioned the need for the redesign, given the customer service and technological issues that have dogged American for the past few years. So, in reading all the reactions to the branding, what are my take outs from it? Well first of all, I don’t necessarily consider all the negative feedback as an entirely bad thing. Specifically, I’m referring to those who question the need for change: this indicates that they had some kind emotional link to the previous livery, perhaps demonstrating that it was a brand that they had grown up with and that its nostalgia held a certain cachet with them. Of course, pissing those consumers off is probably not the best way to harness that nostalgia, but still there is some positive hidden in there. Secondly, more importantly and as Sam Fiorella’s article brilliantly illustrates, as with all things in marketing you can’t look at something like AA’s visual identity in isolation. If the re-launch of the brand offers the people at AA an opportunity to deliver on the promise of a greater product, well then fine. However, if all that happens is a few planes getting a spray job and the customer service issues remain, all this will be superfluous. I think this captures the essence of the marketing challenge that they face. Namely that a consumer’s perception of a brand is multi-faceted and driven by a number of factors which work both in tension and symbiosis with each other: experience, product quality, visual identity, pricing, channel distribution, etc… Tinkering with one doesn’t necessarily mean that the others will fix themselves.