Rebranding American: the challenges of airline design


By Thomas O'Neill, Managing editor

February 21, 2013 | 6 min read

When American Airlines decided to bring in the new year with a fresh new look the eyes of the world, not least the eyes of the design world, were upon it.

Rebranding any company has its difficulties, but rebranding one where a large proportion of its real estate spends much of its time in the air brings its own unique set of challenges. Add to this the large number of stakeholders involved and it’s hardly surprising that these kinds of projects don’t come around all that often. Or that when they do they draw huge attention.The new designs for American Airlines, created by FutureBrand, see the eagle, which has been part of the brand’s marque since the 1930s, reimagined in a slim diagonal logo with the bird’s head appearing between red and blue wings, simultaneously evoking a star and the letter ‘A’.In fitting with the airline’s ‘silver bird’ legacy, and despite the polished metal look no longer being an option due to new lighter aircrafts from Boeing and Airbus featuring composite materials that must be painted, a silver mica paint has been used to maintain its heritage. The tail fin, meanwhile, is chest-thumpingly American, evoking the flag with its red and blue stripes.FutureBrand said the design was inspired by “the company’s heritage and incorporates colours and symbols universally associated with the AA brand”, reflecting “a more modern, vibrant and welcoming spirit”. Not everyone has been so positive, however.A problem American faces is that it is a classic brand with a classic design. And by changing this it has, for want of a better word, ‘killed’ a classic design – a design that lasted some 45 years, that was the handiwork of design legend Massimo Vignelli, and hailed a masterpiece of mid-20th century design.Start JudgeGill co-founder Darren Whittingham explains: “I can’t help think the new mark will have some work to do to make people love it as much as the old one which was a design classic of its time, along with that raw metal livery fuselage – which has always been a show stopping retro piece of design styling.” Vignelli himself has also been vocal about the new branding, telling BusinessWeek that it has “no sense of permanence”, adding: “There was no need to change. Every other airline has changed its logo many times, and every time was worse than the previous one.”It doesn’t help that the airline is going through one of the most difficult times in its history, filing recently for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, leading to a barrage of abuse online. Joel Spolsky, founder of Stack Overflow, said it had “trashed a classic modernist icon logo, and ‘fixed’ the only thing that wasn’t broken”.It’s not the first time an airline changing its logo has caused such a furore though. Continental and United both sported, and then unceremoniously dropped, what were considered classic logo designs from the studio of Saul Bass, the man behind classic logos like Kleenex, AT&T, Minolta and the Girl Scouts of the USA.Then there’s BA, similar to American Airways in being a flag-bearer for its country, whose 1997 ribbon logo and accompanying ‘world tails’ by Newell & Sorrell stirred up nationalistic sentiments. It was, however, short-lived after Maggie Thatcher famously draped her handkerchief over a model BA 747 to hide the tail, showing her disgust with the design with the words “we fly the British flag, not these awful things”. Noises were also made about the lack of a consistent tail design leading to the aircraft being misidentified by controllers, but the headlines generated by Thatcher’s PR stunt had already guaranteed the design would get scrapped. But should it be that certain designs are ‘untouchable’ and that we stick to the maxim ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’? Or, in revering these brand marques as design classics, are we in danger of stifling new creativity? Simon Manchipp, co-founder of SomeOne, explains that American’s significant legacy and recent troubles mean the rebrand would have been “no easy task from a creative perspective”.“Political in the extreme, with phenomenal pressures to fold and go for an easy option. It’s testament to the design team that this saw the light of day,” he says. Counting Virgin Atlantic among his clients, Whittingham knows a thing or two about branding aircraft and has been a keen observer on developments over at American. Of the airline’s recent troubles he says: “It is exactly these kind of fundamental business challenges that produce refreshed business strategies, out of which new brand strategies are born, which in turn signals a new beginning.”So does the scale and reach of an airline design job mean increased, and perhaps unjust, focus and criticism from the public and the press? “Airlines are in some ways the flagship brand carriers for nations, and are great influences on business and tourism and world news,” says Whittingham. Manchipp suggests that any design project in the public eye gains commentary, but that it is often more to do with “the stories behind the organisation rather than due to the choice of typeface or application of logo”. He adds: “For a business centred around service, emotions and discovery, these values rarely find their way into the visual brand identity, meaning airlines end up creating blanding, not branding. “Flag carriers like American Airlines represent not only the business, the staff and their customers, but are flying symbols of their country. So if you mess with the flag, you do so at your peril. Here AA have played a smart card — the flag is bold, clear, powerful and has been pulled into the new millennium. For me it’s visually the best part of the new scheme.”Despite a reluctance to agree or disagree on whether the American rebranding achieves anything the previous design didn’t, the general consensus is that it has been necessary as the company looks to signal a change in direction and draw a line under its recent troubled past. Whether or not this will work remains to be seen, says Interbrand’s Jez Frampton: “The question is whether the next time I take an American Airlines flight, what am I going to experience that makes me feel that the investment they made intending a signal to me was worth it?”

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