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American Airlines Rebrand: Critiques Mix With Calls for Better Service

Posted by Mark J. Miller on January 17, 2013 07:32 PM

Bankrupt American Airlines found a little extra cash to invest in a lot of paint.

The troubled airline — which is rumored to be considering a merger with US Airways and has irked its union in recent months with threatened job cuts — introduced a new look Thursday, its first major design change in 40 years.

In the airline's new identity, the eagle long a fixture in the airline’s logo has been marginalized. Only a suggestion of it remains in the “neck and head embedded in the design element in front of the American’s lettering at the airplane’s front," The Dallas Morning News noted.

The goal of the rebrand project by FutureBrand is to honor the airline's "uniquely American" heritage, according to AA's press release:

“Our new logo and livery are designed to reflect the passion for progress and the soaring spirit, which is uniquely American,” said Virasb Vahidi, American’s Chief Commercial Officer. “Our core colors — red, white and blue have been updated to reflect a more vibrant and welcoming spirit. The new tail, with stripes flying proudly, is a bold reflection of American’s origin and name. And our new flight symbol, an updated eagle, incorporates the many icons that people have come to associate with American, including the ‘A’ and the star.”

American Eagle and the AAdvantage® program also will get a new look as of today. The first American Eagle plane will fly the new livery beginning in February. Updating the new look across American’s network is a long process and will be rolled out over time to the airlines airports, interiors and exteriors of aircraft, new uniforms, products and services, and technology platforms like AA.com and the American mobile apps.

"While we complete the evaluation of whether a merger can build on American's strengths, we remain steadfast in each step we take to renew our airline, a step we take with great respect for our name American,” American CEO Tom Horton commented about the corporate makeover, according to the Dallas Business Journal. The airline declined to disclose the costs of the new branding.

US Airways CEO Doug Parker — who has said that the AA name would be kept should the airlines merge — stated: "We applaud our friends at American as the new brand elements and livery mark the culmination of a significant amount of work and coordination, and clearly those efforts have produced a compelling result."

While some positive responses were shared via the brand's #newAmerican Twitter hashtag on Thursday, many were mocking and negative. The Atlantic Wire called the plane's Fourth of July-style tail "jingoistic," and a Wall Street Journal headline declared: "Captain America Takes to the Sky."

Forest Young, New York design director at brandchannel parent Interbrand, comments:

The former American Airlines identity, designed in 1967 by Vignelli Associates, extended into the collective past — the polished aluminum livery was a nostalgic nod to the metallic planes at the glamorous dawn of air travel, while the timeless Helvetica and minimal graphic architecture constituted a forward-thinking approach, even by today's standards — and was a benchmark of enduring modernism.

Massimo Vignelli noted that the "half-red, half-blue, in plain type stresses the professional, no gimmicks attitude of the company in the colors of the home nation." He begrudgingly incorporated the signature "scissors eagle" at the behest of the client — a vestigial symbol dating back to the original Embry-Riddle Company from 1925 — but noted that the logo was "one of the few worldwide that needs no change."

Around 1967, parallel to the debut of the American Airlines identity program, IBM revealed to the general public their striped logo — later simplified to 8 bars from 13, designed by Paul Rand earlier that decade. It is important to present this historical fact in light of the company's defense for their uninspired solution. Together, IBM and American Airlines represented two of the remaining and arguably sacrosanct identity programs created by the perennial 20th century identity design greats. Until today.

From a customer perspective, AA platinum-level frequent flier Brian Shepard praised the new look to USA Today while adding:

The new livery and re-branding of the "new American" is certainly a step forward, but management must couple its PR and marketing strategy with measured outcomes, focusing on customer service and working relentlessly to reduce delays and cancellations. I, for one, am optimistic about the future of AMR/American Airlines, but firmly believe that the refreshed livery needs to be just the first step in its game plan to win over passengers.


Opinions about AA's new visual identity — now installed at AA HQ in Fort Worth, Texas, and rolling out to its lounges and other consumer touchpoints, as its Facebook page promotes in a photo gallery — were intermingled with downbeat commentary on the overall issues facing the beleaguered airline. American's unions, for instance, used the company's new look as a springboard for larger criticism.

"A new paint job is fine, but it does not fix American’s network deficiencies and toxic culture, so we continue our steadfast support of a merger with US Airways and not doubling down on the network strategy that brought us into bankruptcy,” Allied Pilots Association spokesman Dennis Tajer told the Dallas Morning News.

The American Professional Flight Attendants also called for further change at the airline. “We hope this re-branding is the first of many steps toward making American Airlines a company that we can be proud to work for and one that can grow and compete in today's marketplace,” APFA spokeswoman Leslie Mayo told thehill.com. “That can only happen with a merger inside bankruptcy.”

Saying the logo and livery redesign had been underway for two years, Horton claimed that a possible merger and the company's troubled finances had nothing to do with American trying to reboot its image and said he informed US Airways chief Doug Parker of the pending announcement “as a courtesy.” Conde Nast Traveler's Brett Snyder characterized the change, however, as part of a managerial "game of chess."

The design changes aren’t likely to move American from the bottom of the Wall Street Journal’s annual airline scorecard, either. Horton has already apologized profusely for the airline’s delays and difficulties in 2012, but the Journal notes that American has been at or near the bottom of the list for on-time performance for six consecutive years.

It all goes back to the customer experience, as Stuart Green, CEO Asia-Pacific for Interbrand, commented:

It's always interesting to see a "new look" for an airline. And American is clearly leveraging on what makes it, well, "American." But what exactly does that mean? Hardware and technology advancements, though important, will provide an advantage for a short period of time. However, it's critical to clearly differentiate. The more “experiential”-focused airlines know that customers want brand experiences that are relevant and appropriate—not just at a point in time, but on an ongoing basis, and often customized to their liking.

Rather than weigh business decisions against the multitude of external factors out of their control (high operating costs, regulations, an ever-changing economy), the strongest airlines use their brand as a decision filter and act with confidence that they’ll deliver what their customers desire. This way, any new visual identity has far greater meaning to customers and the brand has a better chance of creating genuine loyalty.

Share your thoughts on the rebrand in the comments — and find out more from AA's videos, below: its "Change is in the Air" commercial promoting the rebrand and a behind-the-scenes look at the new identity.


CLetzgusJr United States says:

I am an American Airlines frequent flyer (lifetime Platinum but never Executive Platinum) but other than that I have no connection to the company.

I am awaiting the onslaught of comments, here and elsewhere on the web, criticizing the company for spending money on something as frivolous as a new paint scheme when its priorities should be elsewhere. I'm having none of that; every other legacy airline has changed its livery during or just after bankruptcy (how many different looks has United had alone?), and meanwhile, American hasn't changed its look for 45 years! So I say it's about time.

I'm glad they kept the "Silver Bird" polished aluminum fuselage. The wordmark should be able to stand the test of time; if not as classic as Helvetica it at least has a more upscale look to it. I have mixed feelings about the new slanting red-white-and-blue eagle mark, which I guess is supposed to look like one pillar of the capital letter A. That took me a while to see. I was fixated too much on the eagle's head, which to me belongs more on a U.S. Postal Service delivery truck. But I'm glad to lose the "AA" scissor-eagle logo. "AA," to me, always meant another institution entirely.

But what they've replaced the "AA" with on the tail of the aircraft? Oh, my. So, so busy. I guess in the world of fashion you can mix stripes with stripes, but this is commercial aviation, not "Project Runway." The tail design, I believe, will get the most criticism, and deservedly so. It detracts from an otherwise clean redesign that manages to be contemporary while evoking the company's heritage.  

January 17, 2013 08:59 PM #

Angel Spain says:

Best analysis I have read in a while.

January 18, 2013 03:43 AM #

Mark Australia says:

Hmmm... that video looks familiar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jg0Ql3x87M

January 18, 2013 05:54 PM #

Keith Moody Hong Kong S.A.R. says:

When first I saw the new "eagle" mark, I was immediately impressed by its bold modernity and cleanliness. It also evoked the sense of the tail (narrower at the top than the bottom). So much so that it seemed as though it was the tail graphic. I was to be quickly disappointed.

Overall the implementation is very weak in many ways. Proportionately the new logomark is tiny and easily lost on the plane itself - and will in no doubt be in the jumble of other airlines' logos/ graphics within a busy airport environment, on signage etc.

Whilst the namestyle has been shortened from American Airlines to "American" (not a bad thing), its indistinctive grey (silver??) neither says "American" in any other meaningful way, nor adds visibility or weight to the overall design visually. It would also seem that a lower case initial "a" would have added a touch of additional modernity rather than the juxtaposition of tradition that the initial capital "A" presents.

Despite the nod to its polished natural metal finish heritage, the modern 'silver' finish serves to only further weaken the logo mark. If you are going to modernize, then modernize to build presence rather than lose it. Recalling the FedEx switch from purple to white planes, the use of white paint not only helped save to fuel costs and weight through a significant reduction in heat gain, but also enhanced the visibility of the logo - something this identity desperately requires.

Now to the tail; it seems more in keeping with US WW2/ Korean War fighter planes or a Roy Lichtenstein painting. The tail graphic competes with the real logo so much that it actually becomes an identity by itself. It has also become the focus of the identity (and certainly comments thus far) rather than a support to it. It also screams (no pun on the "Screaming Eagles" intended) "American" far more by itself, that it is all too easy to forget what the actual logo is.

Clearly one thing the old identity possessed (like it or otherwise) was strength which might help to explain why it lasted so long; sadly this does not.

Therefore the implementation of the 'eagle' should be very carefully re-considered to re-establish strength, hierarchy and balance to the identity scheme if it is to succeed in overcoming these issues and last anything like as long.

January 19, 2013 11:45 AM #

Anthony Tropea United States says:

There is a group on facebook called FixTheTAAil. A design by Tom Collins is shown there that uses the new brand on the Tail, and is actually easier on the eyes, with a rendition of the Eagle in a more pronounced incarnation. (Again, from American's new logo.) Check it out! I hope American management sees it and agrees it is a better choice than the harsh lines they chose. The American Flag is beautiful, but that rendition of it is not proper and is too hard to look at.

January 20, 2013 02:45 AM #

Akhil Malhotra United States says:

Interesting commentary on the re-design. In my humble opinion, a decent enough rebrand, worthy of AA. Worthy in that it's 60% great, 40% missed opportunity (insert joke about AA's track record of on-time arrivals and departures here).

A few minor nitpicks:

1. America = red, white, and blue. Curious as to why this hierarchy was up-ended - was it a matter of balance, proportion? If so, perhaps a different solution should have been selected.

2. The tail - at the very least they could have used 13 stripes a la the American flag rather than the 11 used here. A minor detail, but an important link to American heritage that was missed.

3. The font - A bit boring, but very mainstream so appropriate for AA (I guess).

4. The gradient - Not a big fan of the page curl style of the eagle's head - might have been worthwhile developing something more innovative, especially as the gradient looks like a piece of "go-fast" tape peeling off.

5. Applications - Bold blocks of color or patterns are often much cleaner, nicer, and more upmarket than a cheesy gradient, especially at checkin counters (see the pic in the article).

All in all, a nice re-brand, but feels unfinished. Perhaps they designed by committee....

January 20, 2013 04:37 AM #

Daryl United States says:

The graphic looks like the aircraft's fuselage is being peeled, or torn open...unsettling, really; I wonder how could that have been overlooked?

January 24, 2013 12:14 AM #

Comments are closed

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