February 1, 2013 7:05 pm

The expert selection: Problematic airline rebrands

The pilot and airline brand consultant picks five campaigns
Clockwise from top left: American Airlines’ new livery; AA’s former design; United and Japan Airlines’ latest liveries

Clockwise from top left: American Airlines’ new livery; AA’s former design; United and Japan Airlines’ latest liveries

When American Airlines’ first Boeing 777-300ER entered service last week, it was sporting a new logo and exterior livery – the airline’s first rebrand in more than 40 years, and one that has had a turbulent reception in some quarters. Jonny Clark, a pilot and airline brand consultant who has worked with more than 50 airlines, picks five problematic rebranding campaigns.

American Airlines

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AA’s former livery – the instantly-recognisable bare metal with red, white and blue stripe, and Helvetica script – was created in 1967 by Italian designer Massimo Vignelli. His comments about its replacement (“It has no sense of permanence. There was no need to change” and so on) were seized upon by the new livery’s detractors, who have even started a petition calling for it to be abandoned. Adweek said the new livery had triggered both “ire and a sense of déja vu”. In fact, despite perceived failings, there was a need for some change: new composite-body aircraft need to be painted, so keeping the polished-metal look wasn’t an option.

United Airlines

When two airlines merge, the most loved brand usually survives. Instead, when United and Continental joined forces in 2011, they decided to blend corporate identities, with disappointing results. “Rather than merge and purge, in other words, unite what’s best and remove what’s not, United merged and ‘beiged’”, says Rob Schwartz, global creative president of advertising agency TBWA Worldwide. Most designers agree this merger has created a weak brand that is easily forgettable. The airline has suffered from what appears to be design by consensus. “The former Continental tail feels like a generic globe,” says Schwartz. “The United type is not distinctive. It’s a shame because United’s colourful ‘friendly skies’ logo was much more distinctive.” For the world’s largest airline, you would have expected more.

Japan Airlines

While the general feeling from Europe is that the livery launched in 2011 – predominantly white, but with a red crane logo on the tail – is a bit too simplistic, the story is different in Japan. In 2002 the airline caused an outcry by removing the crane – not just its logo since 1958 but also a national symbol of peace, humanity and balance – in favour of a rising sun. “The flaw in JAL’s 2002 rebranding was that they tossed out an icon that held tremendous value and was instantly recognised,” says Daniel Baron, Tokyo-based owner of LIFT Strategic Design, an airline brand and cabin design consultancy. “The replacement could never live up to that. And, indeed, it never did.”

Biman Bangladesh Airlines

Despite U-turns by Japan Airlines and BA, the prize for quickest about-face must go to Biman Bangladesh Airlines. On February 3 2010, the state-owned airline unveiled a modern new look. “We want to bring a feeling of change,” said Muhammad Zakiul Islam, the managing director. The change didn’t last. Within two months, the government had ordered the airline to return to its original livery.

British Airways

Few new liveries before or since have received as much attention as BA’s 1997 “Utopia” scheme, which used different ethnic designs from around the world on the tails. The design, created by the Newell & Sorrell agency, was widely criticised for abandoning the national flag and, to complete BA’s discomfort, Margaret Thatcher famously covered the tail of a scale model with her handkerchief, saying, “We fly the British flag, not these awful things”. In 1999 the repainting scheme was halted in favour of an adapted version of the Concorde livery, reincorporating the Union flag. The reversal was only completed late in 2011, when the airline’s crest and motto (“To fly. To serve”), which had also been phased out in 1997, was reinstated.

Jonny Clark’s aviation design blog is at thedesignair.net

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Get out your handkerchiefs again / From Dr E G Nisbet

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