Putting lipstick on the proverbial pig

February 1, 2013

American Airlines recently unveiled a new logo that’s part of a multi-year effort to “re-brand” the airline, according to aa.com. Nice work, AA: You’ve put a shiny coat of lipstick on the proverbial pig and succeeded in giving “branding” a bad rap all at the same time.

American Airlines recently unveiled a new logo that’s part of a multi-year effort to “re-brand” the airline, according to aa.com. Nice work, AA: You’ve put a shiny coat of lipstick on the proverbial pig and succeeded in giving “branding” a bad rap all at the same time.

Full disclosure: I’m on an AA MD-80 from New York to St. Louis as I write this. And there’s nothing that warrants a re-branding. There’s no evidence of a new business strategy. No upgrades in service. Nothing special that signals a new big idea.

It’s the same old bankrupt American Airlines, with its 20-year-old planes and barely-civil employees. But now it has an expensive new logo that’s “light, vibrant and modern,” again according to aa.com.

And that’s the disconnect: AA has a new logo, but it’s the same tired brand. Branding is a strategic exercise that’s practiced by smart companies to make business strategy visible. It’s not just about changing your logo. Calling a logo change a re-brand does the branding business a disservice.

I actually like the new logo and livery. The fine folks at FutureBrand did a nice job of evolving the iconic Vignelli logo of 1967. I have no beef with the new look and feel. It really is modern and clean (though I’m disappointed that they felt compelled to introduce a trendy gradation in the “Flight Symbol”).

But as a re-branding, the work seems half-baked. Fix the business problems first — or at least make noticeable progress on them — and then re-brand.

Look, as a branding professional, I believe in the power of branding. But in this case, management seems to have been distracted by someone’s initiative of the day. Wallowing in bankruptcy, considering a merger with one of their oldest rivals, battling their most powerful unions… these are serious issues that no logo will fix.

It’s the chicken-or-egg syndrome: Do you fix the airline and then re-brand? Or do you re-brand and hope the airline gets fixed? I just think they have too far to go and they should be focused on aligning the airline behind a new idea for what air travel can be. Where’s the vision and the shared passion? Without the unions’ support, the people who are the brand will undermine any good design work management could hope to do with the brand.

American used to be my favorite airline. But then it went into bankruptcy and its service fell out of the sky. Now it’s my airline of last resort. A new logo and a fresh coat of paint are not going to change that.

[Karl Barnhart is Chief Marketing Office at Brandt and former president of CoreBrand.]

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