A Tail of Two Airlines

October 7, 2014

Two low-cost airlines launched new identities within a day of each other. Who did it right?

I spend a good amount of time on planes. I used to spend almost all my time on Frontier, until they took away the direct flights to my most-traveled destinations. But I still have a positive recollection of them. I’ve been flying Southwest off and on for years, and have honestly had mixed experiences. But mostly positive.

So when both of these airlines launched new identities on back-to-back days, I had some emotional connection with each to balance my reactions. What struck me most was what a great compare-and-contrast scenario it was, how differently each company approached key areas of the re-brand, and the varying degrees to which (I think) they were successful.

  1. The identity work itself
    In each case, the identity is an evolution. For Southwest, the heart symbol comes back in a colorful and dimensional way as the sole mark, streamlining the system and giving the strategy a consistent visual platform. Whether you actually believe that an airline is driven by heart, the storyline is simple, relevant and backed by the overall experience.

    The new paint scheme on the planes is a bold transition from the familiar banded orange, red and blue color scheme and strikes a great balance between familiar and updated. While an evolution, Southwest went all-in.

    Frontier, on the other hand, seems to have taken half-steps and is left with a bit of a head-scratcher. The large and familiar animals on the tails are now… still on the tails but now extended to the rear part of the fuselage. I honestly doubt most people will even notice.

    The bold, simple logotype now features a blast from the past for it’s initial letter, an adaptation of an old Saul Bass “F” symbol that marked the airline back in the late ‘70’s. It’s a very nice form, but was designed as a symbol. Taking the stylized “F” out of it’s circle and tacking it on the front of italicized letterforms that have no visual relation to it feels forced and awkward. Plus what’s the significance? A blurb in the WSJ talked about it reflecting a warmth or “softness”, but I’m not even sure what that means in Frontier’s case. It’s a piece of history that has almost no relevance to anyone flying the airline today.
  2. The online experience
    Again, Southwest did it right. The site is an engaging mix of functional and emotional, with parallax scrolling and fully responsive to boot, creating a great mobile experience. Frontier’s new site, on the other hand, still feels mired in an early 2000s design aesthetic, and the mobile experience still uses a separate site with clunky navigation and limited feature set. Again, undoubtedly a fair amount of thought and effort went into it, but the end result seems like a band-aid approach (which it might be? Perhaps there’s something bigger and better in the works?) and a very small step indeed from the previous experience.
  3. The conversation
    Did Frontier even have one? Sure, they tried to spark interest on their social platforms to lukewarm response, but I had to dig around for third party stories about the launch. As mediocre as the re-brand was, it was at least a signal of something. But you’d be hard pressed to find a clear and coherent story about what that “something” is. And based on the rash of negative comments on Facebook, any positive spin they’re trying to leverage is falling flat in the face of poor customer experiences, delays and extra fees.

    Southwest, on the other hand, was appropriately proactive in terms of using the re-brand to cement the reputation as an airline that offers a more human flying experience, with their reasonable fares, free bags, open seating and entertaining attendants. Sure, there are some predictable gripes about using the money to lower fares further instead of re-painting planes, but the overall reaction that I can see has been extremely positive.

The lessons?

  1. It takes almost the same effort and expense to roll out a low-impact change as it does to roll out a high-impact one. A company only does this a handful of times in its lifespan… make it count.
  2. At this point, there’s no excuse for not creating a fluid, seamless mobile web experience for your customers. Just do it.
  3. Make sure you have a story to tell, and use all your channels to engage your customers with that story. Don’t make them guess… you might not like the answers they come up with.

*To see a visual breakdown of the new identities, UnderConsideration's Brand New section posted profiles on both Southwest and Frontier with before and after shots of the logos.

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