> 14 MAY 2010 | 15:16 GMT

The United Airlines Rebranding Strategy

As it happens, I was in Turkey May 3rd, when the new United /Continental Airlines brand was launched. So I missed the debate among Identity Forum Contributors that took place May 5 and 6. The following string is too good merely to vanish into our Deleted Items bins. 

Elsewhere, you can see design critiques. The Forum Contributors focus on strategy, and ask whether new United’s identity strategy was planned as the easy interim solution (or will soon prove to be so), or as a more lasting brand banner.

It is appropriate that our conversation was initiated by Roger van den Bergh, who actually designed the 1990 Continental mark and livery (for fellow contributor Clive Chajet, then CEO of Lippincott). Thus in effect Roger has designed new United as well. 

Roger van den Bergh:  Hi Tony, by now [May 5] you must have read about this merger. 

The combined United-Continental Airline will continue using the “Monotype Perpetua” typography (by Eric Gill in 1929 for the Monotype Corporation) for the brand name, the brand colors, “globe” brand identifier and the aircraft livery. 

All these brand components were designed by yours truly, working as an independent designer for Lippincott & Margulies, over the summer in 1990. 

It is interesting to note that a visual brand system, in use for almost 20 years, will get a second life, under a different name, but exactly the same identity appearance. 

(Later) I just came to the conclusion that this whole Continental-United branding exercise is a PROVISIONAL tactic; the identity right now is a placeholder to work with, for the time being.

Around the official date when the actual new Company/brand will take in effect, a new identity system will be unveiled. 

It is too much of a big (branding-equity) deal to simply replace the name Continental with United. 

Branding does not work that way. 

Either Lippincott or Pentagram or both will make overtime right now. [See Roger's later predictions]            

Jerry Kuyper:  The provisional theory may have merit. 

When Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001, we presented a complete range of name and logo options - from leveraging their current equities to new options. They stuck by their ChevronTexaco name for about three years and then shortened the company name to Chevron and redid the whole program. 

Important branding decisions are often made in secretive initial merger discussions without the benefit of brand identity consultants.                                                                 

Bob Wolf:  I concur w/ comments by Jerry and Roger. It is a good way to soften the impact of change and at the same time, test the waters while still leaving the door open as to where they go with the identity.                                                           

Marco A. A. Rezende:   It seems me a quite speedy (and cheap) solution. I will be surprised if some high caliber branding consultancy signs it.       

If, as suspected, it is a not a professionally advised solution, this kind of “CEO fast branding” sets a negative precedent for our industry. Is this a precedent? In the future, will other M&A brandings be addressed in such a low cost, low quality way?                                                                   

Denis Riney:   Marco, it signals to me that nothing will change with this merger - it will be all about operational efficiency, not customer delight.  To their credit, Delta went the other way - killing off the dreadful Northwest brand, plowing money back into the customer experience, and trying to bring back a little elegance to US air travel.                                                    

Jonathan Knowles:  Marco, I have to (halfway) disagree with you. The design execution is crude but the idea of combining the identities is a good one. This is not a “transformation” — it is a simple combination. For the merger to be value-creating, they will need to minimize customer attrition while achieving operational cost savings.

By adopting a “combination identity” they have ensured that there is no “winner” or “loser” in the merger, and so stand a chance of maintaining both customer bases. 

Scott Lerman:  Feels like a kludge. Useful, but “an ill-assorted collection of parts.” Jonathan, it does the job of informing customers that nothing substantive has changed-not exactly the message I’d want to send as the new market leader. 

Jerry Kuyper:  It sounds like the usual merger horse trading — company name, CEO, plane design, logo, HQ, font, “you pick one, then I’ll pick one…” 

Jonathan Knowles:  I agree, Scott, that the message conveyed is one of pragmatism rather than vision.  But the truth is that “nothing much has changed” so the branding is an appropriate expression of the strategy.

Was there a bigger story that could have been told (especially given that the merger creates the largest airline in the world)?  Maybe.  But in the current economic climate, this strategy seems like a wise choice and a low risk way of ensuring that the customers of both airlines remain loyal to the merged carrier.

Scott Lerman:   “Seems an awful waste,” as Mrs Lovett said (in Sweeney Todd).  Any major merger attracts significant attention - why not use it to advance the brand? 

Elsie Maio:  I haven’t seen it, but if it looks like a half & half combo, I’m hoping it’s a transitional solution meant to mollify concerns from each customer/employee base.  Given how long it takes to re-suit airline livery, I’m guessing they’ll have time to transfer brand equity before repainting the fleet. Anyone out there making a futures market on these possibilities? 

Jonathan Knowles:  To Scott’s point - it would only have been a waste if the company had missed the opportunity to explain the logic for the merger.  But they didn’t.  They not only talked about the new identity - it formed the visual background to the press conference. 

My point is that not every brand promise needs to be a big one about “achieving new levels of customer delight” - sometimes the soundest strategy involves “stealing bases” not “swinging for the fences.” 

The academic research on mergers shows that the primary reason why most mergers fail to create value is NOT that they fail to achieve the anticipated cost savings, but rather that the merged company fails to maintain its top line growth rate due to customer defection.  Neither the United nor the Continental brand was toxic (like NorthWest’s was) so adopting either brand over the other would have risked higher defections by customers of the “losing” brand. 

I have no insight as to whether this is actually the logic that the management of United and Continental used but, whether as a result of “horse trading” or conscious design, my view is that the right call was made as far as the choice of branding strategy is concerned. 

Elsie Maio:  Now that I have seen it I’m thinking it looks and smells and feels like pure ‘Continental’ gene pool, and a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…You know, the Malcolm Gladwell “blink” test would say, “Continental.” I think the big opportunity for them here is to transfer the equity of that Continental culture which has kept them in the favored brand league for years.  Maybe this limbic-speaking identification system smoothes that path a bit. 

Jerry Kuyper:  Elsie, your blink test reaffirms the importance of the visual component of branding. 

Perhaps the thinking was as simple as this:
- United is probably the better name (esp. in a merger) — shorter, easier to say
- the globe is probably more effective than the U for the world’s largest carrier 

For airlines that are bleeding money, the goal may have been to position this as a cost effective solution. I’m just thankful the solution wasn’t UnitedContinental with the Continental globe peeking through the United U. 

Clive Chajet:  Having been responsible for the Continental corporate branding program when Frank Lorenzo was chairman, obviously I am prejudiced and delighted that the logo is being retained.

As far as the significance of branding in the airline business, in this day and age airlines have become commodities rather than brands who can charge a premium for their services. Travelers tend to pick a particular flight primarily because of where it is going and what the time schedule is.

As to the costs of changing every Continental and United visual expression as a result of the merger, while it is indeed very costly, the good news is that it will be a one time cost and does provide an opportunity for both brands to send new messages that might catch some travelers’ attention and interest. 

Obviously there has to be a new  message sent to old and new travelers, and in the context of its established brand name and look, the company will have a larger freedom to talk about the benefits of this “new airline” while leveraging existing awareness. 

Marco A. A. Rezende:   Jonathan, as known to linguists, “the signifier determines meaning” or tosemioticists, “there is no thinking beyond signs” (C.S. Peirce).  The idea behind the “United” branding may be positive (I do agree, as the new entity is “United,” it’s a good naming solution. But the message in itself (design execution) is non-effective. 

The proof of my assertion is on the Internet where I see only doubts, uneasiness and worry about the future. Is that good Branding? No. In my opinion, effective branding generates certainty, the basis for customer fidelity. 

And Clive, of course I agree that airlines may be a commodity for customers. But a brand may talk to other stakeholders. What about employee, shareholders, suppliers, international audiences? What messages will they receive? Even in America, is Continental so narcissistic that it believes that every traveler recognizes its symbol?

Is that an example of corporate reputation best practices? Even in Brazil, where CEOs are so concerned about cost, I never had seen such a strategy. It reminds me Garcia Marquez, the Colombian writer, “the story of an announced death”. 

I would like to make a bet. This combo will never be implemented. Any takers? 
Jonathan Knowles:  Marco, the strategy of combining the name of the acquiring company with the symbol of the acquired company (or vice versa) has been used successfully before:

- Boeing adopted McDonald Douglas’ symbol following their merger in 1997
- UBS adopted Swiss Bank Corporation’s symbol (the crossed keys) in 1998
- Travelers kept the umbrella symbol but adopted the Citi name in 1998

So I for one am ready to take you up on your bet!

Marco A. A. Rezende:  Jonathan, I would add to your list:

- ABN AMRO Bank acquisitions (we created it, partnering Lippincott in the late 90s)
- Santander Bank acquisitions

And many others cases.  Of course, it is not a new strategy.                                                                                       

 But, in this case, I take the bet. United and Continental are long term rivals, their brands are symbols of different cultures. Please, state the premium. 

Clive Chajet:  Marco, I’ll bet that both this merger will take place and given proper management this airline will become a leading brand in the business. 

Marco A. A. Rezende:  Clive, I agree with you. The issue is what identity will be carried by this leading brand?

Marius Ursache:  I wonder whether this approach (beyond signifying externally a merger of equals) isn’t also considering internal aspects, i.e. merging two different corporate cultures. However, as I’m not living in U.S., I don’t know how different these United and Continental cultures are and what may be the internal implications of the merger.

Roger van den Bergh:  Dear members of the Identity Forum: 

I have been thinking about this fascinating brand-building prospect since the (first) 2008 merger talks. I also have read all your commentary and opinions, from the sidelines, and concluded that the most important asset of (any) company is the dedication of all its people.

Safety, technology, avionics, MRO, logistics, yield management, catering, are relatively easy to control and measure (indeed the first four are closely regulated in the airline industry). The airline’s people, who apply these components in order to offer the perceived service to the customer, fundamentally will make or break the brand. 

It was surprising to see that the subject of people was not brought up at all, during the email rally yesterday by the participating strategists at the Identity Forum. I strongly believe that the brand appearance (using Continental’s identity elements) suggested at the announcement will never fly. Nevertheless the presented brand model is quite logical, and therefore must be seen as a provisional tactic. 

The agreed name United (shorter, more cohesive sounding) and graphic identifier of a globe will be crucial brand elements to project the largest international carrier in the world, in terms of passenger-miles flown. (It is almost as if the new United wants to identify herself with the heyday of Pan Am, obviously before the 1978 airline deregulation.) 

Again, the suggested brand appearance of Continental’s identity elements and United’s name is only a placeholder, and will be used for the next phase, which leads me to believe: 

  1. That right now, either Pentagram or Lippincott (or preferable both, to increase quality by competition) are working very hard to offer a new brand design. 
  2. This new look will be based on the United name and globe imagery, enabling talented designers at those firms to deliver a spectacular, fresh, modern and leading edge brand. 
  3. This is the appropriate moment to radically overhaul the brand to make it much easier for all involved to start from scratch and prepare for a new phase at the new airline. 
  4. Using a legacy identity would not work, because of too much emotional baggage left behind. 

I can’t wait to see the result of that exciting exercise at some uniquely organized launch event, later this year.

Marco A. A. Rezende:
 Dear Roger, I can forecast a brand scenario: 

1.   Naming
-      Alternative 1: keep “United.” Pro:  Express “union” of equals. Possible. But too simple. Not distinctive.
-      Alternative 2: keep “Continental” - Express “geographical limits,” weak for a global context.
-      In any case, for internal culture a holdover name would indicate a winner. Not positive.

My forecast:  a new coined name.  

2.  Symbol: the same thinking applies. Either symbol will be connected to the past, generate the perception of a “winner” and reinforce the feelings of victory of one side or another.

My forecast: No new symbol, but a smart self-standing wordmark plus an expressive metaphorical visual system, loved by employees, that would express and confirm a new corporate culture.

Tony Spaeth:  It is depressing that we (along with the two airlines’ employees) have to guess what this new brand is meant to achieve, and even to make bets on its permanence. To say merely “the marketing brand will be a combination of the brands of both companies - aircraft will have the Continental livery, logo and colors with the United name” [May 3 press release] is woefully inadequate.  

The necessary conclusion: this was a poorly managed brand launch. We should not have to guess what CEO-designate Jeff Smisek intended to achieve with these identity decisions. I can make a case that they were good decisions (and I will address this elsewhere, in an Identityworks review.)  But I should not have to guess. A good leader would already have said “Here is the compelling vision that these brand decisions will help us achieve.” It’s not that hard.

9 Remarks:

  1. By Arthur King
    09 JUN 2010, 23:45 GMT

    It is clear to me that this is an interim solution.  they have a lot of heavy lifting to do, internally and externally.  You will see a redesign and relaunch at the most appropriate time.

  2. By Tony Spaeth
    19 AUG 2010, 1:48 GMT

    Arthur is right. As of 18 August, industry sources report that Lippincott is the winner of the United Continental merger assignment, in a three-way shootout with - well, it doesn’t matter, does it!  

  3. By joel bader
    30 AUG 2010, 18:38 GMT

    I think both the Continental and United names and logos should be discarded. Perhaps a new name could be adopted–i.e. Intrepid Airlines, Endeavor Airlines–or one resurrected from the past–National Airlines or Trans American Airlines.

  4. By Kenneth Ramonet
    31 AUG 2010, 4:16 GMT

    I completely agree that the smartest way forward for this “new” United brand is to unveil a new vision of the combined two companies — reflected in capturing the obvious value inherent in the meaning of the word: united. Continental’s graphic use of the globe also has long-term value. After-all, this is perhaps the first US airline since Pan American to truly span the entire globe. However, to use Continental’s dated and bland livery, already in dire need of refreshing, strikes me as patronizing to Continental’s former employees and also to their somewhat conservative business flyer base. It would represent a colossal missed opportunity. To this day (08/30/10) I hope perhaps against hope that they will shortly unveil something spectacular, something forward-looking, something unifying for all and finally something very special that would do justice to what kind of airline they have: the first worthy successor to the the Pre-1978 Pan American World Airways.

  5. By Robert Martinez
    31 AUG 2010, 6:21 GMT

    Lippincott’s design work for Air New Zealand, Continental, Delta and TACA are utterly and completely unremarkable.  That is certainly not a portfolio to be proud of.
    If Lippincott has in fact won the branding assignment, what a sad day indeed for the world’s new number one airline — and the timeless, iconic tulip U. 

  6. By Mario Rodriguez
    01 SEP 2010, 22:55 GMT

    The resulting Lippincott design for Air New Zealand was poor, for Delta  it was mediocre, and for TACA a completely tasteless ill-fitting puzzle. Robert might have said it best: completely unremarkable.
    United’s iconic tulip U was already made anonymous and irrelevant on the current bleached, faded rendition of United’s current 2004 tail design.
    Roger’s Continental design was well done. However, the globe logo never became iconic and as well-known as it could have been because it is too complex, cut off on aircraft tails and most importantly it becomes lost inside the blue background. Still, as a whole it was a good design.
    The new global United should seize the opportunity to present a brand that’s both distinctive and visually appealing. When it’s all said and done, that’s what you want to get out of the final product. It will ensure the look doesn’t need to be changed every few years.
    -Ditch the blue tail. Too many airlines have a blue tail and this look has become stale by now. It would help to stay away from going blue. Create something fresh using other colors.
    -Transfer more design elements to the fuselage for a more balanced look as opposed to drawing attention only to the tail and rear.

  7. By Jana Brubaker
    02 NOV 2010, 21:41 GMT

    Boeing adopted McDonald Douglas’ symbol following their merger in 1997
    And apparently so successfully rebranded that McDonnell Douglas has already been forgotten, even by the naming experts. LOL! Am I ever happy I stumbled across this site! Fascinating conversations!

  8. By Jana Brubaker
    02 NOV 2010, 21:44 GMT

    How about combining Continental with United and coming up with Contented Airlines? When is the last time you felt contented while sitting in an airplane? It could set a whole new standard for air travel.

  9. By Michael Brierton
    10 JAN 2012, 17:59 GMT

    I agree with alot of whats been said. A great opportunity blown. A completely worn out type font, with a 20 year old staid symbol. Heavy, slow, old. Although not completely surprising when corporations really Own us, it’s just more “take it or leave it”- we’re the biggest”. If they don’t care about taking some brand position, how much can they care about their product and service? Getting ready to switch my miles program - If I can.

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