Defensive Strategy

United’s Temporary Branding

14 Mar 2011  

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in airports over the past couple weeks; I was teaching a course in Germany so I made four trips across the pond. As a result I’ve had a chance to get a good look at United’s new brand design.

My prediction: it won’t last long.

Airlines need good brand design; flying is fairly unpleasant so the companies want to elevate the experience. Branding is an important part of the effort. This is why airlines spend millions creating beautiful logos, buying stylish outfits for the cabin crew and painting airplanes.

United’s new brand design is fairly uninspired. The planes have the Continental globe with the word United on the side. It is easy to imagine one of the senior executives at United spending five minutes on it, “Don’t be silly. We don’t need to hire an expensive design firm like Landor. I can just do this on my computer. Put the globe on the tail and the word United on the side. Just use the Arial font. It works in presentations pretty well so it will work on the planes.”

I completely understand why United went with the new design. Combining two brands is always a challenge. Combining two organizations is an even greater challenge. The joining of United and Continental is very sensitive; executives don’t want to make it seem like one airline is acquiring the other. The new looks supports this view. The design clearly communicates that this is a merger, not an acquisition.

It won’t last. Once the integration is complete, United executives will realize the branding is uninspired and weak compared to global competitors such as Emirates and Virgin. They probably know it now. And eventually they will get to work on a brand design that has emotion and meaning. Perhaps the United tulip will return.

My prediction: United will announce a new brand design by early 2013. They probably won’t finish painting all the planes with the current design before they are on to something better.

21 Responses

  1. KPChicago says:

    Well the way handling of operations, software, labor relations and treatment of frequent flyers are going, expect a return to the “United Classic” when the current execs leave. UAL is definitely in “New Coke” phase of management – the worst of both worlds…

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  3. JL says:

    No! The Globe logo is just perfect! The new Continental systems are the best! Keep the Globe logo!

  4. Rick Ray says:

    Tim – Easy to agree with you on this one. But once again the superficial bugaboo of not distinguishing the difference between “branding” and the “brand” itself raises its ugly head. The real challenge facing any merger is not its new logo or other branding activity – it is the new brand itself. Every merger requires its own credible, authentic (and new) brand story. But I would say that wouldn’t I? Often it is Management itself which has no clear idea about their own “new” brand – so what chance do they have in tring to communicate their own uncertainty to all of us outsiders? Rick

    • Tim Calkins says:

      Rick—Well said. United’s big challenge will be building the brand as the merger proceeds…inspiring employees to deliver great service during a time of uncertainty can be difficult.


  5. As a historian and frequent flier for United, I’ll have to side with the majority of people on here in what seem to be in favor of the tulip.

    Yes, there is a difference between a logo and livery. Logo is used to identify a corporate entity. Livery is only used by companies like airlines to help associate their logo with their brand.

    Yes, United has had four liveries since 1973 (excluding the CO/UA scheme). Though the tulip was introduced in late 1973, it never made its way to the airplanes until 1974 when the “friendship” livery was discontinued. It would be more accurate to state that United has had three liveries since 1974 (excluding the new CO/UA scheme).

    The familiar Saul Bass designed livery lasted until late 1992. During the early 1990’s, (1991), current executives at United hired a Los Angeles-based agency to redesign the ticket books for United. While maintaining the Saul Bass stripes, logo and font, the agency applied all this against a gray background. Fascinated by this, the executives at United wanted to apply this to their aircraft. At the same time, United was expanding internationally, and the executives at the time felt that the Saul Bass livery was “too bold”. So, in 1992 United (while taking the gray-background idea from the ticket book redesign) rebranded themselves with new battle-ship gray colors and type face while still maintaining the Saul Bass Logo and stripes. The goal of this livery was to be “less bold” and to give the fliers a sense of style and sophistication.

    It was later learned that while the battle-ship gray colors may have appeared to be nice, several concerns were learned. Air traffic controllers agreed that the colors were hard to see on a cloudy day. The aircraft took longer and cost more to paint, and the paint that was used faded much quicker over time. Not to mention, the cost of cooling the aircraft was much higher since dark colors were used on the fuselage. So, in 1997 United commissioned Pentagram to design a new brand identity. This identity is what we now today (pre merger) with the Saul Bass logo, and single-word United in a serif bold font. However, this brand was not carried over very well, as in 1997, United was still repainting its aircraft from the Saul Bass livery into the battle ship gray livery, and now were launching a new identity. So, in 1997 United had not one, not two, but three different identities visible at airports. Passengers would see the new serif-bold font on advertising and ticket books, then walk to the gate and see the Times-New Roman 1993-style font against a dark-blue/light-blue stripped backdrop, then board a white-background with orange/blue/red stripped white background jet. Brand confusion? I think so.

    Add to all this, the vision of a dark-gray/blue aircraft flying into the WTC on 9/11 is instilled in most peoples’ minds. I’m sure United would have wanted to repaint their aircraft after that horrible incident, but just didn’t have the money to do so. By this time, United’s aircraft were all repainted from the Saul Bass Livery into the Battleship gray livery.

    Finally, in 2004, while nearing an exit from bankruptcy, United was able to secure enough cash to repaint its aircraft in to a new visual brand identity originally designed by Pentagram in 1997. It would seem that for the next several years to come, you would gradually see a modern, sleek yet elegant brand emerge from the ashes of the battle-ship gray. And yet, as the merger would hold it, we now have three identities again.

    The only reason United is using the Globe and CO Logo, is because Glenn Tilton was so fixated on getting out of United, that he would do anything, and that included “selling United down the river.” Once the merger is complete, the United we know will exist only in name.

    So next time you fly the friendly skies, take a good look around you. You’ll check in at the kiosk, see the blue/white gradient fade with the serif-bold font on your e-ticket. Then walking to the gate you’ll see the new advertising with the CO globe, as you board a plane wearing battleship gray colors, parked next to a blue/white faded plane, while a plane wearing the CO titles taxis. Man, if only there were the orange/red/blue stripes plane in this branding mess we’d be one hell of a confused airline!

    I give this livery 5 years. Then we’ll see something new. 2013 maybe? And who knows, JAL rebirthed their logo, maybe UA will wake up and do the same!

  6. Keith says:

    New United Livery = New Coke

    Long before the merger, the CO ads were a clip-art eyesore every time I read Wired Magazine, which has great design sense.

    And this is the design choice made for the merged airline. When UACO specifically loses LAX and SFO passengers to Virgin after it starts flying O’Hare, perhaps they will notice.

  7. kevin says:

    Tell me then, if the livery and logo were so tainted, then why isn’t the NAME “UNITED AIRLINES” being dropped?

    Do tell how you came to the conclusion on one survey (and JD Powers, just like their car ratings, have been known to be seriously flawed) that United’s logo is being dumped because it’s “tainted” yet the name is staying. That makes no sense, at all. The only reason the Tulip is being dumped is because of Jeff $mi$ek’s ego, and nothing more. The decision was done with no marketing input at all, and he even admitted to such.

    Once again, your ancedotes fail, but coming from Camp Continental, failure is the only option.

  8. Tom Farmer says:

    A skilled logician such as yourself might be interested in the 2010 J.D. Power North American Airline Satisfaction Study, in which United Airlines was ranked next to last among US-based “traditional” carriers. Only US Airways received poorer grades.

    In the eight categories comprising the rankings, Continental Airlines was rated “average” in one; “better than most” in five; and “among the best” in two, including “service experience.” United, meanwhile, was rated “below average” in two of the eight categories, “average” in all the rest.

    These are not pampered elites or crazy fanboys talking — this is the most respected measure of the broad consumer marketplace. And it explains in a twinkling why the United tulip is Dumpster-bound.

    The J.D. Power data supports the conclusion that Continental Airlines is akin to a graceful, gliding swan, while United is a sort of mud-caked, malignant tumor, comparatively speaking.

    Fulminate and dissemble all you like, but we don’t take votes on the facts. And, to bring the discussion back to branding for the sake of our host, you don’t perpetuate brand stories that excite negative reactions in your core constituency. Just as ValuJet had to adopt the AirTran name to outrun bad perceptions about safety, New UA has to drop the tulip and UA livery to outrun bad perceptions about service.

  9. kevin says:

    And you still never rebutted my points and instead went into off-topic banter about me. Way to go. But keep believing UA sucks because they “abused” our BK laws, while CO is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and that the Saul Bass livery was only used until 1986.

  10. kevin says:

    There you go again, trying to attack someone personally that doesn’t give in to the half-assed, disgusting “Continental way”. Too bad, so sad for you that not everyone in the world kisses up to $mi$ek and his word nor chugs the COol-Aid.

  11. Tom Farmer says:

    Sigh. Well, at least the branding expert who runs this blog now has a new case study on the relationship between branding and mental illness.

  12. kevin says:

    I know the difference between a logo and livery, it’s you that doesn’t. UA’s logo never changed from 1973 until now.

    And you’re just another typical CO flyer, arrogantly sitting on his high horse while you smell your own farts thinking you’re better than everyone else and that your beloved airline is the best thing ever. Chugging your COol-Aid while blindly following your arrogant airline and their NonePass program, using your tissue paper blankets to keep cold while you are stranded at the airport due to the poor IRROPS while enjoying the free food-poisioning that came with your free meal. Rah Rah Rah! Fucks you hard, screws you right.

    Using your logic that UA should’ve died were it not for our BK laws (you know, the ones you just bashed UA for “abusing”), boy are you in for a world of hurt. CO would’ve died back in the 1980s had our BK laws not saved it. They would’ve also died a 2nd time in the early 1990s whe they filed for yet another BK (all of this while UA was basically printing money and was the largest airline the world). They also almost filed for BK yet AGAIN in the late-90s. CO was so shitty they couldn’t even prosper when the industry was in one of its boom periods! The word pathetic is an understatement here!

  13. kevin says:

    Oh, and before I forget and you jump to another BS conclusion, not only was the grey livery replaced only after 11 years because it was expensive to apply and didn’t wear well, it was also seen on live on National television slamming straight into the World Trade Center as UA 175. But UA just changed it because they’re a terrible airline, right? rollseyes.

  14. Tom Farmer says:

    You don’t know the difference between a logo and livery. Nor how to argue your points without veering into profanity and insults — a handy refuge for United Airlines loyalists compelled, for reasons known only to them, to defend a crippled, dying airline which would have disappeared a long time ago were our bankruptcy laws not so easily abusable.

    If Charlie Sheen ever becomes a brand strategist, he’ll sound something like the posts above.

  15. kevin says:

    Oh you COol-Aiders are funny.

    The Saul Bass Livery was used from 1973-1993, not ’86, numb nuts. You don’t even know the facts about the airline you’re mindlessly bashing. Wow. That COol-Aid is terrible stuff and messes with your head. Are you Charlie Sheen or something?

    The Grey was used from ’93-2004, and the current Blue Tulip livery would’ve been in use for quite a while had it not been shorten from someone OUTSIDE of United. And new liveries are not done just to compensate for short-comings. KL has updated their livery, as has WN, F9, and many other airlines who are viewed as good establishments. But no, only when it’s United, who replaces a livery after many many years mind you, is it bad.

    You also still ignore the fact the brand didn’t change, at all. The Tulip was present the entire time and is instantly recognized as the United logo, recognition that crappy globe does not have for Crapinental.

    You obviously have a selective memory, or aren’t old enough to remember that Continental was, by far, the WORST airline in the United states throughout the 80s and 90s until the early 2000s when they got somewhat better, but have been on a decline that’s been noticed by all but hard-core COol-Aiders like you for the last 5-6 years. You bash UA for still having the grey planes (which they were well on their way to replacing and you’d be a fool to believe it was the current look), yet CO had the red meatball, black meatball, PE, EA, and TX International liveries all flying around with CO titles on them for YEARS and nothing was done about it.

    Continental for years has been an overrated establishment going down the drain and investors noticed. CO needed this merger as they were fading into irrelevancy quickly. Wasn’t it CO who basically was an also ran in Skyteam until UNITED invited them to an alliance that they would be more welcome in? Wasn’t it Continental who investors said would have trouble staying independant in the coming years as fuel prices rose and other stronger airlines like AA, DL and UNITED had stronger international networks?

    Keep on chuggin’ the COol-Aid. Rah rah rah you’re the best!!!


  16. Tom Farmer says:

    United Friend Ship brand until 1973-74
    United white fuselage + red/orange/blue cheatline + tulip: 1975-86
    United Steven Wolf Death Star livery with serif font 1986-2005
    United white fuselage + blue gradient blown-out tulip + new font: 2005-2011
    United white fuselage + Continental globe + yet another new font: 2011 – ?

    I’d say that’s an, um, unsettled, uncertain brand strategy.

    Livery changes American Airlines has gone through during this same timeframe: zero.

    Liveries sometimes change in the airline business, but it’s often done to compensate for shortcomings elsewhere. How many rebrandings have LH, CX, SQ, or QF gone through in the last forty years? One or two, not four or five.

    Continental outpolled and outranked UA in virtually every objective satisfaction test throughout most of the last 20 years — recent on-time performance excepted. If the managements of both companies didn’t think they’d have a better shot using CO’s art direction, presumably we’d now be seeing hundreds of CO jets getting half-sprayed with dirty, peeling, scorched gray paint and faded serif lettering. Oh, sorry, is that iteration of the UA brand retired? You can’t tell from looking out the average airport window.

  17. kevin says:

    Oh and Tom, get your fact straight before you trash United.

    United has had only 3 liveries since 1973. One was kept for over 20 years (and not retired in 1986 like you so blindly claim). The grey was kept for 11 years. All of them kept the most recognized and iconic image of United’s brand; The Tulip. The font and livery were updated over the years as times warranted. This is no different than any other SANE business would do. Liveries change often in the airline industry. And United was well on their way to getting the planes repainted into the post-BK livery until Jeff $mi$ek came in and ruined it. Just because Continental was stagnant with a dated 1991 brand doesn’t make them better. All 3 of UA’s recent liveries trump the current CO brand in spades like it’s no tomorrow.

  18. kevin says:

    Uh, no, the Tulip does not bring back stomach cramps. United’s reputation is no worse than any other domestic carrier and certainly not worse than Continental, who is by far the most overrated operation in the airline industry. If United was so bad as you claim (gee, where’s your proof?) then why are they keeping the NAME? That would create more “stomach cramps” than any logo could ever.

    The Tulip has stood the test of time since 1973, is iconic, and a timeless design. This crappy globe was dated and crap from day one and needs to die along with the airline that created it.

    This “new” branding was done by one person, Jeff Smisek, who is an egotistical moron who has no business running an airline. He created this crappy livery all on his own because his precious CO was dying. I can’t wait until the day this clown is gone from the airline so that the Tulip can return to its full glory and the last vestige of Continental, this crappy livery and that DISGUSTING globe are buried along with the rest of this arrogant, overrated airline and the shills that blindly follow it.

  19. Tom Farmer says:

    The merger branding, while calculated to communicate that neither airline is taking over the other (as DL obliterated NW), seems to have offended loyalists on both sides. United fans imagine their company’s brand to be more nuanced, elegant and sophisticated; they deride the Continental livery as dull and bush-league. CO loyalists imagine Continental as the last quality network carrier in America — which it was until about five years ago — being sullied by the hated word “United.”

    CO fans forget that Gordon Bethune left the building a long time ago. UA fans forget that for most of the past 25 years, UA has been a pretty poor airline with confused and tattered branding. The fleet is a shabby mix of old, peeling “death star” planes and a newer post-bankruptcy livery. But United’s been through four distinct brand personalities since the 1970s, and if you walk through the San Francisco terminal you will see United signage in a font allegedly retired in 1986. The brand’s a mess.

    UA loyalists venerate the Saul Bass tulip, but they ought to remember — I suspect CO managers remember — that for rank-and-file, non-1k travelers, the tulip denotes incompetent, dismissive, horrific customer service. For many it’s the airline brand equivalent of the Jolly Roger, or a biohazard warning.

    I agree with you that the merger brand is an uncomfortable, clunky mix of visual and font cues that’s not built for the long term. But reintroducing the tulip will give a lot of us stomach cramps.

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