It's Time to Work Hard and Fly the Friendly Skies Right Together: United & Continental Merger Mismash
May 4, 2010 ‐ 5 comments
Chalk it up to the infectious fecundity of spring, but move over American Airlines - TWA. It's now second place for Delta - Northwest. Yes, after many false starts under the oft-repeated mantra of "needed industry consolidation," United and Continental yesterday announced their boffo $3 billion + combination to create the latest and greatest and newest world's largest airline. Having last been through a jilted trip to the altar 2 years ago, leadership at both companies presumably had lots of time to think about what the merged entity's brand would look like. With a new twist on Solomonic sagacity, here's what they decided:
Yes indeed. Because this is a "merger of equals" (aren't they all -- remember AOL-Time Warner? DaimlerChrysler? Or even PriceWaterhouseCoopers?), we can't have one airline appear to "acquire" the other, hence the merged carrier will keep a bit of this and a little of that from each. The United name, Chairman Glenn Tilton and Chicago HQ stay, but the new airline will adopt the Continental livery, logo and CEO Jeffrey Smisek (who will have offices -- you guessed it -- in both Chicago and Houston)! Does this placate various constituencies? You bet. Is this smart brand-building? No.
Recasting the United name in the Continental typeface looks like, well, recasting the United name in the Continental typeface. Sure, over time, people will grow accustomed to seeing the planes say "United" rather than "Continental" next to the stylized globe logo. But it's a missed brand-building opportunity. Instead of creating a new visual identity commensurate with creating "The World's Leading Airline," this pastiche just looks like -- and is -- a hodgepodge of elements, rather than an integrated, cohesive entity that represents a unique, new assertion of value.
As anyone who has poked around BrandCultureTalk knows, we believe that great brands make tough choices. We also believe that great brands have to start with an idea. The most famous assertion of United's idea developed way back in 1965 by Leo Burnett, "Fly the Friendly Skies" ran an unprecedented 32 years and became one of the most successful and memorable in the history not just of aviation, but branding.
After some less memorable intervening incarnations (Does anyone remember, "It's important for the human race to stay United"? Neither do we.) United most recently exhorted, "It's time to fly." We'd argue that providing singularly friendly service beats the more vague temporal urgency of the current United slogan (although we admire the trailblazing pluck of United's legal department in that they evidently felt this assertion to be of sufficient importance to merit not one giant registered trademark symbol, but two in a row up in the header of this web page).
Continental, on the other hand, currently uses the more aggressive "Work Hard. Fly Right." This promise of honoring and acknowledging the realities of the present business environment -- as well as the present realities of flying -- firmly puts the carrier on the side of the business traveler. As itinerant carpetbagging brand-builders who spend a good bit of time in the air, this assertion resonates even more directly with us.
Unlike what they did with the logo and livery, the United merger marketing staff didn't simply jam the words together into a meaningless amalgam of "It's time to work hard and fly right." Instead they created a new assertion of "Let's fly together." While it may not rival the "Friendly Skies" for the branding record books, it does seem on strategy with the "together" part, and the "Let's fly" portion feels inclusive, elevated, even vaguely anagogical, as it reaches out toward the limitless possibilities in the wild blue yonder that the carrier . . . and its customers can now seize.
Here's another idea for how the new United's brand should look: start over. After all, if ultra-low fare carrier Ryan air can carve out a visually distinctive look, so can the new United. Think about what the word "United" really means. It's fantastic from a brand-building perspective. And consider the possibilities to dramatize what a new era of aviation (willingly suspend that disbelief!) that will be ushered in by this global colossus.
Now we acknowledge that our being in the business of drawing logos and developing brand lines (among other things) could make us appear less than completely objective in assessing the wisdom of retreading existing brand elements vs. creating new ones. But we don't exactly have a lock on the airline design business that, say Landor does, and we like to think we can still opine relatively uncorrupted. So come on, new United! Develop a new look worthy of your new brand. After all, you can't build the airline of the future based on the trade dress of the past.
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