New American Airlines Logo Triggers Ire and a Sense of Déjà Vu

Paint job shows that brands that scrap a classic look do so at their peril

When American Airlines unveiled its new logo and plane livery yesterday with the usual PR bravado (“Our new logo and tail reflect the spirit of America: innovative, progressive and open to the world,” read the tweet), one could only hope that the marketing department had its seats buckled and in the forward position. The public response to the design change—the brand’s first in four decades—has been, well, turbulent.

A quick sampling from Twitter: “Why do airlines think a new paint job makes up for crappy service [and] operating model deficiencies?” And: “American Airlines decapitates the Eagle.” And just: “OMG, what happened to the American Airlines logo?” One viewer felt confident enough to predict that the new design “will be hated by everybody.”

And that’s just the flying public. Analyst Bob Herbst, who tracks the industry at, pointed out that “all American Airlines labor groups have taken pay and benefits concessions, including thousands of furloughs and layoffs, so management can—somehow—justify spending tens of millions of dollars to take aircraft out of service and paint them.”

OK, so people aren’t happy. Perhaps American should have considered that a time when midcentury modernism is enjoying a huge comeback (Mad Men, anyone?) might not be the best time to ditch Massimo Vignelli’s classic 1967 “Silver Bird” livery, with its clean Helvetica type and midcentury mod eagle insignia. Or maybe it should have considered that, if American’s talked-about merger with USAirways goes through, the carrier might well be left with a paint job it doesn’t need.

But the savviest response of all—fittingly—might well belong to Vignelli himself, who's had to watch his most enduring design scrapped. Vignelli shared his feelings with the U.K. publication CreativeReview. “A designer can only be as good as their clients, therefore the new American Airlines identity doesn’t surprise me much,” the 81-year-old tastemaker said. “Clients without [a] sense of history could not understand the value of equity. It seems to me that there was no need for American Airlines to undertake such a change … but many people do not understand the difference between design and styling, and believe in change for the sake of change.”

The condensed version: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Brand fans might remember how The Gap learned this lesson a little over two years ago when it scrapped a logo that customers had embraced for two decades in favor of a more modern badge that won widespread disapproval—not just because of its appearance but because consumers couldn’t see the need for it. Following a few days of tumult, Gap management yanked the new design. “There may be time to evolve our logo,” the brand said in a statement, “but if and when that time comes, we’ll handle it in a different way.”

There’s no telling if American Airlines is anywhere near a similar conclusion, but observers like Herbst hope so. “Here was absolutely no reason to change AA’s well-recognized and respected logo,” he said. Plus, he added, passengers care more about on-time flights than what color the paint is.

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