An Inside Look at the American Airlines Rebranding ‘Saga’

American Airlines and FutureBrand didn’t just wing it with their rebranding campaign: the new logo and airplane design, revealed publicly this year, was a two-year undertaking. Company and branding agency executives shared behind-the-scenes details of their rebranding strategy, research and rationale at a recent AMA New York event.

Jill Surdek, American’s managing director of brand and customer experience strategy, called the process a “saga”, reminding the audience that the campaign began prior to major unforeseen events (namely the airline’s late 2011 bankruptcy and recent merger with U.S. Airways). She then laid out, piece by piece, a plan that was that much harder given industry, financial and self-inflicted PR problems (with our comments in italics):

Multilayered rationale. “It was a slow, methodical process to build the case for change, but there wasn’t much pushback from senior management”, Surdek said. She explained the reasoning:

  • AA’s competitors all refreshed their brands within the past decade, but American hadn’t done so since 1967.
  • While many fans identified with American’s iconic look, it had undeniably lost its luster.
  • American ordered several new aircraft a few years ago, so the time was right to change customer perceptions.
  • Marketing priorities include expanding international business and attracting younger customers.
  • The airline needed to streamline its vast array of different logos across business units.

Business reasons for rebranding were compelling. American competes with branding stars Jet Blue and Virgin (America and Atlantic) and with legacy carriers. Appealing to a younger base is essential moving forward.

Extensive research program.

FutureBrand’s senior director of strategy, Kari Blanchard, helped establish a cross-functional key stakeholder team to perform research. The agency conducted in-depth company interviews across levels and hosted an eight-week online global forum among 2,500 frequent traveler customers and over 500 employees to solicit feedback.

Respondents said the airline’s personality was too institutional and military-like — they preferred a more modern appeal. As Blanchard said, “this brand had all the permission in the world to improve.” The new personality was to be savvy and optimistic, conveying America’s entrepreneurial spirit rather than traditional patriotism.

An external and international perspective confirmed that rebranding was warranted, though whenever American patriotism is involved, changes become more complex.

Evolving the brand voice.

Research revealed American’s communications tone was too serious, so they made it more conversational. The agency conducted a website and digital media audit, overhauling the language used in each setting. For starters, the login page now reads “we’re glad you’re here.”

American’s conversational tone across digital platforms is appropriate, but the media critiqued the wording of press releases and videos announcing the rebranding. Better handling of distracting PR issues would also help keep the conversation on track.

Changing the visual identity. The multi-year conversion plan involved 21 touchpoints ranging from airport terminals to flight attendants’ uniforms. Sven Seger, FutureBrand’s CCO, showed attendees how they revitalized the brand’s look, sweating the details of each step.

  • The plane’s silver color appealed to respondents, who described it as unique, timeless and iconic. The agency shifted to a lighter silver shade, reflective of Apple’s products.
  • Many younger travelers thought the eagle was rigid and antiquated. The agency tried several versions, ultimately selecting a minimal, modern look.
  • They debated how American the logo should be, and test-painted multiple planes to fine-tune the U.S. flag’s stripe pattern and fit OneWorld’s lineup.
  • They chose the new turquoise sky-blue color to portray optimism.

The vibrant new design fits well with American’s branding goals. Those still attached to the old look can visit the retired planes in Roswell, New Mexico.

External reactions.

The rebranding prompted a flood of comments from the media and public. As Blanchard noted, “one can never fully prepare people for criticism, and we reminded everyone involved that changes wouldn’t necessarily be uniformly embraced.”

While their social media monitoring has shown mixed reactions, overall they’re trending favorably, according to Surdek. Brand designer reactions have also been more positive, Seger said.

Though U.S. media and public reactions have been all over the map, American’s audience is global. Worldwide reactions must also be taken into account.

Beyond the design.

Now the main priority is restoring pride in the brand by delivering excellent performance and customer service.

Surdek added, “the new look isn’t enough; we need to improve employees’ and customers’ experience and provide consistent service delivery, balancing hi-tech and high-touch. Since the merger is complex and challenging, we need to rethink everything. It’s a holistic redesign of the experience of flying American.”


(Images courtesy of American Airlines and FutureBrand)