It’s difficult for me to avoid skepticism when commercials are overly sentimental about their own brands. “It’s time to become better versions of ourselves,” narrates a deep, persuasive and compelling voice which overlays the empty airport powering to life. An airplane’s nose peeks out of the hangar while the mild raspiness of home and the countryside tell me of “a new chapter. One written in passion and skill, ambition and sweat.” The music picks up and I feel like I’m about to save the world, one maximum-50lb checked piece of luggage at a time. “The new American is arriving.” I believe I can fly.
Tom Horton, the CEO and President of American Airlines, spoke on campus recently about the financial struggles and triumphs of his company and industry. Restructuring and shareholders and mergers and the Justice Department and a whole bunch of jargon I could only keep up with because he was mercifully dumbing it down for us humanities majors. But he also discussed American’s new logo, the significance of rebranding a company, the ways “restructuring” implies more than renegotiating labor contracts.
Redesigning the American logo, says Sven Seger (Chief Creative Officer at Futurebrand), is “about capturing the spirit of America, capturing technology, capturing service.” The logo is literally a diagonal line, half blue and half red, separated by a white and silver space that abstractly resembles an eagle’s head in profile. The connection between America’s technology-driven service industry and this logo is so wildly tenuous that it’s fair for me to at least be skeptical. But it’s not just the logo—they would argue—it’s the brand: the eagle, the seventy years of aviation history, the soaring beacon of capitalism on a silver jet with red and blue stripes.
Meanwhile, the brand declared bankruptcy. Restructuring, therefore, must involve many tough decisions, most of which are not focused on cosmetics. Yet, the clear statement of priorities points to the alleged unequivocal importance of a new logo and newly painted jets. I feel like a mindless character in Roller Coaster Tycoon who watches the owner of the park (i.e. the user) attempt to trick me into thinking he built a new ride by giving an existing one different colors. When I need to fly, I search online for the cheapest and most convenient flights and don’t give a damn if it’s American or United or Southwestern. Who cares about the plane’s livery or the logo on the napkin they distribute with my peanuts? (Do airlines still do that?)
The brand’s representing the “spirit of America” actually isn’t completely unfounded. At the very least, the company has lived through the greater part of this past century: through America’s wars, through its economic upturns and recessions, transporting our citizens and culture to the rest of the world, and representing the innovation and service defining our nation. The American Airways Company was renamed American Air Lines in 1934, soon after developing the DC-3 which allowed them to earn a profit only transporting passengers (instead of needing to also transport US Mail). The Admirals Club in New York’s LaGuardia Airport was the world’s first airline lounge and by 1978, American was flying to sixty-eight airports across several continents. American adopted a hub-and-spoke system (instead of flying inefficient direct routes between two minor airports, there are several central hubs and ‘spoke’ routes) in 1979 and maintained steady profits through the ‘80s and ‘90s. After the September 11, 2001 attacks—two of which were carried out with American planes—the entire industry suffered greatly, plunging American into an economic downturn of 17 straight quarters with a deficit. In November 2011, American’s parent company, AMR Corporation, filed for Chapter 11 and reorganization.
I must acknowledge that when I was younger, my family always flew American. I distinctly remember the anticipation for the deck of cards the flight attendant would distribute—my cool, exclusive deck of cards with the classic (and soon-to-be retro) AA logo that I could only acquire at an altitude of 30,000 feet. And when we didn’t fly American, I was acutely disappointed. Therefore I cannot outright deny the advantages of investing in a logo and service or the emotional attachment to a brand.
There’s a theory that fancy car commercials—the Lexus speeding around unrealistically scenic mountain overpasses with the soothing engine roar and voice telling you about change and innovation and luxury—are really about enforcing one’s connection to the brand of car he or she already owns. Frequent flier clubs and the Admiral’s Lounge are not about enticing the frugal college student or the child who loves playing Go Fish on a flight. Rebranding is about building the corporate identity that keeps customers interested, keeps them proud of flying American. Maybe I don’t care about the logo on my napkin, but the business executive certainly might; he might look down and smile with the pride of feeling special, a personal connection to the huge amorphous blob that is a Corporation. There was a period of time when my grandfather ate lunch at TGI Friday’s every single day and began accumulating frequent customer points in quantities the restaurant had never witnessed—he effortlessly earned the week-long cruise for example. But he kept coming back, not because of an obsessive need to break records or hoard points, but because the waiters knew his name, his order, the salmon substitution and extra onions on the side.
Rebranding, then, is a conscious decision to turn off auto-pilot and look internally to the core values that drive a company. It’s the movement from taking off at point A to landing at point B and all the turbulence in the middle. When all is said and done and the fasten-seatbelt sign no longer illuminated, airplane travel—man’s ability to literally fly across oceans—is simply a modern miracle. The challenge facing airlines today is to prevent their customers from feeling second to US Mail, allowing them to recline, play Go Fish and smile because the airline is not just any old logo—it’s the brand that knows you’re special. Look who’s being sentimental now.