Skift Take

American’s merger may be more pressing news that its redesign, but change the iconic look too much and the airline risks becoming all but recognizable from the company it’s been for the past 80+ years.

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In a recent New York MagazinePaul Ford writes about “crowdsmashing” — the newish phenomenon in which people revolt online when companies crap up their branding. His examples include the “Gap Logo Debacle of 2010″ and the University of California’s recent logo fiasco. Ford explains:

People don’t like their stories messed with. You expect a certain continuity, and when the opposite happens—Dylan going electric, season two of Friday Night Lights—you react out of proportion to external measures of the offense but very much in proportion to the internal anxiety and anger you might feel.

Will we experience another crowdsmashing soon? American Airlines is expected to unveil a new brand image later this month. And this doesn’t happen very often, so people might get upset. American’s current look, including its iconic logo and livery, have survived since the 1960s. Vignelli Associates, the designer, has said it’s ”one of the few [logos] worldwide that needs no change.”

The new look may be a simple tweak or a radical overhaul — nothing has leaked yet. But some change is imminent. “We will be sharing more information about the new look and feel very soon,” American CEO Tom Horton said today in a letter to employees, following a profitable Q4. American had also teased something in the closing frames of a feel-good video posted to YouTube late last year, featuring a masked-off tail. What are they doing?

Why is this happening?

Blame science, not an overzealous image consultant.

American’s future fleet includes the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” — the first plane made mostly of composite materials, not shiny aluminum — and new Airbus A320 series planes, which also include composites.

This means American’s classic, minimalist look — just polish the metal and paint a few stripes down the side — won’t work forever. As American CEO Tom Horton told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last October, “I think that dictates that our airplanes will have to have some paint on them and you’re just going to have to stay tuned on that.”

Why now, then?

A few reasons.

American is about to launch flights on its big, new, flagship aircraft, the Boeing 777-300ER, which includes amenities like a walk-up bar, international wifi, and “unique mood lighting.” (It’s been doing test flights in a plain gray paint job, so as not to spoil the big unveil.) American is also, in theory, going to emerge from bankruptcy soon. Then, there’s the potential that it might merge with US Airways, which would require a unified brand/livery.

All told, it’s a chance to make a statement. As Horton told the Star-Telegram last year:

We’ve been doing a lot of thinking about it. Not just the look of the livery but what the brand should be and stand for as we come out of this as the new American. We’ve put a couple of years of work into that and it’s nearing completion.

So, what will it look like? The easiest option, and the one I hope they take, is restraint — to change as little as possible. Keep the Helvetica, maybe tweak the color scheme to account for the gray fuselage, and don’t mess with the logo.

Recent changes to American’s check-in kiosk software suggest that red is no longer welcome, and its new iPad app is very blue. (The company name seems to be in Avenir, not Helvetica, but perhaps that’s just for the app.)

But, who knows.

The good news is that classic is trendy now. The bad news is that airlines tend to have horrible taste. (It’s bad enough that United killed its iconic “tulip” after merging with Continental, in favor of a clip-art globe.)

Say what you will about American’s product, but its look and brand are worth fighting for. I hope they don’t destroy them just to make a superficial splash.

The story was originally published on Splatf. Used with permission.


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Tags: american airlines, livery

Photo credit: American Airlines posted a video late last year teasing viewers to what's under the covered-up tail.

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