Epic fails on the branding front

The new livery for American Airlines

New and not-improved

A brand, as Donny Deutsch has often observed, is a “set of values.” It is not a tagline, a logo or a colorway, yet all those things are trade dress that communicates just what those values represent. When there’s a disconnect between the values and the reality of the consumer experience or understanding, branding goes bad in a big way.

Take, for example, American Airlines. Since 1967, AA has proudly displayed the “Silver Bird” livery designed by Massimo Vignelli. For reasons known only to its C-suite (merger? bankruptcy? labor turbulence?), the company decided to change the conversation, ditch tradition and replace “what wasn’t broke” with a new design that was received with what can charitably described as extreme dislike. Rather than seeing “innovation and progressive” values, viewers from industry analysts to Vignelli himself saw a waste of millions of dollars that succeeded merely in communicating how far this once proud airline had fallen. Moral of the story: change for its own sake will hurt, not help, your brand. Consider the history of the company or organization, do your research and make sure the new values you’re touting are credible and true.

Then, there’s the University of California dispute (astutely analyzed by AIGA), which is more a case of unfortunate communications rather than bad branding. The issue arose with the implementation of a new, streamlined monogram designed to anchor a new identity system for marketing and promotional materials. After a year of quiet and successful use, a student started a petition based on the mistaken belief that the new monogram was a replacement for the venerable old university seal. Controversy ensued, rumors spread and the new logo was dropped. This is troubling for many reasons. Apart from losing a really dynamic identity, this story illustrates that even in an intellectual environment, expertise can be undermined by an uninformed hive mentality; strategic thinking, if not clearly communicated to all the stakeholders, is overcome by subjectivity and misinformation trumps facts. Having worked on a re-brand for a public university, I know just how contentious the process can be. You can never “over-share” your thinking in cases like this.

Finally, there’s the GOP. Do they really think that “tone and manner” are at the heart of their recent defeat at the polls? Can you make a silk purse out of an elephant’s ear?

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