Monday, January 21, 2013

What's Underneath American Airlines' New Paint Job?

American Airlines is going through a difficult time: it’s still officially in bankruptcy, its three major unions are intransigent, and it may have to merge with US Airways to survive. And yet, for the last two years (almost its entire term of restructuring), American has been working on a complete rebranding, secretly repainting its fleet in private hangars before unveiling the new look on January 17. It’s the first redesign of the brand in 45 years.

The timing could be perfect, since, over the last few years, airlines have had a run of bad PR that had nothing to do with delays or crashes: Southwest deemed filmmaker Kevin Smith “too fat to fly.” JetBlue had a flight attendant quit by sliding down the emergency chute. Delta overcharged returning veterans for their extra bags. American itself kicked Alec Baldwin off a flight for playing Words With Friends during “no cellphone” time. Perhaps none had it worse than United, which broke musician David Carroll’s guitars and endured three mocking viral videos until the matter was settled.


Regular Brandeblog readers know that, at Brandemix, we believe that a brand is more than a logo. It’s a promise a company makes to its customers, employees, shareholders,  job applicants and more. American has changed its external look, logo, and uniforms – but has it changed its internal operations or culture?

One thing we know is that American is slightly changing both the customer and employee experience. Passengers will now find more wi-fi and USB ports in the terminal and on the plane; first-class passengers will dine on “elegant new china”; some planes will get fully reclining seats. Pilots will be issued iPads and flight attendants will use a Samsung Galaxy device to “see passenger information in real time.”

But what if you’re in economy class and just want to read a book? What if you’re an employee that doesn’t get – or want – a mobile device? American’s rebranding must go deeper to truly change how passengers and employees feel about it. Nothing I’ve seen from the media or the airline itself indicates that American is overhauling its employer branding, onboarding, training, or employee engagement philosophies along with its look.

When we conduct rebranding initiatives for our clients, we work from the inside out. We interview employees, managers, board members, and customers. Only after we discover what the brand means to them do we try align it with the needs and goals of the client. The more workers that are involved in the process, the more likely they are to accept the new brand and become its champions.

Clearly, American’s union employees weren’t involved in the rebranding. The spokesman for American’s pilots union said “A new paint job is fine but it does not fix American's network deficiencies and toxic culture.” The president of the flight attendants’ union said she had no confidence left in the airline’s management team. A new uniform isn’t going to change these employees’ minds; they’ll need a shift in company culture that shows American cares about them.

We can all appreciate or criticize American Airlines’ new logo, but the red and blue icon affects our experience, and the employee experience, very little compared to American’s culture, vision, values, and mission statement. We are hopeful that the airline plans to change those too; if not, we at Brandemix are ready to help; you could said we’re waiting in the wings.

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