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United and Continental airlines designing brand as they prepare for wedding

Some United loyalists aren't happy with the 'something old, something new' approach, which will put Continental's globe logo and color scheme on jets operated by the merged carrier.

August 23, 2010|By Julie Johnsson

United and Continental airlines aren't yet officially hitched, but some are already grumbling about the monogram they've selected for their china.

The backlash is a reaction to one of the first compromises reached by the carriers' chief executives during their April courtship: an agreement to stamp Continental's stylized globe logo and blue-and-gold color scheme on all jets operated by the new United, which will be one of the world's largest carriers.

United's name and its Chicago headquarters will survive the tie-up, but not the "tulip," the giant Saul Bass-designed "U" that has graced United's jets for nearly 40 years.

Some longtime United fliers are protesting the move with "Save the Tulip" campaigns on Facebook and Twitter, urging fans of the venerable logo to bombard the airlines' CEOs with letters and bouquets of tulips.

"Someone needs to make a stand for good communications and good branding," said Timothy Jasionowski, who logs more than 100,000 miles annually on United. "The tulip is an iconic part of aviation history."

The final design, unveiled Aug. 11, is the first step in a long and costly process that will define the merged carrier's look and feel to the world, crucial in a service industry known for fickle customers. But executives are quickly learning that they can't make everyone happy with a "something old, something new" approach.

United loyalists feeling nostalgic for the "Friendly Skies" now know the agony Houstonians felt upon learning that the merging carrier would be based in Chicago. For Continental fliers, there's pride and relief in seeing the globe, a hallmark of their airline's turnaround, made a prominent part of the new United.

"What they do next is what matters," said Kevin Masi, principal and co-founder of Torque Ltd., a Chicago branding agency. "Rebranding is an opportunity and requirement to communicate to the marketplace."

Customers will be watching closely as executives reveal the fate of other branding marks and service touchstones at the merging carriers: George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" theme, in-flight Channel 9's air-traffic-control patter and Economy Plus' roomier seating for United; Continental's DirecTV in-flight entertainment and its philosophy of not gouging customers for perks.

Some observers would have preferred to see the carrier forge a completely new identity. "I'm a huge fan of making a clean break, unless you're planning on replicating the service" from one carrier, said Brett Snyder, president of Cranky Concierge air travel assistance who writes the "Cranky Flier" blog. "I don't know how you meet expectations from both sides when you're not really making a clear brand statement."

Most elements of the new airline's brand will be kept under wraps until after the deal closes, which should occur by year-end if the merger passes muster with federal regulators.

But some details are trickling out. United's parent company's name, UAL Corp., will be replaced by United Continental Holdings. Also gone: United's navy blue and Continental's black uniforms for flight-crew members. Designer Cynthia Rowley is creating new looks for most of the merged airline's 80,000-plus workers.

By borrowing elements from both carriers, United and Continental are breaking with the recent precedent of adopting the name and brand of the larger carrier. Delta Air Lines' corporate identity and onboard service survived its 2008 merger with Northwest Airlines, while America West Airlines executives dropped their brand for the better-known US Airways after their 2005 acquisition of the struggling carrier.

Continental CEO Jeff Smisek and United CEO Glenn Tilton struck a deal to keep United's name and Continental's logo and livery April 15, a week into the monthlong talks that culminated in a May 3 merger announcement, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

"This combination is a true merger of equals bringing together the best of two great organizations," Continental spokeswoman Christen David said. "Accordingly, the marketing brand combines brands of both companies."

Rebranding United is complicated by the politics that accompany any merger of equals, especially since the smaller Continental's senior executive team, starting with Smisek in the CEO role, will largely chart the merged carrier's course.

Retaining reminders of United's golden years, like the sans-serif font reminiscent of its look in the 1970s and 1980s, is crucial to winning over United workers, who will make up a majority of the new workforce, aviation consultant Robert Mann said.

But adopting an all-new brand is costly, since every plane, sign and piece of marketing literature bearing a corporate logo will have to be revamped, Mann said. The new carrier also risks alienating customers who assume that little will change with the merger.

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