When American Airlines revealed their first brand refresh in 45 years, a lively debate followed. Some people loved the new look while others thought it sacrilege to change a classic logo by a legendary designer.
I was talking to fellow Centerliner, Cait Smith, about the rebrand, and we had an interesting discussion about logo design, the essence of a brand and what rebranding means to customers. A transcript of our conversation via G-Chat is below. But we want to hear from you: What do you think of the AA rebrand?
Cait: Hey hey. What do you think of the AA rebrand?
Ben: I liked it right away. Usually I have to let these things sink in a little first, but with this, my gut reaction was that it was beautiful. It was so many things boiled down to one symbol: an eagle, a wing, the letter “A”. I thought it was very well done. What did you think?
Cait: My initial reaction was questioning why they chose to rebrand now, right as they’re moving out of bankruptcy. There are a lot of hypotheses (mergers, etc.), but I hope it’s a good sign, and that perhaps the outward facelift signals a massive internal one, where they improve and invest in things like better customer service and pricing. The new look took me a second to get used to, but I think that’s normal. I dig the eagle facing straight ahead (and not down in the I’m-gonna-eat-the-eyes-out-of-your-head stance).
Ben: Yeah, I wasn’t a fan of the old eagle. And I read somewhere that Massimo Vignelli (the designer of the old logo) didn’t even design the eagle. It was added after he was finished by another agency. I also read, and I found this interesting, this rebrand could be seen as a historical shift in America’s place of power in the world. The old logo was designed in the 60’s when the U.S. was more powerful. The aggressive eagle reflects that. American wanted to rebrand with “the new, friendlier face” of America. That historic aspect brings another level of complexity to it for me. I wasn’t aware of the business aspects you mentioned. But knowing that now, it does seem like strange timing.
Cait: I love the notion of America rebranding with a new, friendlier face.
Ben: Yeah me too.
Cait: There have been some comments from people who have said that the friendlier eagle is a sign that America is in a negative position of power, but I think looking more like a collaborator than a bully is always a good thing
Ben: What did you think of the immediate criticism from some people? Or praise?
Cait: I think rebrands always ignite heated commentary. Some productive, some not. But in the case of an airline rebrand, people feel especially heated because they’ve had a slew of first-hand, negative experiences. Those negative experiences impact our lives greatly, like being stuck in an airport or paying insane fees. And there’s slim pickings to go elsewhere. We still have to fly with them at some point. It’s not like shopping for a shirt, where you can go almost anywhere.
So a rebrand may seem like a slap in the face because AA is investing in something that seems intangible to the end customer. I think that’s where a lot of the backlash came from. That, and the way employees were laid off and lost their pensions. So no matter what the design actually looked like, I think we’d see the same reaction: customers thinking the brand isn’t invested in humans…that AA is more concerned about what they look like in the mirror.
Ben: It’s interesting you mentioned buying shirts. Remember when Gap tried to rebrand?
Cait: Now THAT was some upheaval.
Ben: I think the backlash they got was deserved in that case. What a horrible logo. I’m glad they ditched it. But there are instances where people pounce on rebrands on twitter, or through a blog or whatever just to sound like a trend setter, like when Pepsi came out with their new logo. The old one was an icon, but I really like the new one. It has the memory of the old logo, but it’s forward looking.. plus it looks like “P”. It’s a good logo. I can only speculate on people’s motivation, but I think a lot of criticism sounds like a game of one-upmanship.
Cait: Yeah, when people freak out about a soda rebrand, they need to chill (get it!?). Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, but some are flat-out rude about it. It’s not like Pepsi was changing their recipe.
Ben: It’s not like they were doing something really bad like re-releasing Crystal Pepsi. But getting back to AA, do you think it will stop anyone from flying with them? Even if they know the background with the layoffs and everything? Or are people just looking for the cheapest ticket?
Cait: No, I don’t think people will stop flying with AA because of a rebrand. They’ll stop flying with them because of customer service, comfort and price.
Ben: Yeah, I agree. I don’t think anyone will make a conscious decision based on a logo or brand design. I guess the bigger question is: Will they make an unconscious decision to buy a ticket because they like the brand, not because they don’t like it?
Cait: That would be interesting to test! What do you think is the hardest part of designing logos?
Ben: I think the hardest part for me is taking everything about a company – sometimes we’re talking about a corporate culture of thousands of people – and boiling it down to a small, easily digestible, memorable image. You have to convey so much information in something that might only be seen for a second. It’s a big challenge. I think that’s why I like this AA logo so much. It’s a simple image, but it says a lot.
Cait: Hopefully that simplicity and “friendliness” of the new AA logo is reflected in the customer experience as AA rolls out of the red. If so, even those critics who said, “Eww the tail looks like a bathing suit!” will suddenly love everything about it.
Ben: I forgot about the tail. It didn’t look as good as the logo for sure, but I’ll wait to see it on an actual plane to make a judgment. I like the slivery paint they’re going to be using. Hope it doesn’t blind people.
Cait: Yeah that would be a big downer. You hear about the Korean Air Line rebrand?
Cait: There were a bunch of plane crashes. Then one was shot down by accident (horrible). So they rebranded, which was good because the past wasn’t pretty. With AA coming out of bankruptcy, perhaps they thought the same thing: keep the past in the past and focus on a more promising future.
Ben: So it’s like a facelift, right? AA totally got “Demi Moored.”
Cait: haha. Oh man, now I want to do some pottery.
Cait: But alone. Not with a dead guy.
Maybe you, too, followed the lively online debate when American Airlines first revealed their new look. As content creators and designers who support large brands, we believe there is no “right” or “wrong” opinion, just different ways to interpret what a brand is attempting to communicate. It’s a fun creative and strategic exercise to figure out the “why” behind a rebrand, and then observe and research how others reacted. Not so we design based on the public opinion, but so we’re expanding our own thinking and opening ourselves up to new perspectives.
We want to hear your perspective. What do you think of the AA rebrand and the reaction that followed? What’s your first reaction when any well-recognized brand goes through such a dramatic change?