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Skyfall: Airline Branding Comes Down to Earth

Drew Letendre

This is part III of a three-part series on American Airlines rebranding efforts. Check out the other two posts.

Part I: An American Evolution
Part II: American Airlines Design From 35,000 Feet

Take off: Air Travel’s Brand Heritage — The Down-to-Earth Approach
Setting aside the point that some of these airlines are gone (and their brands with them), it is interesting to note that aeronautic branding is awash (pardon the nautical metaphor) in terrestrial references: (regions) South West; North West; (super-regions) Pan American, Continental; (states) Hawaiian; (nations) British Air, Air France, Al Italia. To be sure, others have flown a different path: Virgin (but then there’s Virgin America), JetBlue, Delta (or is that a geographic reference?) and United. But it remains of interest — not to say an oddity — that geographic reference points are the stuff of which aeronautical brands are made.

Changing Course: Journey Becomes Destination
It becomes more notable, when what is being touted now more than ever is not on-time performance records — the terrestrial points of embarkation and arrival, their range and number — but the quality of ‘in flight’ experience. It is — to use the old cliché — the journey and less the destination that counts in air travel and it is the ground on which the air carrier brands increasingly attempt to differentiate. This is probably so because there is both a need and an ability — enabled in large measure by technology — to upgrade that experience. Given that, one could be forgiven for wondering why all the emphasis has remained ‘on the ground’.

The Journey Expands Beyond The Flight
There is however, a new twist to the story: the concept of the flight has burst its skin. It is no longer measured between take off and landing, run way to run way. To be sure, the airlines are touting lots of improved on-board amenities: wider seats, more leg room, better in-flight entertainment systems, credit and debit card transacting, power outlets, WiFi capabilities, and the like. But in addition, they are assuming (offering) many of the pre-flight and post-flight services traditionally provided by third parties in the travel ecosystem (hotel accommodations, car rentals, trip-planning, mobile apps and other technology-enabled services, improved membership plans, co-branded credit cards, and remodeled member clubs). In a word: air travel has become the destination. What carriers are doing — by default, design, or both — is connecting the ‘nodes’ in the total travel experience, making it into and owning it as a seamless offer — and perhaps creating a new kind of category, in the process. In effect, they are blurring the lines between ‘life on the ground’ and ‘life in the air’. The idea seems to be to suffuse, saturate, and own the air travel ecosystem, not merely ‘air space’. It is to ‘fill’ air space — and the ‘space’ on both sides of it, with a robustly branded experience.

Proof Points
A recent example of this kind of re-branding is Delta. Witness their beautiful series of black-and-white campaign billboards and ads, many of which don’t much feature their planes in flight or their employees. Rather, they show passengers ‘in seat too’ — on board, at home, at work, even in ground transport. The air traveler has become the ‘client’ in this brave new brand hemisphere, comfortably repositioned and heroically individualized. Air travel has come down to earth, but without leaving the skies.

Landing
I began this series by issuing warnings to ‘travelers’ across the design blogosphere in their reviews of the new American, but it would appear that my flight was re-routed to a different destination. My point of embarkation was the point that all corporate identity criticism cannot confine itself to a design analysis that omits consideration of the strategic and business contexts that drive the final ‘products’. That’s a nice airport. But where I landed is a more interesting destination: that air travel has been redefined under our noses — through branding. The runway begins (and ends) at home. When it comes to airline branding, ‘forget the fuselage’.

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