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Fly the Friendly Continents (or are we?)

By Drew Letendre

The old adage that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones will be observed here (for the most part). It is not my aim to ‘diss’ the re-identification of the recently merged United and Continental air carriers. Though, I confess, I’m not crazy about it. I’ve been known however—am notorious—for changing my mind. That said, from a design standpoint, it seems to me a rickety, patchwork construction, that smacks of identity-by-committee; and one can—perhaps all too easily—infer that it was a mutually begrudged ‘solution,’ an awkward compromise between management houses, unwilling to sacrifice close-held assets for a ‘greater cause.’  All that said, the new United merger brand identity may not be without its strategic merits as a branding solution, whatever misgivings one may have about its aesthetic qualities (by the way, I am referring now to what I’ve identified as “Exhibit A,” above. The story gets more interesting when we introduce “Exhibit B” further on).

Branding M&A
Mergers and acquisitions are events that need to ‘declare themselves’ at the level of communications, beyond mere press reports, press releases, and the standard internal announcements. They call—sometimes ‘scream’—for rebranding or re-identifying the ‘resulting’ entity.

There are four basic options with which to approach merger and acquisition branding, each with its own real or potential variations:

(1) Juxtaposition | familiar examples of this convention are ExxonMobil and ConocoPhilips, in which the prior identities are maintained, but fused at the hip (sometimes with a new coat of paint or application of a new typographic veneer)

(2) Absorption | examples of absorption are Wells Fargo (Norwest), Bank of America (Nations Bank), and Delta (nwa), where the identity of one company is adopted as such and the other retired

(3) Blending | A good example is Arcelor. In blending, identity elements (or fragments) are removed from each individual brand and recombined into a new synthesis—Arcelor (the world’s largest steelmaker) was the merger of 3 entities and the name the sum of syllables extracted from each of the prior, independent entity names—Arbed, Aceleria, and Usinor

(4) Mutual Exclusion or, to coin a phrase, “Neodentity” | It is theadoption of an entirely new brand identity that erases all ties or discernible references to the previously independent entities, an example of which is Alliant Energy, which resulted from the merger of IES Industries, Interstate Power Company, and WPL Holdings.

The case in point
Where does the United case fall into this framework? As I said, there are variants of these four approaches and I would say that United is a combination of Absorption and Blending. It is Absorption—clearly—from the naming standpoint. It is Blending from the visual standpoint, in that Continental’s visual symbol is combined with the United name. Absorptive Blending. Having established where the new United identity ‘sits in the brand solution stack,’ so to speak, what more can we say about it? What are the pros and cons? What can we learn from it? Are there branding Best Practices to be gleaned, that can guide us, specifically germane to M&A?

One interesting dimension of Absorptive Blending, as we’re calling it, is that it plays very differently depending on medium: in audio-only or audible-only media (radio, conversation) and text, it is pure Absorption and gives United pride-of-place—with the perhaps-unspoken implication that this was an acquisition in which they played the role of the acquiring company (that, or their brand ‘won’ out, a la Wells Fargo, which was acquired by a larger bank, Norwest). In the spoken and heard word, as in ‘pure’ copy, the Continental visual legacy can’t follow. One could argue—quite subtly, perhaps too subtly—that the ‘United’ name is being used in a radically new, self-effacing way. One could argue that ‘being united’ is another way of saying ‘being merged.’ Thus, ‘United’ transforms from the name of the former, acquiring entity into a ‘description’ of the merger. I owe credit to my colleague, Michael Dula, for this brilliant reading. As a justification or a post-facto rationalization, it is ingenious—but thus unlikely to ever have occurred to the ‘architects’ of this momentous identity event. But, I digress.

In fully-fledged form—where both name and visual identity appear together—the identity suggests a merger of equals—unless one holds to a subtle view that possession of the name reflects primacy, regardless of the ‘strength’ of the visual. If the underlying transaction is a merger of equals (MOE), the solution seems ‘apt’: proportional, proper. But, even if it is not an MOE, the identity solution may be an important diplomatic gesture, designed to play to internal audiences (the newly integrated or integrating employee pools).

There are other merits to this model that are worth mentioning: by not dispensing with the equities of either brand, it can leverage both; by not dispensing with both (as in Neodentity) it can avoid or mitigate the possible confusion caused by the sudden, complete disappearance of familiar ‘players.’ In United’s solution, the history remains ‘alive’ and visible through the ‘new’ present and into the new future. We don’t, in other words, have an entity created <ex nihilo>, with all reference to its history, to its story, erased. Furthermore, creating, an entirely new brand entity (i.e., not recycling old materials) requires more effort, time, and investment to explain. Absorptive Blending is cost-effective.

On the downside, Absorptive Blending, may be or may be taken to reflect indecisiveness or a lack of ‘design’ at the strategic and business levels, about what ‘larger’ purposes the merger/acquisition really serve. While such underlying strategic purposes may have been very well thought-through and well served by the M&A, this particular identity ‘solution’ might just mislead; it may fail to tell—or tell well enough—that underlying story. It may be perceived as a ‘rush to rebrand,’ a ‘disconnect’ between business and brand strategy; an opportunity to tell a great story—clearly, and compellingly—lost.

But wait a moment…
Because there appears to be a curve ball—indeed, a change-up pitch—thrown in this long At Bat. In May 2010, the CEO’s of UA and Continental, Jeff Smisek and Glenn Tilton stood, hands clasped in a goodwill gesture of merger unity, in front of the ‘logo wallpaper’ that has become an all-too-familiar feature of press events. That logo (Exhibit A) was essentially, the Continental logo, with one change: substitution of word/name “United” for “Continental.” In every other aspect—color, type, and symbolism—it was Continental’s signature.

Bait and switch
Since then—and it hasn’t been long—things have changed (a little radically, if you will). Without fanfare—let alone explanation—in fact, with silent, sheepish—perhaps furtive—subtlety, the design ‘morphed’ in a more United-centric direction (Exhibit B): the word ‘Airlines,’ prominent in Continental’s identity, was gone; the more interesting, complex blue, replaced by a more primary color; and United’s distinctive <sans serif> type ‘restored.’  Frankly, I find Exhibit B more attractive, simple, and modern, from a ‘pure’ design perspective. And, it is arguable whether this change represents a more 50/50 balance of the legacy identities or tips the scales in favor of United. What is far more problematic—to the point of disturbing—is the gap between the ‘May 2010 signature’ (which now appears to have been an ad hoc construct designed as a mere prop for a televised announcement) and the currently-running identity seen on the company website.  What happened?

Wallpaper theory
We may never know the full or true story, but I’m adopting the ‘wallpaper theory’. Without really thinking it through, it was felt that a symbol—a quite literal, visual symbol—‘had to’ be contrived, in slavish conformity to the convention of staging a strategic press announcement, before a ‘logo paper’ backdrop. The fact that this visual symbol—a re-designed corporate identity—would be seen by millions, including the employee pools of the two companies and read, misread (or ‘read into’) as a meaningful statement about the intended character of the blended entity, didn’t dawn on the ‘choreographers.’ At some point, it was either sensed that the ad hoc identity had sent an unintended or undesirable ‘message’ (e.g., ‘It’s more Continental”) or had simply served its merely disposable purpose (whatever the public interpretations), and the company could ‘get on with’ the serious business of designing an identity whose shape, contours, colors and symbolism would truly reflect something essential, strategically important, and of more or less permanent value about the new company.

Timing is everything (and so is Story-telling)
Whatever one thinks of the comparative merits of the designs (or the fact that both unceremoniously discard rich design legacies with roots in the work of Saul Bass, Raymond Loewy, and Pentagram—for something prosaic), it’s the unapologetic bait-and-switch ‘approach’ that is branding and communicating at its worst. One could ‘forgive’ the lightening-quick ‘evolution’ had there at least been a compelling, evenly told, adequately broadcast explanation. But there wasn’t. Smisek and Tilton would’ve been well counseled to ‘be patient’ and stand before wallpaper that ‘alternated’ their two separate identities, pending the moment when a proper, well rationalized, well-designed ‘merger identity’ could’ve been carefully unveiled and inaugurated under a thoughtful business narrative.

Saul Bass is seen here holding a plane adorned with the “U” he had designed for United Airlines in 1973. Ironically, Bass had also created a logo for Continental back in 1968. Photo by AIGA.

The United Continental re-branding may have added a new and potential valuable hue in the spectrum of M&A branding models (‘Absorptive Blending’), regardless of what one thinks of its actual design execution and implementation. It is one with merits worth pondering as one approaches the M&A branding challenge. We have also considered the risks that go with it—some or all of which, it should be said, can be mitigated or avoided altogether through smart, disciplined merger communications. Reflecting on it has also been the occasion to consider—even if only in passing—the other models available to companies that have to address the branding dimension of M&A.

But it has also turned out to be a Cautionary Tale about the importance and risk-laden nature of corporate identity ‘make-overs’: their power—for good or ill—to send strong signals to the marketplace, employees, and ‘the world’; to tell an important story of change—or be construed as telling one. In the latter case, if the interpretation is left to an untutored public, its coherence and unequivocal nature will—more likely than not—crumble under multiple (maybe even conflicting) interpretations—not quite a Rorschach Blot, but maybe a ‘blot’ all the same on the reputation of the company whose image it has become.