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United we stand?

By Michael Dula

The new revised United Airlines Corporate logo signature has landed.

Above we see the CEO’s of United and Continental Airlines standing in front of a step and repeat displaying the new United Airlines logo signature.

As a visual guy, and without reading a word of copy, my first thought, was “Wait, what’s happening here? United just assumed the Continental logo identity?” It was as though the wolf had just jumped into the sheep’s clothing (or visa versa). As I learned of the United/Continental merger (read United ownership), it instantly became clear that a new brand identity was being instituted to convey the new bridge between these two companies.

Now, what I’m not going to do here is to get focused on the design esthetics of the new UA identity. I’ll leave that to the design press and those among my peers who are so inclined. What I do want to do is share my first (‘visceral’) impressions, mediated—as they were—by a ‘philosophical’ point-of-view; and conclude with—for lack of a better word—a final judgment on the ‘final’ (or latest, as in ‘as of this writing’?) United logo. I’ll greet it, so to speak, at the terminal, before it disembarks for another destination.

When I first viewed the newly released United identity (Exhibit A) my immediate thought was: I can’t recall a similar instance (not even one) of an ‘acquiring’ brand—with only its brand name in hand—jumping out of its own (visual) skin and donning the wardrobe of the acquired company’s visual identity. This is essentially—No! Exactly—what United did: it simply swapped out “Continental” for “United,” while holding on to everything else: the font, symbolism, color, even the descriptor “Airlines.”

After more than a moment’s reflection—reflection, as I said, more ‘philosophical’ than aesthetic—I came to the following conclusion: whether intended or not, this was conceptually and ‘diplomatically,’ one very intelligent solution. Why? Because United was sending a signal to Continental employees and customers alike, that they were true to their name, a “truly uniting, unifying company” — willing to blend, share, unite, and come together. “What a smart way to re-purpose the United Brand,” I thought. On one hand, United ‘gets to’ keep its name and on the other, Continental keeps its identity. The old reference points remain in place through the merger and the ensuing transitional period. Employees win. Customers win. Sure, there are going to be the challenges that come with launching and explaining the new ‘composite’ brand identity, but that is true of any new identity. But, as I said, in this case, the contours of the solution were visible in it and it is both intellectually lucid and defensible.

So far, so good. But, now consider…

Fast forward beyond May 3, 2010. In less than a year—to my bewilderment—the UA logo had undergone yet another transformation (Exhibit B). What?! Was this the story of another premature identity launch? Well, sadly, yes. This was the third UA logo put before the public within a three month period: The original, followed by Exhibit A, followed by Exhibit B. I was frankly a bit dumbfounded: here was one of the world’s best-known brands (not to say “best” brands, by any means), putting its foot forward with a new shoe on, and then visually and figuratively, retracting it, with an unspoken, “Just kidding folks. What we really meant was this.” Okay, there, I said it.

The final United logo solution now seems a cut-and-paste job, slapping together the United logotype (okay, I realize the type was slightly altered) and Continental’s symbol. My goodness, the famous “bolt-on” design method, alive and well. Who would’ve thunk it.

Frankly, I was sad to see Exhibit A abandoned, for it at least implied a new and original way to think about an identity transformation as an M&A tool.

The bottom line: We have all heard about—or perhaps even witnessed—the antics of Back Room decision-making; what can happen to corporate identity design as it passes through the political meat grinder of internal approval-cycles: the iterations, truncations, amputations, and other fickle ‘wardrobe changes’ and multiple make-overs. But, to do this in a short period of time and in plain public view—before employees, customers and investors—is irresponsible and embarrassing.

All I can say to UA and/or the consultants who ‘mis-counseled’ them through this bizarre, public identity ‘double metamorphosis,’ is: you really messed it up. Salvaging something from the heap, I will only add that this is a powerful case study in how NOT to ‘do’ corporate identity, especially as part of an mergers and acquistion game plan.

In the end, can someone please help me out here and share with me what really happened? In the mean time, for a theory—and some redeeming insights—I recommend you read my colleague, Drew Letendre’s blog regarding the UA re-identification and the broader theme M&A branding. There you will find at least a wisp of a hypothesis and some food for thought.