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Developing American Airlines' new livery


The classic Vignelli bare metal and stripes livery was much loved – why change it?
The initial intent was prompted by a practical need – the large order of planes and knowing that not all of them could be polished aluminium because many would be made of composites. Realising a new livery was needed, we took a real deep look at the American brand, both internally and externally, looking at where it has been and where it is headed. It came under an umbrella of modernisation of the airline – almost from soup to nuts – and internally they’re leaving no stone unturned in terms of how they’re looking at updating the customer experience, be it on the new planes or in the airport terminals, the lounges, right down to the service. American is doing the due diligence and the hard work of looking at everything and working out how to make a more updated, modern and customer-centric experience. And as part of that we took a look at the identity and asked where we could take it, to keep it in step with where the business is headed and how the nature of the experience was going to be changing.


We gathered input both internally and externally – internally from employees at all levels, as well as executives through one-on-one interviews and focus groups and things like that – and externally through reaching out to customers directly. One of the great things that we were able to do was an eight-week-long online forum. There were three different forums: one for us, one for customers and one for employees. We were able to ask a broad range of questions and we created activities and exercises to help understand what these groups really value about the brand, the company, and what its core symbols and icons are that they want to see taken forward. All this research was done without giving away explicitly that we were looking at creating a new livery as we wanted to keep that quiet, but it helped us to understand, as we began our strategic and creative exploration, which things we really needed to hang on to and which elements could be open to interpretation.


How long did the project take?
We launched on January 17, and we began work about two years prior to that with our analysis, inputs and information gathering, through to the core work of designing what the brand stands for and getting into identity and livery and taking a look at airports and lounges and the whole digital experience. It gave us time to be really comprehensive and thoughtful in our approach. Two years can feel like a long time, but for an airline that’s what it takes. It felt like we were moving fast the whole time though.


Which were the key elements of the brand?
The eagle was a big one as it has become so synonymous with the brand, and the silver planes were probably the biggest of all. Also the core colours of blue and white, and to a lesser degree the red, had to be preserved. But beyond those elements there was definitely an appreciation that there is so much that is great about the brand, but it was time to update. Both internally and externally there was a feeling that ‘its time to be great again’. And so for us as a brand agency, we worked on how to use branding to achieve that goal, as well as the identity and livery.


So talk us through the eagle and the tailfin designs
As you can imagine, we looked at a wide, wide range of options, and it was really an exhaustive exploratory. We redesigned the eagle to a simpler, more modern logo we call the ‘flight symbol’. But one of the things that became clear through the analysis we did and the reams of research we went through over and above the primary research was that there are ideas and ideals of ‘American-ness’ that America gets credit for around the world. They are ideals of progress, opportunity, technology and entrepreneurial spirit, and there is a sense, broadly speaking, of energy and movement. So we looked at the US flag, as this is one of the few brands in the world that could incorporate the symbology of the flag. The interpretation of the flag is not meant to be literal; it’s very recognisable as an interpretation of the flag, but there are no stars, there aren’t 13 stripes – it’s the idea of it, not a replica. We tried to envision what the flag would look like travelling at 600mph when everything becomes a blur – it’s that sense of movement and speed – and also precision, which is a big part of the airline business.


The B777 tailfin has 12 stripes – couldn’t you have squeezed in one more?
The number of stripes varies depending on the model of plane because of the different sizes of vertical stabilisers. It had the potential to be a really complicated design to execute, so we had to optimise it for the different plane types.


How many design iterations did you go through before you reached the final livery?
The way these things work is you start with around 50 combinations of identity options and livery, and then you whittle that down to a few areas and really blow those areas out. So even once we’d decided on the idea of how the eagle would be incorporated, there were rounds and rounds of how realistic the eagle should be, how close it should be to the current eagle and how much we were going to interpret it: it’s amazing that such a range of options comes from one territory. But to American’s credit, and to the nature of the work we do, we realised we really had to be exhaustive with the details, especially when you’re dealing with an iconic brand like this. You have to give it the time it needs and the exploration and all the due diligence so folks can feel really confident they are making the right choice.


Did you collaborate with JPA Design, who created the aircraft interiors?
There was some overlap. They had already made significant progress on the interiors when we began the brand work. One of the big elements we both incorporated was the use of wood: both in the aircraft interiors and, as you will see in the near future, we have incorporated wood in the airport redesigns we’ve been doing, as well as some of the Admirals Club lounge redesign work that JPA is leading and we’ve been collaborating on. Those timelines synched nicely so we could incorporate the feel of the brand into JPA’s work. We’re also trying to think of ways to bring in the feel of the brand through onboard collaterals, as well as some of the digital touchpoints onboard.

How has the livery been received by the public?
Lots of people have been monitoring the response. The folks who quantify these things have told us that the overall response has been far more positive than negative – on a 3:1 ratio - which is really wonderful to hear. Although with changes of this magnitude we fully expect that it takes time for folks to get used to it. It’s an iconic brand that hasn’t had a change of this order for 47 years. People take comfort in what is familiar, and that’s great and that’s what brands do. So we are fully confident that people who love American Airlines will continue to love it, and those who aren’t quite there yet… well, it’ll just take time.


It’s a brand and a business that is so physically immersive that it shortens the length of time to get used to it when you’re really engaged with it during a journey. The other thing folks will be seeing is changes in airports and lounges, which will help customers understand that the changes are not just cosmetic, but are really a change in identity that mirrors a substantive change that runs much deeper. They will then start to have a better sense of the full picture and start to embrace the new American more.


11 March 2013

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