The Blog

The “New” United / Continental Branding

First – after a crazy couple of months, I figured it’s about time I finally got back to posting on my blog. And, with yesterday’s introduction by United Airlines of their new advertising campaign, it made me realize something.

The new United Airlines branding….sucks!

I read a great article in Fast Company about the new United brand – and I agree. For those that don’t know the whole story, United basically acquired Continental. Since about 1974, United’s branding has included what some would call iconic – the “tulip”. OK…so it looked more like a “W” than a “U”. It was designed during the height of disco – almost 40 years ago. But the designer was the legendary Saul Bass – who, ironically, also designed the logo Continental used until the early ninety’s (known as the “meatball”).

The whole point of a logo – and of branding – is to differentiate your company from your competition – which is the easy part. The harder part is to associate a positive emotion with that image – both so that you are remembered, but also so that when a buying decision is being made, that positive emotion overrules the emotion to associate with the competition.

With the new “United” branding – first, it causes confusion. They took all of the “look & feel” of Continental, replace the word “Continental” with “United” and ran with it. But, the problem with this approach is – for those that are making a choice – the question is then asked “who am I flying?”  Now, there has been the argument out there that the branding is irrelevant – what is important is the service. Continental did rebuild their service after Frank Lorenzo nearly destroyed the airline back in the 90’s (to the point where he was banned from ever being involved with a airline again) – but United also not only survived bankruptcy – but came back stronger.

Given that it was a merger of near equals, at least in many flying customers minds – to me, it would have made more sense to merge the branding to signify the merger. For example – keep the tulip on the tail, pick up the font used in the word “Continental” (which would have also been a nice tie back to the serif font of United’s “stars & bars” branding of the early 70’s, but keep the gold / blue of Continental.

Again – there are two arguments about the branding. One is that people don’t care. The other is that people do care. To truly merge the two brands as suggested above – if no one really cares anyway, there is no damage. But, if people do care – well….it makes sense to put a bit more thought and effort into your branding before you abandon brand elements that have nearly 40 years of brand equity around them.

Thoughts on Customer Perception

I just watched a commentary about GM’s exit from bankruptcy, and the struggles it will face moving forward. Specifically, that in recent customer approval ratings upon ranking issues they had with their new car purchase, the statistical difference between a Chevy product, and a Toyota product, were insignificant. Yet, the public perception of quality between these two brand is huge!

How many times have we made a choice between two brands based on our perceptions, rather than reality? And, later on, either found out we made the wrong choice, or that had we made the “other” choice, the result would have been the same?

I think about what we see & hear in the media. How that shapes our perceptions. How what our friends and family say about an experience shapes our purchasing decisions. And, from a brand management perspective, how can we re-shape and re-manage those perceptions in a social-media controlled environment.

It used to be quite simple. Do a big ad-spend over a significant amount of time, get some good PR around your product – and everything would improve. No longer. One bad experience means thousands of instant Twitter posts, Facebook status updates, and instant market share loss. What’s the solution?

Simple. Never let your guard down. Whatever you do when you interface with the customer – do more. Do it better. Your product needs to provide a better experience than it does now – and you need to keep improving it. And, ask your customers what they think! Don’t ever assume – anything. Research, learn, implemient. Rinse & repeat.

Now…the bigger question – will your accounting department and your shareholders understand this concept?

Thoughts on things “after the election”

Now that the election is over, and we’re now inundated with the media’s “Obama-mania” – I have been thinking about what all of this really means.

I just read an article on CNN that Obama is planning on “rebranding” the United States. The full article appears at http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/11/19/obama.world.image/index.html, but the gist of the piece is that although he’s poised to re-brand the United States image in international markets, his actions will have to live up to his rhetoric.

I, for one, don’t think that this is going to go well for him. Simply because I don’t see how anybody, at this point, could do it. The damage we’ve suffered within the international community over the last 8 years has been huge. From a branding perspective, when your brand has taken a hit – even if your customers want your brand to recover, and want to believe in you, turning your brand image around quickly is extremely difficult.

Think of General Motors. Up until the early 70’s, General Motors could do no wrong. They built large, gas-guzzling vehicles that had gobs of power, but were horrible for the environment, and burned through fuel as if it was always going to be cheap and plentiful. Between tightening emissions and a gas crisis in the early 70’s, they tried to turn on a dime, building cars like the Chevy Vega – pieces of crap that rusted on the showroom floors, that broke down constantly, and depreciated to the point of being worthless about the time they drove off the dealer’s lot.

35 years later, GM has never truly recovered. And, they’ve done a wonderful job of repeating their mistakes of the late 60’s – early 70’s – and are now facing bankruptcy without a huge injection of taxpayer money (which is really what a bailout is) – to keep them afloat. Now, yes, I understand that much of their problems are also due to UAW demands driving up labor costs, keeping their cars from being price competitive to other competing brands. But in terms of overall quality – there is still the perception that GM vehicles are not as reliable as, say, a Honda. Even when the quality of their vehicles has improved to the point where they may very well never break down.

Does this mean that people want GM to fail? No. But they’ve had 30 years to turn around their brand perception, and they’ve had the help of some of the best marketers in the business. Obama – he has 4 years – or less – to turn around the United States brand position. And, he also has to focus on our wars in  Iraq & Afghanistan, an economy in crisis, all while fulfilling the expectations of every voter that believed his promises enough to vote for him.

As a country, I think it’s in our best interest to support our new President. But, it’s not just his responsibility to improve our country’s image overseas. It’s our job too. A 2002 National Geographic study indicated that nearly a third of young Americans could not locate the Pacific Ocean. So, go learn a language. Learn about another culture. Befriend someone that you might have just met from another country – and learn about their experiences growing up somewhere else. And, if you travel overseas – be humble – and appreciate the country your visiting – learn from  it, and bring the best of it back here. Our country was built by people that brought their culture here – let’s show the rest of the world that we can still learn from them, rather than impose ourselves on them.

It might just make Obama’s job a little easier.