The Modernization of American Airlines – Really?

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Late last week, with much fanfare, American Airlines introduced the results of its rebranding efforts: a new logo, a new paint job, and some new airplanes. The reviews were mixed. What do you think?

Here’s what I think: It’s lipstick on a pig.

There was nothing wrong with the old logo; after all, despite more-frequent rebranding in its earlier days, American kept the old logo, which was designed by Massimo Vignelli, for more than 45 years. For his thoughts on the logo, read his interview in Business Week.



I get it – rebranding happens.

If you haven’t seen the video introducing the #newamerican rebranding, you can see it here. It’s very patriotic, tugging on the “proud to be an American” heart strings and trying to make that emotional connection.

American’s explanation for the rebranding: It’s time to modernize the airline. They’ve made investments in: new planes, new destinations, new business-class seating, in-flight entertainment, and technology for their people. “All to best serve our customers.”

What I hear is a lot about the planes. Yes, won’t it be great to have in-flight entertainment at every seat. If it works. New planes and new destinations. Check; that’s great. New technology for their people. Check; that’s definitely a necessary modernization.

What I’m not hearing is more important than what I am hearing: How about a modernization of the employee and customer experiences? (Yes, planes are part of the experience, but that’s actually only a small part of it.) I’ve had my share of bad experiences with this airline and wrote about two of them last year (first and second American Airlines stories).

How much did American spend on this rebrand? They won’t say. But some of the things I think that money would have been better spent on include:

  • New approaches to recruiting, hiring, and training their employees
  • A review of existing policies and procedures – and perhaps some new ones that allow the frontline to do what is necessary (often common sense) to improve the customer experience.
  • Retraining of existing frontline personnel on cutting-edge customer service skills and approaches
  • New approaches to personalizing the customer experience
  • Enhancements in their partner experiences
  • New measures to ensure that your baggage will arrive at the same time you do
  • New efforts to reduce flight delays (non-weather related) and missed connections
  • And more – things that are truly important to travelers


I’d like to hear that the rebranding incorporated feedback from their customers on what’s important to them. Honestly, I don’t care what color the plane is painted. Although, now that I’ve learned that painting a plane adds more weight (current AA planes have a silver body, no paint), which means it requires more fuel, prompting an additional cost that will be passed on to customers – I guess I should care about that.

As you can see from my list above, I’d also like to hear that they are focusing on their people. People make the experience. Sure, shiny new planes are great, too. But whether my butt is sitting in a new plane with two inches of legroom or an old plane with two inches of legroom, I’m going to feel the same way about the in-flight experience. Add some delighters delivered by the gate and in-flight staff – then we can talk about memorable experiences.

So what does modernizing the brand mean? Is it really just a new identity? No. A brand is not just a logo, although a logo is a recognizable feature that customers identify with. Seth Godin defines a brand as “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.”

The brand is the promises you make and keep, right? Setting expectations and meeting them. It’s not defined by you but by your customers. It’s their perceptions of who you are. What emotions or memories are elicited when they hear your name or see your company logo? This is why the experience is important! Seth goes on to say: “If you’ve never heard of it, if you wouldn’t choose it, if you don’t recommend it, then there is no brand, at least not for you.”

Amen to that! So why didn’t American devote its efforts to just that: creating an experience (not just a video) that elicits an emotional response – one that causes customers to choose and recommend the airline for years to come? Why didn’t they set expectations around the customer experience vis a vis their people in their modernization efforts? Because they can’t meet them?

I mentioned that the #newamerican video pulled at the heart strings. Well, I’m keeping my emotions in check and putting my CX hat on; I’m skeptical. Poor service and a poor overall customer experience are still poor, regardless of what color wrapping paper you wrap them up in or what color bow you choose to put on top. Here’s the evidence: a report from The Wall Street Journal on the best and worst airlines of 2012. You can guess where American landed; they shared the bottom spot with United (no surprise). In 2011, American was the lone recipient of that last-place ranking.

One last thing I wanted to point out from the #newamerican video. The CEO states that they are considering “a merger to build on our strengths.” Which are? USAirways, like American, is certainly not known for its commitment to a great customer experience. I, for one, am not a fan of that merger; although, I suppose it is good news that USAirways has not been rated at the very bottom of the barrel in terms of “best and worst US airlines.” (Sarcasm.)



Yup. Perhaps that merger is a step up for them. After all, even their pilots, while not happy about the rebranding, are optimistic about the merger. In a quote from a Yahoo! News article: “‘A new paint job is fine, but it does not fix American’s network deficiencies and toxic culture,’ said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association. His and other unions at American support a merger that would put US Airways executives in charge of the combined airline.”

What do you think? Do you like the new logo? Do you think there’s hope for updated employee and customer experiences?

A brand for the company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well. -Jeff Bezos

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