American Airlines- Rebranding Good into Great!

Updated: Jan 3

Written by: Megan McDowell


Rebranding is no easy task. It takes time and great consideration to drive the direction of your company. In this article we look at how American Airlines went from good to great!



Rebranding is like Renovations

The other day I was reminded why I love working in the market research field. With our full service research offering plus proprietary market research online community software we are often called upon for various types of research. One of our favourites has to be helping to assist with rebranding; perhaps it has to do with my interest in renovating my house. I love the satisfaction of taking something good, and making it great.

The management of a company looking to rebrand called upon us to help them gather the data needed to assist in each step of the rebranding process. During the meeting I thought of the parallels between our client and American Airlines who in 2013 decided to rebrand for the first time in 40 years. Both companies have a long history, and strong brand recognition. But like American Airlines this client was in need of an update. After the meeting I went back and read up on the full story of the AA rebranding and decided to write this article as an exemplary case of rebranding done right.


Time for a Change

American Airlines knew that it was in need of an update but it wasn’t until they placed an order for 550 new planes that it became a pressing issue. The pressure came as a result of a new composite body that couldn’t be polished with the mirror shine of the company’s existing fleet. This change called for a reassessment of the brand. The assessment looked at all aspects of the company’s branding from the logo, colours, website, interiors of the planes, and terminal kiosks. The process took over two years and was done by Futurebrand. When asked about the process The VP of marketing for American Airlines stated that the whole process started with a question, “What are the things that are relevant from all over the world about America?” This question was a clear indicator of branding done right, the management was making a conscious decision to make an update with the strengths of the company as the foundation.

In an attempt to capture what individuals from around the world thought were the greatest American attributes Futurebrand began doing qualitative research with people from around the world to answer this question. They found that the top three attributes associated with America were, “Technology. Entertainment. Progress.” With those three attributes in mind AA began polling their employees to find out what they felt defined American Airlines as a brand. They found that it was the silver fuselages, the eagle logo, and the larger globe.


America Changed

Although the images were good, they were in need of some modifications. For one, the older American Airlines identity was more reminiscent of America as the powerful world leader. This image needed to be updated and refocused to what Futurebrand dubbed ‘American spirit,’ a tagline used to describe what people around the world loved about America. They also needed to change the eagle from being in the downward position, which could be interpreted as looking to attack someone, to a new flight symbol represented in both a bird and a wing.

Futurebrand’s research also uncovered that synonymous with America was its flag. The difficulty was to capture that image and be relevant in a global market without being overly patriotic. The solution they came up with was to show an abstracted flag, without the stars while still showing the stripes. Futurebrand’s Chief Creative Officer Sven Seger wrote about opting for the stripes, “With stars, the design has a different connotation. It gets you quickly into the 4th of July. It doesn’t get you to technology and progress.” By sticking to themes of technology, entertainment and progress Futurebrand was able to make key decisions fitting the new direction of the brand.

The other challenge the brand faced was the interior design of the planes and the terminals. The challenge here was that furniture design is not synonymous with ‘American spirit’ however the concept of craftsmanship was synonymous. So they used craftsmanship as the influencer behind their design. This led to using heavier wood combined with steel. In regards to inflight entertainment they focused on a blend of technology and comfort using the buzzword “seamless tech” to capture their end goal.


Change Backed by Research

While the challenge of trying to update a company that hasn’t changed their image in 40 years would no less seem daunting, the principals employed by Futurebrand serve as a model that all companies should look to employ. We usually recommend starting a short term community so that clients can harness the power and benefits found in qualitative research through online communities. You can start basing decisions to change on research.  Polling individuals to find out what images and ideas are synonymous with your brand in the mind of customers and employees is paramount. Then trying to take those images and ideas and figure out how you can modify them to make them more relevant and appealing.


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