Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Modernization of American Airlines - Really?

Image courtesy of American Airlines
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 [video] 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


  1. I have a lot of memories of traveling by air. I remember getting dressed up in our "Sunday-go-to-meeting-clothes", that's how special air travel was. I remember catching the "red-eye" to cross the country or the ocean: Go to sleep at one place and wake up in another. I also remember that American was my least favorite airline (too many instances to record here) and their hub (Dallas) my least favorite airport (again, too many bad experiences to record here). Rebrand? Lipstick on a pig? Yeah, that sounds about right.

    1. Jack,
      Thanks for your comment, and thanks for sharing your memories, good and bad. I love the reference to "Sunday-go-to-meeting-clothes." Makes me think of John Wayne. :-)

      I've corresponded with American on this. I'm hoping I can share some of it in a post in the next few days. But first I need more people-centric details than I've gotten so far.

      Annette :-)

  2. Overall, I think your pig with lipstick comment is on target. I also hope that the re-branding is part of a larger plan to improve the airline.

    A recent Fast Company article suggested that the American Airlines re-brand may have been inevitable. For example, their new planes are made of composites that don't have the traditional metallic finish. And, they were hoping to have a less aggressive logo for their international markets. Here's the link:

    I don't know that American has what it takes to turn things around, but I hope they do. United is bad enough, but they'd be that much worse with a major competitor out of the way.

    1. Hey Jeff.

      Thanks for your comment. And I agree that there's more to it than what we've heard so far. I've asked them for details, and I'll share them if they provide them.

      Thanks for the link to the article, too. This is interesting. But it all started with a question: “What are the things that are relevant from all over the world about America?” Rob Friedman, VP of marketing asks.

      Clearly, from a CX perspective, I'd love to hear that the first question is something more along the lines of: "What can we do to improve the customer experience?" or "What are our customers saying about us?" or "What are the things that are relevant to our customers and employees?"

      Annette :-)

  3. The brand makes the promise and the customer experience is supposed to deliver it. If American Airlines was unable to meet lower expectations under the old brand, it seems unlikely that they will be able to meet the raised expectations set by the new brand. Which will only create MORE unhappy customers. Sounds like some very expensive lipstick, indeed.

    1. Thanks, Janessa.

      You're right... the rebranding does set some lofty expectations, in general. Shall we bet on which of these lipsticks it was: http://www.lovelyish.com/733203958/the-worlds-most-expensive-lipstick-mascara-and-nail-polish/? ;-)

      Annette :-)

  4. Annette,

    I worked with a company that had a "voice of the customer" initiative

    They didn't like the answers so changed the scoring system. Now they have a "Customer Voice" programme

    American aren't the only ones holding the lipstick.


  5. Hi Annette,
    Sounds to me that American maybe still be stuck in the 20th century and relying on historical strengths.

    Also, talking about mergers to build on their strengths intimates that they believe that they cannot change or do not want to change and are only willing to import change rather than create it. That should be worrying for customers and investors!


  6. I’m a frequent flier of American Airlines and sometimes overly optimistic, but I really do hope that their make-over will give me a better passenger experience. That said, I appreciate your comments, and more importantly, appreciate your list of the things you think AA should spend their money on. That list is good advice for just about any company.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Shep. I, too, hope there is more beneath the surface in terms of CX improvements. Let's revisit a year from now to see how we all feel about the rebrand then. :-)

      Annette :-)

  7. Personally I don't care about the gate staff, the plane staff (except that the pilot(s) be competent), or how the planes are painted. I DO care about ROOM! Save the money and take out one row of seats. I would take every flight I could on American if they would do this!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Scott. You make a great point. Had they listened to customers, more legroom would certainly be on their list of improvements!

      Annette :-)