The goal of United Airlines’ livery redesign is to convey the identity of a “modernized aircraft.”

The carrier showed off its “refreshed look ”to employees and travelers in a press conference at the end of April. In the days after the event, while airline art critics debate the new style, the questions hanging over all discussion is, just how meaningful are these changes?

One aspect of the rollout is indeed noteworthy: this is United’s first major brand overhaul since their March 2012 merger with Continental Airlines. This redesign, which was unveiled at O’Hare Airport in United’s home city of Chicago,  was described in a press release as “a visual representation of United's ongoing brand evolution while staying true to the history it has developed over the past 93 years.”

All Kinds Of Blue

“Out with the gold, in with the blue” is how United describes the changes to its livery (i.e., the corporate symbols, colors, typeface, and any other stylistic elements associated with an aircraft’s branding). Blue remains the United’s primary color, as the gold palette was linked to the hue of Continental’s globe-grid logo when the two brands merged.   

United’s new pigment also comes in shades of purple, which is intended to signify the sense of royalty that United Premium Plus seats add to the fleet. The first plane sporting the new design is a Boeing 737-800. Over the next few months, United will roll out the new paint job across a mix of narrowbody, widebody and regional aircraft.

Source: United Airlines

Stylistic Evolution, Not Revolution

For the most part, airline industry observers felt that the change was more anodyne than dynamic – and that this was probably a good thing.

“As far as updates go, this isn’t bad,” Cranky Flier wrote, noting that employee morale is the main impact of these changes and it might give United’s 70,000 staffers an emotional lift. “It’s just also nothing special. I suppose that’s what United was actually aiming for. It’s certainly not offensive. Some will love it, others won’t. Many will be indifferent. But it’s a decent update to something that was getting fairly long in the tooth. I’m just not sure this is enough of an update to matter.”

In encapsulating the mixed reviews United's livery update has gotten, Henry Harteveldt, founder of travel industry analyst firm Atomosphere Research Group, told his Twitter followers that he liked the new design, but felt the timing was off. For one thing, it should have been long ago, Harteveldt tweeted.

To get a branding-side view, we caught up with Katie Conway, senior strategy director at global brand strategy and experience firm, Siegel+Gale. We asked her thoughts about the purpose and pitfalls of United’s graphics move – and what impact, if any, the style changes will have on United’s employees and travelers.

Kambr Media: How do you view the challenge United Airlines faced in initiating a rebranding? Given that it’s a 93-year-old brand, the pressure to stay true to the familiar must have been enormous. What should legacy brands in general consider and think about when doing a rebranding like this?

Katie Conway: There is often a lot of emotion tied to rebrand programs, and that is compounded with legacy brands who can be scared to let go of what they view as core to their company and culture.

But to ensure a successful and impactful rebrand, legacy brands need to be open-minded and think critically about what parts of their DNA are relevant for today’s world. They must be willing to shed aspects of their DNA that are no longer meaningful for employees or customers – and they should use research to help them identify which elements to carry forward and which to leave behind. 

When you are so close to a brand, what feels like a big change may not actually be meaningful to those on the outside. For example, United’s new livery design. They sign off their redesign video with “United. Brand. New.”

But the design is nowhere close to “brand new.” It retains many of their old design elements and is not conveying anything “new” about the United brand and what it represents.

When Southwest rebranded in 2014, they were successful in identifying the element of their DNA that was meaningful to customers and differentiating in the marketplace – their "funLUVing spirit" – and they left behind one of the elements that the company was actually founded on: democratizing air travel.

They were able to differentiate between what was true about their brand and company, and what mattered to customers and employees today.

There appears to be a kind of retro feeling among airlines at the moment. For example, next month’s launch of the TWA Hotel at JFK Airport comes to mind. What’s your sense of this “nostalgia” moment in aviation marketing?

I believe travelers are nostalgic for the days when travel was seen as glamorous. The day when people dressed up to fly and it was almost seen as a special occasion and treat.

Fast forward to today, and flying is seen as one of the biggest hassles and most uncomfortable experiences for a host of reasons, from TSA pre-check lines to diminishing leg room and being charged for things that used to be free.

I think flyers want travel to feel special again, but they want that feeling alongside and enhanced by all of today’s technology. They want to still be connected to all the things they love when in the air, whether wi-fi in the sky or Game of Thrones.

 As for United’s rebranding, what’s the most likely impact this change can be expected to have?

So far, what I’ve seen from United regarding the rebrand is strictly surface. A new color palette, a new livery design, new uniforms (though I do give them credit for engaging their employees in the uniform design process and giving them the opportunity to provide input into the final design).

If this rebrand is only about visuals, there is likely to be very little meaningful impact by way of employee morale or consumer perception. United needs to be clear about what they’re promising to deliver to their audiences – and how that’s unique from other airlines – and reflect that not only in their visuals but also throughout the entire experience of interacting with the brand—from purchase, to check-in, to interactions with employees, to the flight, etc.