I have been engaged in a lively exchange of views with some leading designers (members of IdentityWorks’ Identity Forum) over the merits of the branding decision by United and Continental. To be honest, I have been disappointed by the narrowness of the perspective that most of the designers are adopting.
As marketers, we bemoan the fact that other business disciplines ignore the value that a marketing perspective can provide on business issues. It would appear that, when it comes to corporate identity, we are just as guilty of ignoring the perspective that other business disciplines might provide.
The United/Continental combined identity is being denounced (at least by those who have voiced an opinion):
- “a kludge”
- “non-professional, CEOs fast branding”
- “a wasted opportunity”
- “low cost, low fare, low quality”
- “the result of usual merger horse trading”
- “extraordinary brands need to have balls”
Until challenged, none of the designers appeared to be thinking about what the message behind the identity was meant to be. The immediate, knee-jerk reaction was that a big merger means a big, new, shiny identity. Maybe yes – if a big, new, shiny customer promise is being made. But maybe no – if the story is mostly about cost efficiency with only minor implications for the customer experience.
This merger seems to fall squarely into the second category – which is why I think the branding decision is the right one. Not every big merger means a big new customer promise (even if the merger results in the largest airline in the world) – sometimes the wisest strategy is about “stealing bases” not “swinging for the fences.” Under these circumstances, it is right that the new identity should be pragmatic and unremarkable.
Academic research shows that most mergers fail to create value NOT because they fail to achieve the anticipated cost savings but rather because the merged company fails to maintain its topline growth – usually because of defections by the customers of the acquired company. Margins may go up, but revenues falter. Profits go down.
The branding decision taken by United and Continental minimizes the threat of customer attrition because it explicitly avoids creating the perception of a winner and a loser. The existing customers and employees of each airline can recognize the continuation of their “brand” and not be prompted to re-assess their relationship.
I wish that designers were more thoughtful about the message that the identity is successfully communicating, than rushing to criticize it on the basis of aesthetics, expediency and lost revenue opportunity for the design community.