New Clothes On Old New Emperors

branding
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Don’t Confuse a New Look with a New Brand

If you have ever sat across from a chief financial officer or the head of sales and tried to convince them that thought leadership is actually a thing, then you will appreciate the 99U blog published by Adobe.

This, in my view, is a gold standard for corporate thought leadership. Adobe’s deft touch with its pervasive presence in the world of design, creativity and marketing, leads to a beautifully curated set of assets, including the blog, a conference and a quarterly publication. It was in my weekly perusal of this lovely space that I found this article about Air Canada’s new look.

If you live in Canada, it is difficult to move about (or escape) without the help of Air Canada. Sure, there are plenty of competitors and regional airlines, but soon or later you’re a guest of the country’s flag-bearing airline. After a few decades as its hostage, I can quite honestly say that the worst day on Air Canada, in my experience, rivals the best days on most other carriers. So if you’re looking for an anti AC rant, you’ll not find it here (at least today).

Today I have a mini-rant about the persistent confusion about what constitutes a brand. The article about Air Canada’s swell new paint and snazzy uniforms carries the unfortunate title, How to Redesign an Airline. If you want to know how this ends, new livery is not the same as a new airline.bizmarketer brands

Flinging a pressurized tube full of people into the atmosphere is (amazingly) a pretty routine thing. The majority of airlines, which we can agree excel at the tube-flinging, suck at the stuff that happens in and around the flinging.

Like buying a ticket, which can be an exasperating, confusing thing that times out while you try to figure out the difference between the fare that lets you make changes and the one that lets you check a bag and the one that includes a meal.

Then there’s the inexplicable challenges of actually checking in for a flight. Somehow, despite doing most of the work online or at a kiosk, there remains a giant wait to hand a bag, which is already tagged, paid for and declared free of antlers and surfboards to someone whose job seems to be to weigh it. Some airlines and some airports seem better at this than others.

Since weather and security theatre are beyond the control of airlines, let’s skip to the generally wretched boarding experience, followed by the highly variable on-board experience, at the end of which there is the anxiety lottery of the baggage claim.

The point here is that updating a few brand assets, like a logo or an employee uniform is but a tiny fraction of actually redesigning an airline or any other business. If we accept that the definition of a brand is what happens at the intersection of expectation and experience, then the logo and paint are mostly in the former, and the uniforms part of the latter, but really a very subtle part of each.

Nobody, in other words, will be calmed down in the face of lost luggage with the explanation that at least the plane looked great. Neither will the presence of a fantastic handbag make a rude flight attendant any more acceptable. The compost that passes for most airline meals won’t taste better on sleeker plastic, and nicer stock images don’t fix a broken ticket purchase process.

That said, you should read this article because it offers a fascinating and well-written look at the art and science of look and feel. You should also read it because the new Air Canada look and feel is modern, sleek, respectful of the airline’s heritage and, I think, way nicer than its competition. Well done!

But let’s be abundantly clear: this project didn’t redesign an airline, it just redecorated one.

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Elizabeth Williams
Elizabeth Williams is currently the brand and communications director for ADP Canada. She has also worked with Rogers Communications, Bank of Montreal, Aon, 3Com, The Beer Store, MGI Software and Marketrend Interactive, as both an employee and as a consultant.