5 marketing lessons from airline redesigns

The golden days of aviation are long behind us, but we spend more time in the air than ever before and airlines have to constantly compete for our attention, and our business. To distinguish themselves, many are undergoing ambitious rebranding efforts. What can marketers learn from them?

Southwest Airlines

Southwest is one of the most well-regarded airlines in the U.S. Their new identity, launched in September 2014, introduced a heart as the company’s main symbol. The old one — which featured simple sans serif type under a literal illustration of a plane — wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t that interesting. The new identity, done by NY-based branding firm Lippincott, uses a bold primary color scheme and introduces a proprietary sans serif typeface designed by Monotype Studio. The playful heart illustration is what really brings it home, though. Although it’s a bit heavy on the gradient use, it’s a powerful symbol. The prominent placement of the symbol on the belly of Southwest’s entire fleet of planes is genius.

The people-centric branding language focuses on warmth, compassion and love (coincidentally, the airline’s home airport is Dallas Love Field). “The Heart emblazoned on our aircraft, and within our new look, symbolizes our commitment that we’ll remain true to our core values as we set our sights on the future,” said Gary Kelly, Southwest Airlines Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer.

Air travel doesn’t have to be so serious — many of us fly for fun. Virgin America has successfully pioneered the use of sass and humor in the aviation industry. (If you’ve traveled on Virgin America recently, I bet you had a very hard time getting their safety video, featuring robot dancers and a rapping kid, out of your head).

Lesson learned: Don’t be afraid to show a bit of personality and use humor. You don’t have to be so serious just because you’re a big brand.

American Airlines

The rebranding of American Airlines is perhaps the most debated airline identity in recent years. Much of this has to do with the fact that the old look was created by design legend Massimo Vignelli (who passed away late last year). The previous logo, featuring two capital A letters separated by an eagle, somehow still looked fresh although it was designed in the late 60s — a testament to the appeal of timeless design.

The new identity, created by Futurebrand, is clever and polished, with a logo representing a star, an A and an eagle — all in the same symbol. Sure, it looks fresh and modern, but with all those slick gradients, it will most likely look dated in just a few years.

When you have an iconic brand, do you simply stick with it or leave it behind to move forward into the future? It’s a dilemma with no simple answer, and only time will tell how this will work out for American Airlines.

Lesson learned: Change is not always good. If you have a brand that’s both timeless and iconic, sometimes that’s worth hanging onto.

Spirit Airlines

Spirit Airlines is a low-cost carrier based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Their Bare Fare business model eliminates all “unnecessary” from the base ticket price, allowing customers to add on things like bags, food and seat assignments. There’s also advertising displayed on the overhead bins. Spirit is not about comfort travel, it’s about taking you from point A to point B for the lowest possible price.

The new identity uses bold yellow and black and a sketched logo. The simple two-color scheme is positioned as another cost-saving measure, and the logo feeling “unfinished,” perhaps, signals that Spirit can’t be bothered to spend money on a fancy refined logo.

Besides the fact that “sketchy” is never a good thing to associate with air travel, this identity actually feels refreshingly appropriate — they’re not trying to be something they’re not. The livery looks like a flying taxi, and that’s exactly what Spirit Airlines is. What you see is what you get.

Lesson learned: Be who you are. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Honesty is one of the most powerful brand attributes.

Fiji Airways

Previously named Air Pacific, Fiji Airways introduced a new name and identity in 2013. To create an identity that feels authentic to Fiji culture, the airline hired celebrated local Fijian artist Makereta Matemosi to create a unique symbol. Called the Masi, the symbol carries meanings about the people of Fiji and their connection to the natural beauty of the islands.

The centrepiece of the Masi is called the Teteva — a symbol which represents Fiji and Fiji Airways around the world.

“We decided that we wanted a new and distinctly Fijian symbol and brandmark that would help us best represent the country while also ensuring our planes stand out at some of the world’s busiest international airports,” said David Pflieger, Fiji Airways’ CEO and Managing Director. “In short, we wanted a flying billboard for Fiji and its stunning 333 islands in the South Pacific.”

Everything about this identity, from the logo to the earthy color scheme feels culturally appropriate. It’s beautiful, distinctive and really communicates the heritage and warmth of the Fijian islands and its people.

Lesson learned: Use what you’ve got. Look to your brand’s cultural heritage and history and find what makes it unique and beautiful.


After United and Continental merged in 2010, they needed a new identity to represent the company — now known as United Airlines. Instead of taking this as an opportunity to improve upon two stale brand identities, the airline settled on an uninspiring mashup, combining the globe symbol previously used by Continental and upper case sans serif type similar to the old United logo.

United still had to spend a considerable amount of money changing all their branding, printing new collateral, repainting the airline fleet, and so on. Why not, then, go the extra mile to introduce a new look? It seems like a missed opportunity to infuse some freshness into what is now the third-largest U.S. airline carrier.

Lesson learned: Don’t compromise. Choose a creative direction and make bold decisions. Design by committee never makes for an interesting brand.

Post by Johanna Björk