What Color Is My Tail?

Discovering True Airline Identity And Deciphering Its Perpetual Transformation

When airlines look in the mirror of customer perception, they wonder about their proverbial self-reflection. Does the painted tail represent the brand, or is it the employees and their level of service? The self-actualization is based on what the airline wants to be known for and is willing to stand for it. Airlines want their customers to visualize and realize their histories, expansive economic contributions, commitments to customer service and safety, and the prevailing corporate ethos.

Throughout the 1900s, airlines’ identities were influenced by world affairs, set by regulation, defined by aircraft innovation and driven by global commerce. Airlines’ brands followed their missions. During the world wars, it was about survival; in regulation, providing essential air service was the focus; after deregulation, airlines became beacons of luxury; and the jet-setting revolution opened up the world.

In the present day, airlines are constantly reinventing their brands to strive to remain different and be the best of the rest. Airlines flash messages across the electronic marketplace and paint it on their aircraft in an effort to build a brand image around one or more key attributes — safety, affordability, comfort, personalization of customer service, global networks, airport experience and connectivity. Time and technology do not stand still, and they influence the direction of the aviation industry, resulting in changes to airlines’ operating models and their representative brands.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the best airline of them all? Does the answer lie in an airline’s identity or its brand?

An airline changes its business focus to follow a trail to profitability. As part of its internal changes, it often changes its outward appearance in the form of aircraft livery, signs and symbols. These changes signal customers, employees, stakeholders and competitors that an airline is altering its brand in pursuit of a business goal or to remain competitive in an ever-changing industry. The key difference is that a brand can be changed many times over to address the changing business needs, but an identity evolves gradually because it is rooted in an airline’s core principles.

There are a multitude of reasons why a fresh coat of paint can help an airline achieve the desired outcomes of maintaining the loyalty of its employees; retaining and growing its loyal, high-value customer base; and sustaining the integrity of its “prized wings” — the symbol of a tradition of flying and historical distinction of connecting people and events of the world through transportation. Some airlines make brand changes to:

  • Re-energize the workforce for a turnaround to profitability and improved benefits,
  • Symbolize new commitments to customers after unfulfilled service quality and delivery promises,
  • Integrate different histories of peoples, principles and planes during an airline merger,
  • Introduce a new, younger aircraft fleet that brings about better operating economics through cost savings from lower fuel burn, less weight, decreased maintenance costs, etc., and improved customer comfort inside the cabin.

Can airlines really change their identities? Airlines may refresh their brands, however, their identities remain intact because they are embedded in the history from which the airline companies derive their purpose for flying.

When it comes to air travel, the dichotomy of brand and identity is often overlooked and not easily separable. Through the customers’ eyes, the brand unequivocally represents the entire airline company and it is associated with all of the customers’ experiences — good, bad or indifferent.

On the other hand, airlines often view their brands as a lens that can be refocused multiple times, allowing customers to always see sharper representations of their identities in distinct contrast from other airline companies sharing the same sky — just as an optometrist changes the lens power as needed for patients to see the colorful world, clearly and distinctly. Identity is an airline’s DNA forming the essence of its physical make up, and the brand appearance is the outerwear that changes with the seasons.

As an airline pursues strategies to keep its brand current and relevant, the customer is still the deciding factor when it comes to which airline will receive his or her trust and a significant share of his or her business.

Airline Identities

Airlines often suffer identity crisis and they may refresh their brands; however, their identities remain intact because they are embedded in the history from which airlines derive their purpose of flying.

Are Customers Brand Agnostic?

Customers often measure the worth of an airline by black and white imperatives (it is or it is not) — low-fare availability, customer-service quality, loyalty program perks, on-time arrival consistency, complimentary on-board amenities, courteous employees and much more. Deductive reasoning does not point to customers being color blind, but the true color of the brand is made invisible by their experiences on the day of departure. A high-impact brand places emphasis on quality service delivery and timely service recovery, which translates into high value for flying customers.

A customer looks to identify an airline by its touchpoints (frontline employees, online accessibility, engagement in social media platforms) and its offerings (ultra-low fares, premium products, loyalty rewards).

Creating brand differentiation is necessary for airlines to invoke brand loyalty from customers. Differentiated fares, seat products, mileage tiers and class service top the list of common marketing strategies deployed by airlines — and they do work. However, they can be short-lived or require constant comparative brand upgrades, as competitive advantages are eroded by fast followers who reach parity or up it a notch.

Identity defines an airline, and when a brand is based on an unwavering identity, it will have a long-lasting impact in the crowded skies and garner long-term loyalty from its customers.

A changing brand should not mean a change in identity. When branding is based on time-bound marketing promotions, it dilutes the identity. Although this strategy may work when customers are planning their upcoming family vacations, it will not guarantee repeat business. The recurring cost of new customer acquisition outweighs the combined costs of delivering the promised service the first time around and retaining loyal customers — a lesson that certainly applies to other service-based industries

Airlines display their brands on their airplane tails, but few customers are aware that airlines are actually carrying their identities — their values and their employees who espouse them. Brand identity is a plausible concept, if airlines practice the time-tested concept of consistency of service across all of its employees, operations, customer policies and alliance partners.

Technology’s Role

Does technology help paint the identity picture?

Technology is an enabler of business processes. Appropriate and improved technologies bring about operational efficiencies, thus allowing airline staff and systems to perform effectively, which result in better handling of customers during all phases of their trip — from planning and purchasing, to arriving at their destinations and post-trip.

When painting a picture, brushes and paints are required for an artist to be able to paint. However, it is the artist’s hand that does the painting. Technology is available but inanimate. It is the human touch that brings about the brand and gives life to the airline’s identity.

Today, the airline revenue model depends on the airline’s competitiveness by being available and accessible to its global customers. Closely tying an airline’s brand to its new technology deployments, such as on-board entertainment and mobile booking, is risky because a single technical failure can result in brand distortion. A brand should be formed around the customer services offered as a result of technology advancements.

Use of better customer-processing and service technologies can eventually help bolster the identity of an airline, but it will always be a part of fulfilling the brand promise and implicit to the customer, who expects his or her journey to be uneventful after paying an all-inclusive fare and fees.

Shaping Brand Identity

Do positive images, words and accolades shape a brand identity?

Cool images, catchy words, celebrity endorsements and headline-capturing awards are useful for building an airline’s brand. However, they are less impactful in defining its identity. How an airline looks is valuable for growing the business, but what it provides sustains its business.

Imagery can benefit a brand by attracting customers with:

  • A popular and an accomplished person in his or her field or an ordinary person who has accomplished an extraordinary feat to admire;
  • Inspiring and enticing pictures of global destinations;
  • A sense of excitement to fly an airline of class and caliber as displayed by awards, high rankings, customer recommendations and industry achievements;
  • A sense of belonging to a socially responsible and eco-friendly airline and its employees who have a connection to community building, making a difference and reducing the carbon footprint;
  • An outlet of expression through post-trip surveys, experience blogs and trip picture postings on social media.

A recommendation for a brand image could be “fast,” given that flight is the fastest existing mode of transportation.

Through visuals and colors, a brand creates excitement and electricity among customers about flying a certain airline. An identity is the intended, consequential magnetic field that draws the same customers to the airline again and again.

Does Size Matter?

For airline companies, size does matter because it conveys stability, strength, safety and support for customers who fly themselves, their loved ones, their intellectual capital (corporate employees) and their precious belongings. The scope of an airline’s network, the scale of its investments and the safety of its fleet can inspire customer confidence.

The importance of size in branding is undeniable. Take, for example, the number of destinations served by an airline. Most airlines’ ideal goal is to be able to claim that it can take a traveler from point A to an infinite number of destinations (through its alliance partners and subsidiaries); and it’s just as elusive as trying to run a mile in a minute. Some airlines adopt national flag colors and symbols to create an omni-presence by representing and promoting their countries, cultures and people.

Another example is the tangible differentiators showing the largest variance from the next best alternative or competitor, such as the lowest price available, ultra-low-cost airline, most comprehensive schedule and highest number of perks.

Number of countries served, airplanes, daily flights and passengers flown are quotable statistics that aid an airline’s brand, but they do little for its identity, for which safety records and performance metrics are more important. Size evokes a perception that should be leveraged to signify brand strength, but it does not provide credence to identity.

True Colors

Airlines suffer identity crises from time to time for any number of reasons, including age, social setting, competitive pressure, growing pains, etc. These may sound like social problems for humans. In this case, they apply to both metal and flesh. Airlines are made up of human employees, many of whom are passionate about aviation, who want to build a successful airline and who also want to partake in its success. It is these employees who define the identity of their airline based on their intellectual contributions and in the performance of their service to customers — they are an important touchpoint for customers whose experiential memories will serve as instant feedback to other customers.

Price, schedule, network, aircraft, passenger technology and market presence are brand enablers that do not necessarily define an airline’s identity. Customers often take pictures of aircraft and their variety of colorful tail livery, but does the tail of an aircraft equate to brand presence or equity? Not really. Customers associate comfort, safety, reliability and experience with the brand of an airline, and those experiences — good, bad or indifferent — certainly leave a lasting brand impression.