Do You Have a United Image?


I flew into Chicago recently, which is a hub for United Airlines. There were loads and loads of United planes there, of every size and shape…the ideal place for a unified, “united” brand image.

But that wasn’t the case. Because the planes also were of every branding scheme.

Once upon a time, when you saw United airplanes, they all looked like this:

Then, they went through a re-branding some years back, keeping some elements of the “U” logo, but making major color changes:

So far, so good. As always, it takes a while to re-paint planes, but soon, there were very few of the older design left flying.

For reasons that escape me, they then decided a few years back to re-brand AGAIN, plus introduce the low-cost TED sub-airline which has other colors but still with a derivative of the “U” logo. Then, of course, there is United Express, whose planes also reflect two parallel designs, with some minor variations.

There are now 3 major branding approaches and color schemes competing for your visual attention when you come into United’s home port.

The lesson for the small business marketer? Don’t! Settle on one, unified branding approach. And if you’re going to change it, as much as is possible, change it all at once. United feels like a fragmented, not united, brand.

Learn from the big guys – sometimes, learn what doesn’t work, and avoid it!

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  1. Wouldn’t you—now that the market is segregated into luxury, middle-class, and low-cost air-travel—be more effective in offering three different brands to each of these segments? I’m not a branding-expert, by far, but wouldn’t having 1 brand aimed at 1 market mean, that there is a dedicated effort and identity towards doing business there?

    I realise that your post was aimed at small businesses, who probably won’t and shouldn’t have such dispersed activities, but for a larger company, I think it would make sense.

  2. Vincent makes a good point about focusing on a specific segment but I’ll bet that in United’s case, that focus is only skin deep.

    The culture of a low cost airline is very different from luxury outfit. Those paint jobs probably reflect less a desire to focus and more the reality of one company trying to go in every direction that might make money.

    I think that small or large, focus is key, but it has to go deeper in the company than just advertising.

  3. This article brings up a very good point when dealing with companies that have multiple public divisions. If you notice all the new designs are still similar in the u on the tail. So if you are going to remarket make sure consumers know how to find you.

  4. I agree with your conclusion that small businesses need to manage changes and fragmentation in their branding efforts very judiciously.

    I’m not sure your airline example applies, however. Most people at an airport already have their ticket in hand. For those with a United ticket, a new paint job on a United aircraft can convey a message that they made the right choice, this is an airline that is moving forward. Seeing the same paint scheme for 20 years serves only as a reminder that so many of the aircraft are 20 years old.

  5. hmm got to be honest – I think looking at the article and the comments my view is that Steve does actually have a point in that United is not as united as perhaps it could be – and I think this may extend further than just the planes – is there a cohesion with all their customer touch points? Are they united in the none visual aspects of their business if they’re clearly not united in the aspects that are visual? I mean… the visual bit is easy to get right at a broad stroke…and they have a head start right, after all they are called United…it’s the core of their brand, it’s their name and it’s what they should be about…but if by just scratching the surface and looking at the visable parts you find they aren’t all that united then will the rest of the service and company be united in their approach too? It would be good to think so – but I’m really not sure they have their brand ident spot on at the moment and that’s disturbing considering how large a corporation they are and how many millions they could sink at getting it right…I guess it just goes to show that even with all that marketing/branding money at your disposal you can still get it wrong. Good article Steve.

  6. If i were a customer that had purchased a ticket on, i would like to see a plane branded Ted in my terminal. with the fragmentation of consumer loyalty (especially in the airline industry), does it make sense to unify a brand concept in order to propitiate something that, at best, exists in pre-web market research? i know which airlines I have branded as terrible… in this case, having a unified brand may not be to your advantage.

  7. This seems to me more like a lesson of pointlessness. In Nick’s article we clearly see that there really isn’t any necessity for the three different brand schemes United is intent on showing. Is it really to appeal to each kind of flyer? How so? Is that moment of looking at the sides of planes while waiting at the airport as important as the ticket price, the level of service, the absence of disconcerting nuts and bolt rattles while flying in the middle of the Pacific?

    The point is that United can waste their all resources and paint on these planes, but they already have a significant identity in the ticket holder’s mind. The small business owner cannot afford this; the coherent and reinforced repetition of their one brand design is a must in order to spread recognition.

    Pardon me, but I really do not see the disastrous effects of thise “multiple brands” except that a., its unnecessary, b., it might wreck the guess-the-plane-on-the-tarmac game for your kids. For small business, its a no-no. However I wonder what the United guys are thinking?