Last week saw the launch of British Midland’s new corporate identity – bmi british midland – after a two-year gestation period.
Given the media feeding frenzy that accompanied the build up to the launch, the denouement was bound to be something of a let down.
The UK’s second largest airline launched the new global look and livery, created by Landor Associates, at its Heathrow airport hangar. The roll out will cost £20m over the next 18-24 months.
Its identity has been “modernised” in preparation for the airline’s launch of long-haul scheduled services this spring from Manchester to Washington and Chicago.
Rebranding has been in the spotlight recently as the media have poured scorn on the spate of high-profile corporate renames, such as made-up words like Consignia and Accenture.
The rebranding of airlines attracts twice the scrutiny ever since the infamous BA saga. Cynical observers might see the British Midland tweak as deliberately unadventurous
Airlines are jostling for position in an increasingly competitive industry, while new schemes are being hatched all the time. The budget airlines have succeeded beyond all expectations and new ventures such as Kiss Air are still under wraps.
For the established airlines, an identity change programme is a powerful way to entice customers to re-appraise their brand and communicate a new business strategy.
Iceland Air has rebranded, Canadian Airlines was recently bought by Air Canada and Ansett Australia has joined forces with Air New Zealand, prompting a strategic rethink and new identity by Pentagram. The group is working on United Airlines’ interiors.
Virgin went through a corporate redesign 18 months ago in which the aircraft fuselages were painted silver and the wings tipped with the Union Flag. Typefaces were modernised and cabin interiors were updated with metallic finishes and softer geometry. Virgin business lounges have also recently been completed in New York and Johannesburg, designed by Jervis Hegarty Losasso.
Likewise Lufthansa is in the early stages of refreshing its aircraft interiors and has yet to appoint a consultancy (see “dw200101260013”)
According to Landor, the bmi british midland job is an exercise in “total branding” and affects everything, from the corporate identity to interiors, airline lounges and cocktail stirrers on the in-flight trays.
“This was the result of a very strong collaboration with British Midland, which allowed us to go as deeply into the company as we saw appropriate,” says Landor executive creative director Peter Knapp.
Many suspected that the parochialism of the British Midland name would be phased out in light of its global ambitions, however it is retained in the new name, bmi british midland.
The natural assumption is that “i” stands for international”, but curiously bmi british midland director marketing and sales John Morgan says: “The word ‘international’ has not been used, nor will it.”
Bmi british midland chairman Sir Michael Bishop did not rule out dropping the British Midland tag, but jokes: “Having just seen the bill, this will be the last of this kind of presentation for a while.”
Landor used the heritage of the company as a design reference and placed “speed, style and charm” at the centre of the new brand.
Expressing Britishness was also a high priority, as research showed that Britishness is equated with professional service, pioneering spirit and safety.
“The Union Flag is a critical element. I am delighted to confirm that it will be prominent on the tailfins of our aircraft,” says Morgan.
Landor has replaced the dark blue associated with British Midland with a brighter, fresher shade that runs throughout the portfolio and also coats the upper half of the aircraft fuselage.
“Typically, planes tend to have a white fuselage with something stuck on the stabiliser at the back and the name at the front,” says Knapp. “But this is a much more architectural solution and means that the planes are immediately recognisable from the airport terminal or in the air.”
Knapp argues that the bmi british midland rebrand is, “an audacious solution” because “it breaks several design generics”.
But sceptics will argue that blue is a safe option for airlines and bmi british midland is no great departure from the original name.
“It’s cleaner, fresher, more modern,” says Virgin head of brand Ginnie Leatham, “but in keeping the ‘british midland’, I wonder if the client had cold feet at the last moment.”
Might the lack of drama in the new identity be the result of lessons learnt from the BA brouhaha?
The Fourth Room managing partner Piers Schmidt, who was involved with the tailfins project during his time at Interbrand Newell & Sorrell, suspects that the project may have suffered from the “design by committee syndrome. There may have been a fear of BA happening to them, which made them cautious,” says Schmidt, “It’s not Landor at its best, but it offends no-one.”
According to Knapp, “At no point did we reference any other airline, we didn’t refer to BA at all.” But the fact that there was a whole press release dedicated to the tricky issue of branding suggests that the designers at Landor were aware of it.
However, this may have had a positive effect. “A lot of people say they’ve rebranded when they’ve just [re-]badged,” says Knapp. “This was a real example of everything being centred around a proposition, affecting all points of touch, from internal behaviour with the client to external behaviour with the customer.”
Schmidt says that the main reason BA’s tailfins didn’t work was because the culture and product development within the company didn’t change to match the proposition. “It made the mistake of taking on the package but not taking on the concept,” he says.
Hopefully Landor’s “total design” will ensure this doesn’t happen at bmi british midland. “The tailfin (or fuselage) is like a business card for the industry,” agrees Pentagram partner Justus Oehler. “But if there is no investment in the product and making people’s experience better, then no amount of branding can make an airline.”
Perhaps that’s why Pentagram is redesigning United airlines from the inside out, and why Virgin is a king among brands. “Virgin doesn’t treat its brand as a logo,” says Virgin design manager Dee Cooper. “It has to permeate everything we do. We don’t compete against BA, we’re up against the likes of Audi, St Martin’s Lane and Orange.”