In general, doing anything in the airline industry involves a high level of difficulty and complexity. But doing a brand refresh that most people will actually like? That’s at a whole different level. We’ve seen many airlines fail at that task, but if early reactions hold true, Alaska Airlines appears to have just done it.
Think back to the last few brand refreshes you’ve seen in the US. American’s new livery ditched the classic eagle logo and was controversial at best. United? People still mourn the loss of the iconic tulip. (Though I will say that the change from battleship gray to the lighter blue scheme more than a decade ago was well-received.) And then there’s Southwest, which had mixed reviews when it switched things up. (Though the airline refused to call that a re-branding.) The best an airline can hope for these days is that more people like the change than hate it.
I’m far from a branding expert, and there’s no question that I often think re-branding is a waste of money and time. But in some cases, I do see the value. Alaska is one of those cases.
Alaska has a very recognizable brand in its core markets. For the past several decades, people have associated Alaska with the Eskimo on the tail. Yet as Alaska expanded into Mexico and Hawai’i, many wondered if the Eskimo’s time had past. Many speculated that it was just a matter of time before the Eskimo went away and something more generic replaced him. That did not happen.
The airline rightfully saw value in its history, and it didn’t want to lose what it had built over so many years. But it wanted to fix the problems that it saw in its current design.
That Eskimo was designed in a different time, a time before the internet. That might not sound like it matters, but it does. In a blog post, Alaska explained “the Eskimo of the 1990s was too detailed to render well online and on mobile devices.” So it smoothed it out and simplified the design. It’s not noticeable from afar, but take a look here.
You can see the Eskimo was also lightened up. In fact, the whole design was lightened up. That’a reflection of the fact that focus groups showed the existing brand looked “corporate, functional and a bit cold.” (Cold? I mean, the name IS Alaska….) The only thing that loosened that up a little was the lei that was put around the Eskimo’s neck on 737s that had ETOPS certification. That little bit of color made a difference, but it also looked awkward.
The new colors introduce a lighter blue to complement the darker one. And the airline added what it calls “tropical green” to act as an accent. It’s funny because many years ago, before the current design, Alaska had a lighter blue and a green cheatline. What’s old is new again.
I’ve heard some people compare parts of the design to the dancing of the northern lights. I’ve also seen a lot of people compare it to the colors of the Seattle Seahawks football team. I may not like the Seahawks (at all), but I can see the value of using colors associated with one of the most important entities in Alaska’s most important market.
Beyond the colors, the font is changing as well. It’s a little strange since Alaska just updated its previous font a little. Now it’s changing again.
In the last update, the edges were softened a bit and the “k” stopping trying to pick a fight with the “a.” This time, most of the remaining hard edges were turned into curves and the serifs were removed.
This all comes together to create a highly recognizable but entirely more modern feel. On the aircraft, I do miss the cheatline running across the bottom of the fuselage. But there’s no question it looks more modern without it. The aircraft livery, however, is only a small part of the brand. And in reality, it’s not the part that people see the most. (Airline dorks excluded.)
People will spend far more time looking at airport counters, bag tags, credit cards, websites, etc. And all of that has been updated as part of this change. This isn’t just a livery. It’s an actual brand refresh. The airports will all be done by the end of this year. A fifth of the mainline aircraft will be done this year as well. It doesn’t say how long it’ll take for the rest of the fleet, including regionals, to be done.
The question, of course, is… does this matter? That’s a question for the ages. I didn’t understand why Southwest bothered changing its logo and livery. It seemed to me that the airline ditched the most recognizable aspects of its livery (the red bellies and the name on the tail) and unnecessarily replaced them. I like the addition of the heart logo, but that could have coexisted with the old livery. And the new font is non-descript and bland.
With Alaska, it’s clear that the airline is not trying to reinvent the wheel. The font and the Eskimo are an evolution that remain unique but feel more modern. Alaska has entered a lot of new markets over the last several years, including many in the eastern half of the country. It has also upgraded its product in many ways. So now, when Alaska pushes into uncharted territory, it has a brand that won’t look old, corporate, and cold. It’s modern, it’s clean, and it feels like something from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
I may not be a branding expert, but I really like what Alaska has done.