Fast Company

The New United-Continental Logo: Flying a Little Too Close Together

United Continental merger

What's wrong with this picture? When I first saw this photo, taken Monday, of United and Continental's CEOs cementing their just-announced merger, I didn't notice it. When I clicked over to the press release announcing the new mega-airline, I still didn't notice it. It was only when I was reading the branding and identity site Brand New this morning, when I saw their side-by-side comparisons, that I noticed it. The extremely puzzling United-Continental "mashup."

I had looked at United's "new" logo several times but each time my eyes had scanned the familiar forms and registered it in my brain as "Continental." And that's a big problem. Unless, of course, the merger agreement included a clause that insisted United would be stripped of every last bit of its brand equity.

United old logos

United's identity has had an interesting history. Early wordmarks for plane's tails were designed by famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy. But the logo that everyone has associated with United for over 30 years is the distinctive U designed by legend Saul Bass in 1973.

United Pentagram logo

The logo received an update to its text in 1992, by CKS Partners, and again in 1997 by Pentagram (above). But they always kept the U.

United logo

That elegant, understated U. Can we all pause for a moment of silence for that beautiful U?

<a href=Saul Bass" />

But here's the kicker. Remember Saul Bass, the designer of this beautiful U, shown here holding that U-adorned United plane in his hand? Look to the right, just behind him.

In an ironic twist, Bass also designed an early logo for Continental, in 1968.

Continental logo

Of course, they abandoned it soon enough for the blue, boring whiffle ball that now belongs to United. Monday's merger was landmark in more than one way: Two airlines with fantastically rich design legacies chose to sever a shared history with one of the world's greatest designers and go forward with blah.

United plane

Now that I've noticed it, I can't believe my eyes. In that meeting, did they really decide that this was truly the best way to acknowledge both parties? Are there any other brands that have merged and essentially swapped identities? Or did they not want to pay a designer to come up with something new? Is this really happening? It feels like some kind of alternate-universe bad design dream.

Continental

Of course, it could have gone the other way, notes Prescott Perez-Fox, who dropped this concept in Brand New's comments. Somehow, I think I would have been okay with that.

Saul Bass photo by AIGA

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20 Comments

  • lal

    I can tell you from PERSONAL experience, that United now exists in name only, it is all Continental. Every last bit of it.

  • Phil

    I think it if fairly obvious that "redesign" was done in Powerpoint. I'm not really joking. Good work, MBAs!

  • tomjelen

    To the Yes man you are, Jeffrey Porter
    Who needs marketing guys when the two smartest guys in the world can figure it out themselves. You have to be kidding me!
    You must be smoking crack or kissing some CEO butt, Tilton is far from one of the smartest guys around he's probably the greediest and if you follow Mad Money,Cramer has him listed as one of the worst! so leads me to believe your kissing somebody's behind.
    If the Continental CEO has any head on his shoulders he will cut the Tilton out ASAP before he screws the Continental folks out of their pensions ,savings and anything else he can get his greedy hands on as he did to the United's loyal employees, as Loyalty doesn't pay in Tiltons book.
    All Tilton wanted was to wash his hands of UAL before he gets investigated by the government, or interviewed by the producers of American Greed.
    The merger is just a wash of the 50k people he got rid of over the last five years.
    How did such a blunder occur? Tilton

  • Darin J. Werner

    Okay, you must be some bleeding heart Chicago people here, high on crack. What the heck is so elegant or special about the U? In fact, it looks more like a W than a U. Perhaps the genius designer didn't know how to make a U. Maybe he attended those urban Chicago schools.

    As for the globe, there are those that think it just fine. In fact, the whole idea of shutting down the Houston HQ and moving it to Chicago shows who really won here. Maybe they could give United its silly logo in exchange for keeping the HQ in Houston. That would be worth an ugly plane.

  • J C

    The cliche and common Continental earth ball was a bad idea from the beginning. To retain it over the lovely and classic and for me, says "reliable" United U and typography, is a big blunder. But, what do we expect from the airline industry which seems to make all the wrong moves when it comes to customers and brand protection.

  • Jeffrey Porter

    This fake Nike/Adidas merger announcement might help shed some light on how the whole United/Continental shotgun merger and rebranding project went down.

    Nike, Adidas Agree to Combine
    $20 Billion Deal to Create Global Athletic Apparel Behemoth.

    Nike and Adidas on Monday announced a $20 billion merger that would create the world’s largest athletic apparel maker. The all-stock deal would form a worldwide behemoth with a leading presence in the top domestic and international markets, reaching every continent on the globe including a small presence on Antarctica.

    Nike is buying Adidas, and the combined company will keep the Nike name and be based in Portland, Oregon. It will, however, keep the iconic Adidas logo, and three-stripe design recognized the world over. When asked why the Nike logo was dropped, Nike CEO and founder Phil Knight replied: "Honestly there wasn't much debate. When you're trying to get a merger done in a week, you have to make some concessions. It was either keep the Nike swoosh, or my corporate jet perks. Besides, the company will still be called Nike; it will just look, act and feel like Adidas.

    Marketing industry professionals wholeheartedly agreed with the decision. "When you have a brand as strong as Adidas, it's really a no brainer to keep their logo," said Dan Wieden, the president of Nike's long time ad agency, Wieden & Kennedy. Adidas marketing chief Gunter Strauss added: "When you see the Nike swoosh logo, the word 'hack' comes to mind. We want people to respect the new Nike, and the best way to accomplish that is to forget about Nike's numerous marketing blunders over the past four decades. Frankly, it's a wonder the Nike brand survived this long with strange obtuse marketing messages like 'Just do it.' What does that even mean? Consumers respond to concrete taglines, like: 'Run hard. Buy right'".

    Herbert Hainer, 57 years old, and Mr. Knight, 72, who would become the non-executive chairman of the combined company, touted the deal Monday as competitive because the apparel makers' shoe lines are complementary, with no international overlaps and only a few domestic overlaps. "Nike makes shoes for urban American basketball thugs, Adidas makes shoes for Euro soccer freaks. It's a perfect fit," said Hainer. Investors seemed to like the plan, details of which have been leaking out almost since the two companies initiated talks April 9. On Monday afternoon, Nike shares were up 2.5% to $77.86 and Adidas shares gained 2.5% to $29.93.

  • Jeffrey Porter

    One more point to add for what it's worth. They didn't have to settle on logo overnight. Here's a shot of United CEO Glenn Tilton with the former Continental CEO announcing their code share alliance a year back. Note the background with both logos. If the wall behind them during the merger announcement looked like this, there would still be hope.
    Link to photo:

    http://image3.examiner.com/ima...

    Instead they decided to put their brilliant minds together and "Get er' done!" Which lead to this photo of CEO's shaking hands a few days ago on a job well done. Destroying the United and Continental brands overnight.

    Link to photo:

    http://media.nj.com/business_i...

    Now they're locked in to the new logo, and there's no going back. This Wall Street Journal article confirms it.

    Quote from Wall Street Journal: One thing that has been set is the branding and logo of the combined airline, whose new slogan is "Let's Fly Together."

  • David Jalbert-Gagnier

    They clearly mention in their merger website ( http://www.unitedcontinentalme... ) that the "name of the airline will be United. The new brand features the Continental livery, logo and colors with the United name."

    And the "people on the Internet" are absolutely right to fall over themselves. As Alissa rightly points out, it's never a joyous event when great design legacy is thrown out to the curbside (or tarmac-side).

    We reenvisioned another 'United' universe that could have been envisioned if they actually had creatives look at the problem instead of having corporate technocrats finagle a quickly made mark that lacks true vision.
    http://subjectiveobject.com/2010/05/04/it’s-merged-but-is-it-united/

  • Alissa Walker

    Jeffrey, that's a very scary insight you found at WSJ. I bet their marketing teams are miffed.

    And Omar, yes! What will happen to those beautiful Rhapsody In Blue-accompanied commercials? Here's a great one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... Maybe they also decided as part of the deal that United's old ad campaign works with the Continental logo. Let's hope.

    And Rick, I agree with Omar that if they comped up the livery like that they are almost certainly painting those planes right about now...god help us all.

  • Omar Yacoubi

    The ironic thing here is that Delta seemed to be reaching for United's distinctive deign when it updated its logo a while back during its turnaround, chasing the higher-end segment of travelers. Now Delta is left the classier of the two. The shield was also part of what made the airline unmistakably American (maybe a liability in the new global economy).

    I don't think it's interim, RIck, if they took the time to decide how the new livery would appear.

  • Omar Yacoubi

    I don't know if people notice the 3D effect of the red part of the U curling under at the bottom to produce the other side of the U on the reverse. This could have made the U a "ribbon" if they had decided to animate it in their marketing campaigns, becoming perhaps as iconic as Coke's dynamic ribbon. The nice thing about Bass's logos is that they incorporated concepts of flying in abstract designs. A globe doesn't mean anything (it did for Continental, because continents are found on globes, but it has no connection with the word "United").

    I blame United CEO Glenn Tilton, who was content to let United rumble along lifelessly until it could be bought out, and he was probably too happy to give away the store.

    It's not just Saul Bass we should be morning, but George Gershwin. I will miss the Rhapsody in Blue theme as well. The aggressive pursuit of corporate travelers means bland identity and the loss of a national icon … perhaps overdue with the death of flying as a romantic concept. It's now something far more utilitarian.

  • Rick Maher

    There are two problems here:
    1. United and Continental did not take the appropriate time to put together a decent interim logo. - Rest assured, this logo will be improved drastically over the coming months.
    2. People on the internet are falling all over themselves to criticize the thing - obviously it's interim - relax.

  • Jeffrey Porter

    Alissa, thanks for bringing this huge marketing blunder to light. This hastily pieced together logo does indeed strip United of all of its brand equity. I would go a step further and suggest the new brand is Continental and not United. How did such a blunder occur? Well, according to this quote (below) taken directly from the Wall Street Journal, the two CEOs got together and solved the rebranding project themselves. Who needs marketing guys when the two smartest guys in the world can figure it out themselves.

    "Since 2008, we've gotten to know each other," Mr. Smisek added. "Our teams work very well." The planned marketing brand, the United name and the Continental livery, logo and colors "was agreed between the two of us," Mr. Tilton said, instead of going through committee.

  • tomjelen

    To the Yes man you are,
    Who needs marketing guys when the two smartest guys in the world can figure it out themselves. You have to be kidding me!
    You must be smoking crack or kissing some CEO butt, Tilton is far from one of the smartest guys around he's probably the greediest and if you follow Mad Money,Cramer has him listed as one of the worst! so leads me to believe your kissing somebody's behind.
    If the Continental CEO has any head on his shoulders he will cut the Tilton out ASAP before he screws the Continental folks out of their pensions ,savings and anything else he can get his greedy hands on as he did to the United's loyal employees, as Loyalty doesn't pay in Tiltons book.
    All Tilton wanted was to wash his hands of UAL before he gets investigated by the government, or interviewed by the producers of American Greed.
    The merger is just a wash of the 50k people he got rid of over the last five years.
    How did such a blunder occur? Tilton