Fly the Branded Skies

Rhapsody in Blue (and Gold)

In one of the strangest examples of the Chinese menu approach United and Continental are taking to their new brand, the new company will keep using George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue as its theme music. United first licensed Rhapsody in Blue in 1987 for $300,000 a year.

That’s quite a bit of money to spend on music. Yet United has invested even more in attaching Rhapsody in Blue to its brand. You hear it in commercials, on the plane, in airports; one company says it has created more than 50 different versions of the piece in genres ranging from jazz to rock to country. Rhapsody in Blue is as integral to United’s brand as its tulip logo designed by Saul Bass.

Which is funny, because of course that tulip logo is on the way out while Rhapsody in Blue remains.

I love Rhapsody in Blue. It is probably my favourite piece of music, period, brand associations notwithstanding. And United has spent a lot of money over the past two decades making sure everyone else loves it too. But it may be time to let go. You can’t create a successful brand by averaging.

For example, compare a recent United television spot with a recent spot from Continental.

Here’s United:

Here’s Continental:

They’re very different. Each carrier has spent decades building their brands to be as different as possible. It stands to reason you can’t create a new brand by cherry-picking bits and pieces from the old ones, any more than you could take the engines from a United A320 and put them on a Continental 777 and still expect it to fly. The United and Continental brands are valuable assets. Mashing them together will destroy their value.

So it might be time to sing an elegy for Rhapsody in Blue. I would miss it, and so would many others. But a new airline needs to find its own voice.


  • JFB

    Maybe they should just keep the tulip and Rhapsody and ditch the beach ball.