Fly the Branded Skies

Save the Tulip

United Airlines 747

The battle lines have been drawn. On one side, United loyalists fighting to save the iconic “tulip” logo designed by Saul Bass in the 1970s. On the other, Continental loyalists fighting to save the airline’s name.

Right now, the “Save the Tulip” group on Facebook has 1,635 members. The “Save the Continental Name” group has just 109 members. They are both fighting to overturn a decision that airline executives insist is final.

Timothy Jasionowski is one of the founders of the United group. In this e-mail interview, he explains why United travelers are so attached to the airline’s brand. I hope to have an interview with one of the creators of the Continental group shortly.

What made you decide to launch the “Save the Tulip” campaign?

When I heard the merger would be consummated, I expected they would choose the best-in-breed aspects of the two airlines and, when I saw the Continental globe trumped the United “tulip” logo in the announcement, I felt someone had to stand up for this iconic and globally recognized brandmark. Rather than a faceless online petition, Lori Quarnstrom and I settled on a Facebook group wherein we could push for reconsideration while at the same time hold an Irish wake for a symbol of our millions of miles on United.

How is it going so far?

Well, considering our group has been primarily driven by word-of-mouth and the occasional missive on Flyertalk, we have had 1,600 very passionate contributors send emails, letters and, in some cases, bouquets of tulips to various United and Continental executives. In addition, we’ve heard privately from many more United employees, thanking us for putting up the fight.

Either way, it seems we’ve put far more thought and discussion into the United brand than, by their own admission, the executives responsible for the integration and that just seems sad on a number of levels.

What is it about the tulip that makes it worth saving?

In spite of United’s rather difficult decade, I’ve never heard a single person cite United’s branding as a negative, even if the service was deficient. At the core of United’s persona–the Tulip, Rhapsody in Blue and its ongoing ad campaign–is aspiration. It’s an allusion to the Golden Age of Flight, its role as the first commercial airline in the US and, in these troubled times, a beacon of American greatness in aviation. Why wouldn’t you want that great history in a brand? You have a clear, unbroken lineage from United’s original 1936-era “shield” logo to today and, in spite of all of the ups and downs, that’s a lot of equity.

Too many people see flying as a chore, rather than a pleasure, and Continental’s branding only reinforces that view–it’s very focused on getting you there and back with the other cattle. I think this merger is a great opportunity to once again recapture that magic, even if reality occasionally intrudes.

Finally, I’d like to think if someone dared replace Lufthansa’s crane or Air New Zealand’s koru, I would have signed up for those groups as well. However, I suspect neither airline would dare sacrifice their identity and history for something this generic and soulless, as these are symbols of their distinct national identity. As the soon-to-be preeminent American flag carrier, I would expect similar aspirations from United.

Continental and United have released an identity for the combined airline that they say is final. Is there still hope?

As the great American philosopher John Blutarsky once said: “Over? Did you say ‘over?’ Nothing is over until we decide it is!” I’d like to think that the two airlines would reconsider their brand equity in United and see that, globally, the Tulip, Rhapsody, the red-blue color scheme and name are inseparable.

Plus, I find it hard to believe that anyone would be proud to put something like “Killed globally recognized, iconic piece of Saul Bass legacy during United rebranding, replaced with Powerpoint clipart” on their resume. If not reconsidered, someone will be saddled with the aviation equivalent of “New Coke” on their legacy.

If the situation were reversed, do you think there would be a “Save the Globe” or a “Bring Back the Meatball” campaign?

I think it could easily justified to passengers and the industry. The current Continental logo was born in the wake of Frank Lorenzo and its own dark, bankruptcy years, so the origin of this branding is almost a historic mea culpa of sorts.

In addition, due to legacy Continental relationships with several Latin/South America operators, such as AeroRep├║blica in Columbia or Copa Airlines in Panama, rallying around an exclusive brandmark with global recognition seems far better plan. This confusion did not serve me well last year when, in a rush at Juan Santamaria Airport in San Jose, Costa Rica, I nearly missed my check-in window by running for what I thought was the Continental counter, only to find it was a Copa desk. It’s these subliminal things that passengers pick up on and, though I love being overseas and seeing the world, there is comfort in seeing the red and blue Tulip in a foreign airport and knowing that’s the way home. The Globe/Meatball will never replace that.

What is it about airline brands that people get so attached to?

Airplanes are just as much a home to me as my place here in New England, except I get a different kind of family in the skies. You get attached to the routine aspects of daily life in the skies, like reciting the safety announcement under your breath with the flight attendant or knowing what’s available in the drink cart. However, when things go wrong and pressure is building up, it’s that sense of home–and the realization that, like family, everyone is in the same boat–that makes everything feel okay again.

Plus, how long can one maintain an aggressive posture when Rhapsody in Blue is playing? It soothes even the most savage of passengers.

Image courtesy of Philippe Noret, AirTeamimages.


  • Frank Lorenzo

    Red and blue tulip, or blue and white tulip? Old livery or “new”? Give it up, the herbicide is out!

  • Tb0610

    Keep the tulip! The globe represents global service, an airline that unites the whe world. The tulip represents 84 years of service, a huge accomplishment. Perhaps both should stay, globe on the tail and tulip in front of the name as it appears on the new United paint scheme.

  • GT

    The simple compromise as suggested by Tb0610, “globe on the tail and tulip in front of the name” should not be to hard for United's senior management to accept, all parties would be happy!

  • mike

    The Tulip shoul be on the tail of the aircraft, to the left of the word “United” and be on all UAL branding. The globes gotta go.