• Identity Design

Designing a Personality

Design can be a strategic tool, but it’s only part of the puzzle.

We all heard the news when Swissair went under, plagued by the usual airline problems. Well, now it’s back. (Or something similar to it is.)

What was once Swissair has—through a process of financial, procedural, and strategic rearrangements—emerged as something called Swiss. It’s still Switzerland’s official carrier, and a lot of the planes and routes are the same, but there’s a new parent company and a revamped management team. And a new look.

Back in late 2001, when Andre Dose assumed the role of president and CEO of the newly formed Swiss Air Lines Ltd., one of the first things he did was take a look at how the new airline was to be positioned. After an international search, Dose’s team retained design guru Tyler Brûlé, the mastermind behind the influential lifestyle journal known as Wallpaper*. For those familiar with Wallpaper*, you already know enough not to scroll down to the bottom of this article to find a footnote linked to the asterisk. There is none. That mark is just part of the hep retro-modernist vibe that permeates the journal. For those who care, it’s also spawned a range of copycat graphic approaches in other magazines, where editors have their art directors plop asterisks to nowhere on their covers to show that they are With It.

Anyway, Brûlé’s team was given the assignment to do nothing less than determine the brand personality of the airline and position it for the future. It was a smart move. The canny management team at the airline realized that it had to get the message out that Swiss Air Lines, or whatever it was to be called, was out there, alive, ready for business—and eager to charge premium rates. They could have done that by saying they’d restructured their operations (yawn), cut fleet and routes (ho-hum), and created alliances with new backers (zzzz). All of these are important, but who wants to report on them? And how are these steps different from what anyone else would do?

The management team realized that design is an important part of business. By bringing in Brûlé and his group, the airline made a commitment to take tangible, brand-establishing steps that a customer could experience (and not coincidentally, that the news media would report on).

At a press event, the team showcased its new plans for the airline. In addition to presenting the newly truncated name—Swiss—the designers unveiled a new logo, uniforms, plans for seating and aircraft interiors, food-service items, waiting lounges, and ticket offices. As you would expect, the designs were clean, efficient, stylish, and upscale—a bit retro-modern and Swiss (which is pretty much the same thing). All of the elements worked together to establish a consistent sensibility. And they generated buzz.

Not since the days of Braniff had an airline so thoroughly considered the role that design—and how people respond to it—plays in establishing brand personality. Some have come close (JetBlue and Virgin come to mind). But the big difference here is the way in which the designs were marketed as not only enhancing the customer’s experience but as being the personality and literal embodiment of the brand.

This is different from the approach that most airlines (and other businesses) take. Remember a few years ago, when USAir decided to focus on business travelers—how they renamed the airline US Airways, painted their planes blue and gray (like business suits), and renamed the in-flight magazine Attaché (Get it? I know: yikes.)? But this halfhearted approach is pretty typical for many companies. Branding to them is a new logo, a coat of paint, and perhaps a clever tagline.

So will all this work? Can a new image alone turn Swiss around? Of course not. Contrary to what that marketing sage Andre Agassi tells us, image is not everything. But you’ve gotta have it. Design can be a strategic tool, but it’s only part of the puzzle. Swiss is facing some real business issues, and positioning a company as a premium service when a lot of the competition is focusing on cut-rate fares is a risky move.

To get off on the right foot, Swiss needs the right resources, solid positioning, and a good plan. So check off items 1, 2, and 3. Now it needs to provide the service it promises and see if customers will come. And come back.

—Alexander Isley

Adapted from an essay that first appeared in reveries, an online marketing journal.

© 2005 Alexander Isley Inc.